multiplied as polyphony
do butcherbirds in twos and threes
choir the forest into being?
Does mourning of turtledoves
croon the world open outside my bedroom
window, bathe my body in the cool morning
air of a Tuesday, say, when retired
I wake as I choose, attend as I choose?
And are such birdsongs free as birds?
Free and brief upon the wind as aspen
leaves that clap their hands in late
afternoon light of a summer’s day?
So that even when winds turn north
winter cardinals practice all
the livelong; northern mockingbirds toss
ungendered notes into snow cloud stopping
But now we hear that songbirds are dying in
alarming numbers and that many of those
surviving sing no more. Messiaen’s Quartet . . .
imagines birdsong sounding after the time of humans
but Messiaen couldn’t reckon with habitat loss
and now a mysterious illness.
It’s loss of the will to sing that most disturbs—
out of something like Yeats’s spiritus mundi
loss of birdsong tells, and we, part animal but lacking
the gift to read languages that choir forests, streams,
mountains, into being remain
oblivious to the telling.
Just now I am remembering
how it felt to be fourteen and think
I had four years to grow until I
could graduate from high school.
It seemed forever, those four years
and I don't remember trying to see
beyond them into any future I might
occupy with my parents or my friends’
parents or uncles, aunts, grandparents
teachers, our family doctor, the mayor.
I think at fourteen I simply took these things
these people and the folk around them, world
for granted like the rising sun and the hard ground
I spaded in the spring when it was time to replant
bulbs. One year I dug up a hibernating horned frog
flat and leathery in my hand; good thing one of the
tines of my spading fork hadn’t speared it, poor thing
I thought, and pitched it to one side, whereupon it took
breath, blew itself into escape mode, and scurried
off. Used to be a lesson in that; ‘nature is never
spent,’ as some poet claimed; but in the world
around me now at eighty something, no kid is empty
of care as I was. Horned frogs are endangered
horny toads, as we called them, no longer a staple
of the lives of West Texas boys like me, their habitats
gone to fire ants, urban sprawl, and agriculture.
One adult summer years ago, fire ants built
a nest in my gravel driveway; I watched it
mushroom almost overnight until I grew afraid
for my children’s legs.
The chloral hydrate
I tried first proved useless and then, worried
that my children might get into it when my
back was turned, I finally poured gasoline
into the nest and sealed the ants inside with a
garbage can lid. That should gas them, I thought
shying away from the implication, and it did the
trick for a while, but they came back.
Lesson there too,
like the lampreys invading northern waterways.
No fish is safe now, like the horny toads
—and no kid either.
—litany after Leath Tonino’s essay, “The Doe’s Song”
Here’s the deal; an automobile
speeding down a night road hits a doe.
The driver swerves to a stop and tries
to help, but the panicked animal struggles
away and scrambles into the woods
on three legs, its fourth now dangling
useless. The driver watches helpless as
the painful struggle passes beyond
the space made bright by her headlights—
resumes her journey, frightened, chastened
perhaps, perhaps not. As the days
go by afterwards, she will comfort
her conscience with the thought that the doe
was only an animal, after all.
Pray for her and pray for the doe.
Pray that shock will have taken the doe
before gangrene, delirium or worse, coyote’s
tooth as she thrashes about in un-nameable
pain, knowing now no quiet
place to lick her wounds. Does she have
a name? Will her comrades know her
as something other than roadkill? ‘What of it?’
say some. ‘Humans have killed animals
since before we measured time.’ But this
isn’t hunting; bracket hunting and pray
for the doe. Pray for her because she is
a mountaintop gone to strip mines
a river polluted, filled with black carp
and lampreys, an aquifer filled with methane.
You get the point. Bracket hunting.
Pray for the doe and the many thousands
like her killed each year on the roads.
They are plentiful now, suburban enclaves
sometimes stage hunts for them and give
the meat to food banks to distribute.
Pray for the foodbanks and their clients.
Pray because they are there. Pray
for the chain of causes required to sustain
their presence but not the doe’s innocent
life—that being unsustainable
in the present human dispensation
her destiny to be burnt or butchered
and fed to carnivores in a preserve.
Pray for the carnivores in their preserve
because they are there, because the preserve
is required by the present human
Finally, pray for an end to pandemic
as ventilators preserve the lives
of those who think it a hoax, or not.
Pray for them—let there be time
of lamentation, fulsome and
great-hearted for those who went naked and un-
vaccinated to their deaths, especially for all
children, immunocompromised, and others
whose collateral deaths like that of the doe
were required by the present human
Julian O. Long’s poems and essays have appeared in The Sewanee Review, Pembroke Magazine, New Texas, New Mexico Magazine, and Horizon among others. His chapbook, High Wire Man, is number twenty-two in the Trilobite Poetry series published by the University of North Texas Libraries. A collection of his poems, Reading Evening Prayer in an Empty Church, appeared from Backroom Window Press in 2018. Online Publications have appeared or are forthcoming at The Piker Press, Better Than Starbucks, The Raw Art Review, Litbreak Magazine, and The New Verse News, and CulturMag. A new collection, If Stone Could Weep: An Epitaph for the Pandemic, is forthcoming in 2022. Long has taught school at the University of North Texas, North Carolina State University, and Saint Louis University as well as McMurry University, Fayetteville (NC) Technical Community College, and Central Carolina Community College. He is now retired and lives in Saint Louis, Missouri.
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