Poem of the Week | February 23, 2010

This week, TMR is pleased to present “Bird-Teasing After the Hurricane,” new work by John Casteen.  His first book of poems, Free Union, was published in 2009 by The University of Georgia press.  New poems have appeared in The Paris ReviewShenandoahPrairie Schooner, and The Rumpus.  He teaches at Sweet Briar College, and serves on the editorial staff of VQR.

I had heard for years that birds will circle a person lying still on the ground, hoping maybe the person isn’t going to get up, and that’s about all there was to it.  The exclamation at the end of this poem is actually an approximation of a Richard Pryor line.  I don’t think that matters to anyone but the speaker in the poem, so I didn’t write it in, but it’s from one of his better jokes, so credit where credit is due.  Oh, and the Louvin Brothers song mentioned in the poem is “The Angels Rejoiced Last Night.”

Bird-Teasing After the Hurricane

Once late-summer storms blow past and leave
high pressure alone in their wake, cerulean skies
and bright, whippy wind, things start to dry
from the top down; they glisten, and I
in my kingly leisure lie among the maidenhair ferns
low in the woods by the once-parched creek.  Imagine
how I appear to them, those black and turkey
vultures who circle like a posse and endingly sink
as they ponder me, naked as the day I was born,
as dead and good as dead can get, like a morsel
from heaven, six foot one and a buck eighty-five
of solid wish fulfillment, a spread picnic of carrion.
They clasp their wings in gratitude, ah,
their good fortune knows no limit, me as meat
on the ground, lungs full of water and nothing
behind my face, my eyes open to the sky
they circumscribe.  See how they acknowledge our grief
with hunger, the best sauce; see how the red blisters
of their heads turn, turn, fixing on certainties
laid out for them like supper without a voice…
In my mind, Emmylou Harris is singing
with Gram Parsons; they’re working through
that Louvin Brothers song about the way
the true heart’s called back home before
the scoundrel finds his faith, the father making right
what ailed his child.  All the jokes we understand
are about misfortune; all the ones we don’t
are about us.  The birds drop still, their circuits
shrinking, fix on me like I’m what’s on t.v., then spot
my pulse.  Then a sudden ruckus, frenzy,
terror, wheeling away, a wild man screaming poems
at the gleaners of misfortune, I ain’t dead yet motherfuckers,
hot-blooded as I ever was, quick as Clint Eastwood,
howling at the birds and world for everything I’m worth.