Poem of the Week | October 09, 2012

This week we’re featuring a new poem by Philip White. White’s poems have won a Pushcart Prize and have recently appeared or are forthcoming in The Yale Review, Cincinnati Review, Agni, 32 Poems, and elsewhere. His book, The Clearing, won the Walt Macdonald award.

Author’s Note:

Probably too many of my poems are about birds. I can’t justify it. They’re just important to me. The worst places for me are the ones where birds are few. Fortunately, birds can be found almost everywhere, even places we’ve made pretty inhospitable to life. This poem is about one of the most spectacular birds for sheer beauty in flight.  They make the air look like an element you could live in.  It’s the more amazing because unlike the birds we get closest to most often, these convey unmistakable weight and bodily presence up close. At that range you feel their vulnerability and awkwardness when they shoulder themselves off the ground. Even setting aside their association with what they eat, in the body on the ground they can seem ugly—shaggy, hunched, misshapen, old—and their fleshy heads give them a vaguely naked look that seems bound to provoke recognition in the animal that recognizes nakedness. That’s what they do in this particular animal, anyway.


I don’t know what it is that brings me back
walking here. Even the heat is old, the woods
again in stunned depletion and everywhere
the musk of carcass-rot catching in the throat
or dulling as the trail winds through. I want it
far off, that smell, the smear like tar on grass
just visible through leaves, the spine spilled out
like broken dice or beads. And so when huge
black birds clatter up through branches, close,
I’m frightened too, half-lifting my arm against
the blow. Ten in ten feet, the combed silver
of their underwings clear feather by feather,
working hard with hoarse grunts to pierce
the canopy. Then gone. And when I break
from the trees I watch them lofting over the fields—
“Like wreckage in a funnel cloud,” I thought
then, in my grief. But slow, at ease, released,
crossing and crossing in the carious air.