Poem of the Week | February 26, 2018

This week, we are excited to present a new poem by Todd Davis. Davis is the author of five full-length collections of poetry, most recently Winterkill and In the Kingdom of the Ditch, both published by Michigan State University Press. He edited the nonfiction collection Fast Break to Line Break: Poets on the Art of Basketball, and co-edited the anthology Making Poems. He is the winner of the ForeWord Reviews Book of the Year Silver and Bronze Awards, the Gwendolyn Brooks Poetry Prize, and the Chautauqua Editors Prize. New poems appear in Barrow Street, North American Review, Rattle, Gettysburg Review, and Orion. He is a fellow in the Black Earth Institute and teaches environmental studies, creative writing, and American literature at Pennsylvania State University’s Altoona College.

Taxidermy: Cathartes aura

When the vulture fell
from the sky, the boy gathered
the outstretched wings and folded
the body to his breast, feathers
cresting his shoulder, a span
of plumage for riding thermals,
drifting ever higher
above the earth.
The bird’s spiraling descent
was unexpected like when
his uncle touched him
in the cellar as he shoveled
coal for winter, telling him
he couldn’t have the fried
doughnuts sprinkled
with confectioner’s sugar
if he screamed
or told his mother.
Over the next week
the boy slit the dead bird
from neck to tail feathers,
pulled out what had grown inside,
and used cornstarch to dry
the wet residue. He wished to keep
some semblance of the bird
alive before the memory
migrated and was forgotten.
His uncle’s white whiskers
stung his cheeks, coffee-breath
at his ear demanding he remove
his pants and later wash
the blood-soaked underwear
at the sink in the garage.
While he worked, tears fell
into the dark space
he’d opened to insert
wires beneath the wings,
around the fragile ribs.
It hurt to sit and burned
when he bore down, excrement
swirled red in the toilet.
In the days that followed
his uncle wanted more,
but the boy begged,
and the man made him take it
in the mouth instead.
He woke with decay in his nostrils
and tried to figure the nature
of the bird’s death, but found no bullet
or pebbled buckshot, no evidence
to explain any of this.
He assumed it would go on
until he was older, big enough
to drive a fist into his uncle’s throat,
or for that man to keel over,
heart given out while skinning
a raccoon he’d trapped
or turning sod in the garden.
The boy believed the bird
had become the thing
it coveted, having consumed
so much dead flesh, and he stuffed
the cavity with rags and cotton,
sewed the incision and dangled it
with fishing-line over his bed.
Each night before he closed his eyes,
he stared at the pink head, the only
resurrection he believed in now,
and when his mother extinguished
the hall light, he prayed
to the shadow that hung above
to show him how to take flight.

Author’s Note:

“Taxidermy: Cathartes aura” was a difficult poem to write. Twice when I was a boy I escaped sexual predators and the violence they sought to perpetrate. Over the years friends have confided in me about suffering sexual violence at the hands of others, often people who were friends of the family or family members themselves. Too often what silences children is the feeling that they are somehow complicit in these acts. The boy in this poem represents who I might have been if I had not been spared such violence. Like that boy, as the son of a veterinarian who took solace in the lives of animals and their healing presence, as I wrote this poem I imagined the act of taxidermy and that turkey vulture as a perversion of such solace.