Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!
—John Keats, “Ode to a Nightingale”
Beat it, bird. We’ve heard enough about
the charms of elsewhere. While you poured forth your soul
like a poet hidden in the light of thought,
blithe spirit, we grew tired of the whole
immortal business. Each of us has drunk
from the cup of sorrows and of boredom, too.
So I’ve wandered out here onto the front lawn
half-dressed, picked up a chunk
of gravel, and I’m aiming it at you.
A nice tune, but we’d rather you were gone.
Most mornings here I take the trash outside
and haul it to the curb. I know you’re there—
a twitch in the mock orange, not to be denied,
persistent as a dream or a nightmare.
And, once, I carried the bag out the back door
surrounded by a crush of flies, and heard
a fluttering. I looked up but couldn’t see
the sky. Next thing, a snore.
My own. I’d dreamt the trash, the flies, the bird.
It felt like the wing of madness over me.
I remember how in childhood I dreamed of
the nothing brimming in that gulf of shade
beyond the lights. A mockingbird or dove
at evening shook a dogwood branch and made
some kind of sound, and then I knew for sure
matter didn’t end there in the dark.
The world went on. I didn’t have to guess
whether the noon flowers were
somewhere. But you—thrush, nightingale, or lark?—
bring back that first desire for emptiness.
You’re tempting, bird. We’d all like to believe
in a vast perfection—to imagine France
without the guillotine, or Adam and Eve
beneath the boughs without their underpants;
to sleep at four a.m. without the noise
of car alarms or broken glass. One time
I heard your voice and caught the scent of clover
on the night air, and the joys
of oblivion brushed my cheek. It was sublime.
Then a slammed door woke me like a hangover.
Procne or Philomela? I forget.
I read the story in eleventh grade.
Even in high school, though, they rarely let
kids in on things like that—the rapist’s blade,
the severed tongue and tapestry. We want
the song without the bloodshed. Now you’ve come
full-throated, cheerful, with your small wings furled,
whistling as if to taunt
my ignorance. But I’d prefer you dumb.
The world you sing about is not the world.
It’s possible to say you don’t exist.
I’ve never seen you. Are you a conclusion
dressed down in plain clothes by a theorist,
like anti-quarks, the Trinity, or cold fusion?
Who knows. Your singing’s comforted a few.
Bonhoeffer in his cell. Kings, clowns, and Ruth.
Mostly, though, it seems you’re like the gap
a child’s tongue wiggles through
for days and days after he’s lost a tooth,
or the midnight drip of water from the tap.
Like a flute’s trill in the distances of air
heard at a crucifixion, a plane crash,
or some terrible Exeunt, chased by a bear,
your anthem grates. Time and the music clash.
You sang at Gettysburg and Waterloo.
You sang while Caesars held Rome by the ears
and the pick burrowed into Trotsky’s skull.
Through plagues you sang and flew,
trials, inquisitions, a whole age of tears.
Our history now seems oddly musical.
I’ve thrown my rock, bird. And, now that you’re gone,
I’d like to go inside and get some sleep.
It’s been a long night, after all. Soon dawn
will wade through shadows on the yard and steep
the trees in sunlight, and the window blinds
will slant the bedclothes and my dreaming face.
Who’ll grieve your music in some fit of rhyme
or keep you in our minds
now that it’s so damned quiet? Maybe I’ll pace
and listen awhile. As long as I have time.
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