Wind from the northwestern quarter is lifting him high above
the dove-gray, crimson, umber, brown
Connecticut Valley. Far beneath,
chickens daintily pause and move
unseen in the yard of the tumbledown
farmstead, chipmunks blend with the heath.
Now adrift on the airflow, unfurled, alone,
all that he glimpses — the hills’ lofty, ragged
ridges, the silver stream that threads
quivering like a living bone
of steel, badly notched with rapids,
the townships like strings of beads
strewn across New England. Having slid down to nil
thermometers — those household gods in niches —
freeze, inhibiting thus the fire
of leaves and churches’ spires. Still,
no churches for him. In the windy reaches,
undreamt of by the most righteous choir,
he soars in a cobalt-blue ocean, his beak clamped shut,
his talons clutched tight into his belly
— claws balled up like a sunken fist —
sensing in each wisp of down the thrust
from below, glinting back the berry
of his eyeball, heading south-southeast
to the Rio Grande, the Delta, the beech groves and farther still:
to a nest hidden in the mighty groundswell
of grass whose edges no fingers trust,
sunk amid forest’ s odors, filled
with splinters of red-speckled eggshell,
with a brother or a sister’ s ghost.
The heart overgrown with flesh, down, feather, wing,
pulsing at feverish rate, nonstopping,
propelled by internal heat and sense,
the bird goes slashing and scissoring
the autumnal blue, yet by the same swift token,
enlarging it at the expense
of its brownish speck, barely registering on the eye,
a dot, sliding far above the lofty
pine tree; at the expense of the empty look
of that child, arching up at the sky,
that couple that left the car and lifted
their heads, that woman on the stoop.
But the uprush of air is still lifting him
higher and higher. His belly feathers
feel the nibbling cold. Casting a downward gaze,
he sees the horizon growing dim,
he sees, as it were, the features
of the first thirteen colonies whose
chimneys all puff out smoke. Yet it’ s their total within his sight
that tells the bird of his elevation,
of what altitude he’ s reached this trip.
What am I doing at such a height?
He senses a mixture of trepidation
and pride. Heeling over a tip
of wing, he plummets down. But the resilient air
bounces him back, winging up to glory,
to the colorless icy plane.
His yellow pupil darts a sudden glare
of rage, that is, a mix of fury
and terror. So once again
he turns and plunges down. But as walls return
rubber balls, as sins send a sinner to faith, or near,
he’ s driven upward this time as well!
He! whose innards are still so warm!
Still higher! Into some blasted ionosphere!
That astronomically objective hell
of birds that lacks oxygen, and where the milling stars
play millet served from a plate or a crescent.
What, for the bipeds, has always meant
height, for the feathered is the reverse.
Not with his puny brain but with shriveled air sacs
he guesses the truth of it: it’ s the end.
And at this point he screams. From the hooklike beak
there tears free of him and flies ad luminem
the sound Erinyes make to rend
souls: a mechanical, intolerable shriek,
the shriek of steel that devours aluminum;
“mechanical,” for it’ s meant
for nobody, for no living ears:
not man’ s, not yelping foxes’,
not squirrels’ hurrying to the ground
from branches; not for tiny field mice whose tears
can’ t be avenged this way, which forces
them into their burrows. And only hounds
lift up their muzzles. A piercing, high-pitched squeal,
more nightmarish than the D-sharp grinding
of the diamond cutting glass,
slashes the whole sky across. And the world seems to reel
for an instant, shuddering from this rending.
For the warmth burns space in the highest as
badly as some iron fence down here
brands incautious gloveless fingers.
We, standing where we are, exclaim
“There!” and see far above the tear
that is a hawk, and hear the sound that lingers
in wavelets, a spider skein
swelling notes in ripples across the blue vault of space
whose lack of echo spells, especially in October,
an apotheosis of pure sound.
And caught in this heavenly patterned lace,
starlike, spangled with hoarfrost powder,
the bird sails to the zenith, to the dark-blue high
of azure. Through binoculars we foretoken
him, a glittering dot, a pearl.
We hear something ring out in the sky,
like some family crockery being broken,
slowly falling aswirl,
yet its shards, as they reach our palms, don’ t hurt
but melt when handled. And in a twinkling
once more one makes out curls, eyelets, strings,
rainbowlike, multicolored, blurred
commas, ellipses, spirals, linking
heads of barley, concentric rings —
the bright doodling pattern the feather once possessed,
a map, now a mere heap of flying
pale flakes that make a green slope appear
white. And the children, laughing and brightly dressed,
swarm out of doors to catch them, crying
with a loud shout in English, “Winter's here!”