Nicky Beer is the author of The Diminishing House, published by Carnegie Mellon University. She teaches at the University of Colorado Denver, where she co-edits the journal Copper Nickel. For more information, please visit her website.
At first, I can't name the bird falling deliberately
from the tree's high crooks: a grey flash, tipped with carmine.
Lit on a fencepost, its wings smolder.
It might smell of ginger.
Bird, your life would terrify me.
Bones full of air, belly full of hunger,
the underbrush dense with murders.
Death is a twist, a pinfeather lost,
a stumble over a slowing pebble. This is not a life
of flight, but flight from. Perhaps you don't suppose
that there's any other way, which is itself
a kind of mercy. Perhaps you don't suppose.
Your heart's the size of a small clod and,
so I've heard, egg-shaped. I learned
to measure my own by the scale of my fist,
and my height from the distance
between the forefingers at the ends of my spread arms.
Physical logic is contrast,
ratio, degree. We know desire
by the scarcest shades on our skin:
brief flushes, bitten lips.
How could we sort anything at all
without rarity? There are acres more night
than moon, hours more sleep than dream.
Bird, when you are half-alive
in the jaws of our cats, a yellow ribbon
of innards dragging on the dirt,
remember that we dreamed our radiant dead
would become more like you,
as though the progeny of some impossible
lust between one of ours and one of yours.
Incomprehensible thing, drenched in the color
of something we call joy,
stuffed with something that we call song,
you are always first
When was this poem composed? How did it start?
The first draft was written in September 2002. I hadn’t looked at the first draft in a very long time until now, and I’m surprised at how much more bleak it is (the last line was originally “Nothing can be new.”), and how much more atmospheric and less idea-driven it is.
The poem came from the first time I saw a female cardinal, or rather, I saw a bird and described it to a birdwatching friend, the poet Sean Hill, and he suggested that what I’d seen was a female cardinal. It seems like such an innocuous event, but the revelation that what I’d seen was a bird that was familiar to me, but seemed unfamiliar because of its gender, was what first got me more interested in birdwatching myself. There’s something about that activity in which we’re driven to make the unfamiliar familiar, to give it a name, that appeals to a lot of writers, I think.
How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?
There were a total seven drafts that stretched over about two years. That’s astonishing to me, because I don’t have a memory of consciously grinding along with the poem for that long; I think it was just a poem that I kept picking up over time because I was never very satisfied with where I’d left it.
I think the discovery of this poem for me was moving gradually from writing about the bird and playing with it as a metaphor to examining my own impulses and motivations for why I was using the bird as a scrim upon which to project ideas. That’s certainly become a recurring concern in my work—how and why the fictions we have about nature define our senses of self—and I think this poem is very much where a lot of that began.
Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was “received” and how much was the result of sweat and tears?
The encounter with the cardinal itself may have been the inspiration, but the drafts themselves reflect a great deal of bashing about to get something worthwhile out of that engendering moment. I guess you could say I believe in inspiration, but need the craft to buoy it up. I think the problem with the idea of inspiration is that too often it’s associated with the “eureka,” the flash, the immediate. And yet it’s so much more elastic than that; an inspiring moment may take years to pay off. But because we associate it with what’s instantaneous, we don’t always recognize inspiration. And so we despair when we don’t get the payoff right away, when we should be learning patience, faith. And of course, my use of “we” here is just a lofty, high-handed way of saying “me.”
How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print?
It was finished in the summer of 2004, and it was published in the Iron Horse Literary Review later that year.
How long do you let a poem “sit” before you send it off into the world? Do you have any rules about this or does your practice vary with every poem?
It definitely varies. There are those poems where I can feel an audible end, a clicking-shut that lets me know I can send it out when I figure out the kinds of journals or editors that might give it a friendly reading. And then there are those problem children that I just keep picking at until I can’t see them clearly anymore, and so I kick them off the couch and shove them out the front door to fend for themselves.
Is this a narrative poem?
I think all poems are narrative, in the sense that the very use of grammar itself is narrative. But in terms of this specific poem, it’s a narrative of revelation, rather than action.
Do you remember who you were reading when you wrote this poem? Any influences you’d care to disclose?
Czeslaw Milosz’s “Magpiety” was an influence here—here’s an excerpt:
What is magpiety? I shall never achieve
A magpie heart, a hairy nostril over the beak, a flight
That always renews just when coming down,
And so I shall never comprehend magpiety.
If however magpiety does not exist
My nature does not exist either.
While Milosz’s poem points to a kind of unity between the human and the natural, despite their mutually exclusive spheres, I think my poem broods more on that difference between the two worlds, that lack of comprehension, and how much of our self-awareness derives from delineating to the “not-self.”
Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?
I always envision an impulsive billionaire with a soft spot for poetry and my phone number on speed dial.
Did you let anyone see drafts of this poem before you finished it? Is there an individual or a group of individuals with whom you regularly share work?
My husband, the poet Brian Barker, and I pass poems back and forth. His own remarks from this blog on the subject describe our happy situation about this very well. People have observed that our styles are very different from one another, and while that may be true, we share so many of the same influences and intellectual interests that our convergences always seem very clear to me. One of the things that he’s so good at is finding those lines or stanzas that I’ve basically kept in a poem for my own satisfaction or gratification, but don’t really work. I can fool myself into thinking I can leave that stuff in there, but I can’t fool him. He keeps me honest.
How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?
I think it’s a pretty typical poem for me. Animals, meditations about perception and mortality, intimations of bestiality, disembowelment—just another day at the office!
What is American about this poem?
It loves funnel cake and demolition derbies.
Was this poem finished or abandoned?
It was finished. Though it may have just as easily been finished with me: “Scram, toots!”