Field Notes from East River Road
a prose poem (honorable mention)
You struggle with the names. You say they differ too little. But here, the cardinal: the male a garnet in the bare maple, the hiding female Georgia dirt. And there: the junco, overdressed for ground feeding in black and white. And see: the juniper is not moved by wind but by flocks of finches nesting in its branches. They are small and drab, but it is they who woke you up this morning, they who called to you first.
Chickadees fly by falling. They’ll flap their wings once, give in to gravity, and repeat –neat little sine waves traversing the neighborhood. Right now they are fattening up for the spring egg-hatching season. They tumble out of branches and drain my birdfeeder every other day. When I go to refill it, they do not scatter, but merely eye me from above. Tiny and round, they look so soft I want to touch one. Stand still and offer seeds – they will swoop into your hand.
Blazon me in bleeding colors: the purple finch’s head, your grandfather’s tattoo, the peeling billboard offering cigarettes to the interstate. Count out my qualities like sunflower seeds in your palm – pull them apart and feel them splinter in your teeth. Spit the shells on the sidewalk, where they will be picked at by the birds.
Even crows are of the passerine order, the grouping commonly referred to as “songbirds.” I heard one squawking from a telephone pole as I was walking home. It was the first mild day of March, and I had time to pause. The crow opened its beak to sing, but instead tore the wing from a bat.
A flash of yellow and that’s a myrtle warbler, whose song I have yet to hear. Each time I see one hopping over the ground, flitting like paper in the street, I wait for its clear-voice. I wait, and I wait, and it flies away, always – never has it given me an answer, no matter how long I stand, questioning.
I thought it was a pile of dirt and sticks, at first. Just off the bike path, under a bee balm plant – I wouldn’t have noticed it except for the blooms above its head. Brown and matted, a common sparrow, so completely unremarkable. I was surprised it had not been eaten – perhaps its ribs too brittle, too hollow, too small to be worth snapping. Even the beebalm seemed not to notice; already it had sent out two small shoots, wrapping around the skull, reaching for the sun.