I love to watch them sheathe themselves mid-air,
shut wings and ride the light’s poor spine
to earth, to touch down in gutters, in the rainbowed
urine of suicides, just outside Bellevue’s walls.
From in there the ransacked cadavers are carried
up the East River to Potter’s Field
as if they were an inheritance,
gleaned of savable parts,
their diseases jarred and labeled, or incinerated,
the ashes of metastasized vision
professing the virus that lives beyond the flesh,
The first time I saw the inside of anything
alive, a downed bird opened cleanly
under my heel. I knelt
to watch the spectral innards shine and quicken,
the heart-whir magnify.
And though I can’t say now what kind of bird it was,
nor the season, spring or autumn, what
I have identified so many times that sudden
earnest spasm of the throat in children,
or in the jaundiced faces of the dying,
the lower eye-lids straining upward.
Fear needs its metaphors.
I’ve read small helplessnesses make us maternal.
Even the sparrows feel it
nesting this evening in traffic lights.
They must have remembered, long enough to mate,
woods they’ve never seen,
but woods inbred, somehow, up the long light of instinct,
the streaked siennas of a forest floor
born now into the city,
the oak umbers, and the white tuft
of tail feathers, like a milkweed meadow
in which their song, as Burroughs heard it,
could be distinguished:
here, where every history is forfeited,
where the same names of the different dead greet
each other and commingle
above the hospital’s heaps of garbage.
From the ward windows, fingerprinted,
from the iron-grated ledges,
hundreds flock down for the last feed of the day
and carry off into the charitable dusk what
cannot be digested.