“Before the Poetry Reading” by David Wagoner

David Wagoner


They’ve left me standing in the hall, alone,
outside the room where I’m going to put myself
and some poems on display. The man in charge
is making sure the microphone is too short
and the table holding the lectern has one leg
just short enough.
                               I shouldn’t be nervous now
(though I used to watch my teacher, Theodore Roethke,
throw up before readings), and why did I remember
Stanley Kunitz telling me he’d searched
through almost a whole Animal Husbandry Building,
up and around and down stairs and more stairs
before a reading, hunting a men’s room
so he wouldn’t disgrace American poetry
onstage in public? He finally found a door
in a dark basement labeled SWINE.
                                                         I’m trying
to think of almost anything other than
what’s about to happen. Tonight’s hallway
belongs to Natural History. Behind my back
they’ve stuffed a display case full of local birds
on glass shelves, all of them glassy-eyed,
staring at me and past me at late arrivals
who are mostly polite enough not to stare back
at birds like us, though some give a quick glance,
embarrassed, as if they were going to flunk
Advanced Ornithology.
                                      A golden plover,
a marsh hawk, a bluejay, a saw-whet owl, and a raven
beside me are posed and poised to defend themselves
against all those inside their critical distance.
From an unlabeled doorway, my keeper beckons.

from Rattle #32, Winter 2009

Rattle Logo