“Man with Birds and Bread” by Erin Murphy

Erin Murphy


a cento

On the edges of the afternoon
we lie on the beach, gray waves
the only language,
the gun-gray curlings of salt-tongue.
A man slogs through the soft sand
with an expired loaf of bread.
Look how he kneels,
holding out his palms as if catching snow.
Seagulls peep like Erinyes wearing
white linen suits, sky-jockeying
into a swinging web of flying sound
on their parameter of hunger.
A cacophony of needs—
synonym for human, perhaps.
His home is an ocean away.
There / the moon hangs like a golden mango.
There / the beach is the wind’s body
flecked with violet
where the light, aflame,
used to hum in the siesta’s honey,
donde la luz zumbaba enardecida
en la miel de la siesta,
There / a song curls inside you,
songs of children, songs of birds,
cantos de niños y de aves.
All of a sudden:
a call, loud and mean, while flashes of light
rise just over the beach grass at our backs.
A four-wheeler.
Birds scatter
like fireworks on el Cuatro de Julio.
Hatred glosses
in the cave of the mouth—
a mouth as a cold wind.
Above, in the yellow sky, a phrase drifts
to us like smoke from distant fires.
The breeze isn’t silent.
Look how he kneels,
face toward the light,
a man who tilts his bread in the sun,
the bag of bones:
I am I am still here still here.
How bitter is the bread of bitterness.
If I burn the world around me—
el mundo que me rodea—
until it shines beautiful and brown,
how does one undrown?

Cento credits: John Hoffman, Pia Täavila-Borsheim, Erin Coughlin Hollowell, Linda Bierds, Peter Makuck, Rodney Jones, Dana Levin, Jennifer Foerster, Garrett Hongo, John Ciardi, Eva Alice Counsell, Reginald Shepherd, Julie Marie Wade, Michael Broder, Lola Ridge, Huascar Medina, Jonathan Wells, H.D., Olga Orozco (trans. from Spanish by Mary Crow), BrandonLee Cruz, Gabriela Mistral (trans. from Spanish by Ursula K. Le Guin), Juan Felipe Herrera, Lily Darling, Noelle Kocot, Ron Silliman, Emanual Xavier, Cynthia Hogue, Ellen Bass, Canisia Lubrin, Alexandra Peary, Marilyn Nelson, Myronn Hardy, Forrest Gander, Chase Berggrun, Joseph Fasano, Chim Sher Ting, Mahogany L. Browne, Khaled Mattawa, Ashley M. Jones, Niki Herd

from Poets Respond
March 10, 2024


Erin Murphy: “Whenever I visit the Outer Banks of North Carolina, I see a Latino man feeding seagulls on the beach after work. He speaks Spanish to the birds, gesturing with his hands for them to come down to eat. The birds seem to recognize him and swarm around him for bread. This week, I witnessed a vehicle speeding along the beach and coming dangerously close to the man. The driver and passenger were yelling at the man and pumping their fists. The birds dispersed. I don’t think it’s an accident that this happened the same week that Axios reported that Latino activists are concerned about increasing hate crimes against immigrants. I chose the cento form for this poem because the experience called for a multiplicity of voices.” (web)

Rattle Logo