“Ortolan” by Nicole Bestard

Nicole Bestard


When François Mitterrand, the former president of France, realized that he would soon die of prostate cancer … he squandered a small fortune on a lavish and bizarre meal for himself and thirty friends … The piece-de-resistance was roast ortolan, a tiny songbird that in France is actually illegal to consume. Traditionally, the two-ounce warbler is eaten whole, bones and all, while the diner leans forward over the table with a large napkin draped over his head. The napkin, according to food lore, serves two functions: it traps and concentrates the aroma of the petite dish, and it conceals the shameful exorbitance of the meal … from the eyes of God.
—Mark Morton, from “Ort of the Week,” Gastronomica.com, April 3, 2006

Once inside his mouth, did it bite back, digging
with its beak into the steak-flesh of his tongue
a pin-prick on the palette, a pen-knife sticking
the spongy membranes in the belly of a whale?

Did its head roll around in his mouth before
it was crushed like a doll’s glass slipper
between the molars of a dog?

Did it beat its wings against his throat,
clamoring against the smooth esophagal
lining as it went down?

Did it burn his chest in that moment, a speck
of feather caught within the chambers, thrashing
on the walls like its sparrow cousin, accidentally
flown into the glass door of the sun-deck?

Or did it slide gently, silenced by the strange
thunder of his heart as it passed?

Was it slow-roasted or grilled? Basted with
butter, rosemary, and a little lemon? Or simply
salt and pepper, maybe some olive oil?

Did the bird recognize the oil as it was applied,
perhaps from a tree it had nested in once, sung
a song so beautiful a law had to be passed
to preserve its notes?

Did it come live to the chef’s hands, caged
with its siblings, beaks taped shut so as not
to give away the fruit kept within? Or
were they packed in an egg carton, each bird coiled
and cold in its own private, if temporary, tomb?

Were their necks snapped only hours earlier?
Or were they gassed at the base of the bird-catcher’s
car? Why not boiled fresh and writhing like lobsters
as if song still lingered about their featherless flesh?

The minutiae of the guts, were they kept in or
removed, and who so carefully pried the fuselage
from their bodies, their organs balanced
on a fingernail for sauce?
Days later, did it sing again as it made
its exit from body, now completely consumed
and resurrected?

The surviving songbirds, can they see
the shadow left by the napkin on the diner’s
head; do they cease their singing
when he passes beneath their branch?

And does he care? He who has consumed
such delicate song, does he hear it still?

from Rattle #28, Winter 2007


Nicole Bestard: “Photographer Diane Arbus wrote, ‘I really believe there are things which nobody would see unless I photographed them.’ I feel the same way about my poems—I really believe there are things which nobody would see—including myself—unless I wrote about them. It’s this urgency to bear witness to the world, and all the beauty and ugliness encompassed in it, both seen and unseen, that drives my work.”

Rattle Logo