“Still Life with Birds” by Wendy Mitman Clarke

Wendy Mitman Clarke


The Carolina parakeet would not be the first
species to gather at its dead. They say elephants
do this too, and dolphins, who will stay for days
with a dead infant, pushing its body to the surface
to breathe. Inside the museum no living birds
attended the still life of their brethren rendered
so bright and busy among the cockleburs—
one scratching its cheek with a pointed talon,
two others seeming to croon parakeet
love songs to one another—although
the sound of that song, we can’t know.
There were, however, the six dead birds
displayed beside Audubon’s painting, mute
as dust, specimens the artist modeled
to create his masterpiece. I could have cupped
one in my hands, but the glass held
them all captive—the colorful painted birds
cavorting, their template kin lifeless
as an old woman’s misplaced gloves—
no air in either universe. Still life
the exhibit noted, is generally an act
of intimacy, so why shouldn’t I have stopped
beneath the familiar tree outside the museum
to reach among the homesick leaves
and hold the smooth round comfort
of the chestnut in my palm,
where I would have gathered
the dead birds if I could,
where I would have held you.

from Rattle #55, Spring 2017


Wendy Mitman Clarke: “My whole career has been made of words. Lots of them, all prose. One day about a year and a half ago, I signed up for a poetry workshop, because I realized how tired I was of all those words. They couldn’t say what I needed to say. Poetry gives me that freedom. From start to finish (not that any poem is ever finished), writing a poem surprises me. It makes me happy.”

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