“We Defy Augury” by Austin Smith

Austin Smith


Reading the word inauguration for the hundredth time
In the news, I caught it carrying the word augur inside it.
Augur, as in the priest in ancient Rome who was asked
To interpret the behavior of birds as an indication
Of divine approval or disapproval of some action
Being considered by the state. I see him on a hillside
Of olive trees, straining to hear whether they were
Calling in the branches where they had gathered
Or were silent. And if they took wing, squinting
To count their number and determine what sort
Of birds they were. Then observing which direction
They were flying. Whatever the answers, we know now
The birds were only looking to their own survival,
Obeying their hunger and their need to mate,
Migrating if they sensed the seasons were turning
Against them. We know too that the augur was
Interpreting the birds’ behavior based upon what
He thought the emperor wanted to do in his heart
Of hearts, or because he’d been bribed to say that
What the birds were doing meant this or that.
We know now it was all a sham. The words the favored
Daughter whispered in her father’s ear where he sat
On his throne were the very words he’d told her
He would like to hear, words that bode well for her,
And for the birds who every autumn settled
In that olive orchard and were spared,
And for the augur walking back through the dark
Towards the glittering city, under his lucky stars.

Poets Respond
January 22, 2017

[download audio]


Austin Smith: “The first two lines sort of sum up how this poem came to be. Like many poets, I have been searching for ways to respond to the current political moment obliquely, without using the T-word. One means of doing this has been by delving deeper into language itself, in this instance by considering the root of a particular word that dominated the news this week.” (website)

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