The robin

Plump little robin
we stand around you, aghast
at your misfortune

stuck there in the grille
of the SUV after
two hours’ interstate

yet you are alive
calling in your bird language
blinking and trembling

head twisting, trying
valiantly but in vain
to set yourself free

I think you’re impaled
except there’s not any blood
plus, your voice is strong,

full of warning, as
I lean in to examine
the situation:

both feet balled up tight
against your belly, somehow
straddling metal bars

wedged body, aslant
—can it really be intact?
—little eyes, so bright

that we three humans
standing before you in awe
vow to do our best

I grab a towel
(my childhood pet parakeet
often flew the coop

and had to be caught.
I learned to cover him first;
that small beak is sharp)

and we cover you,
but your loud cries of distress
tell us pulling hurts

—oh, you’re a fighter,
courageous little robin
biting at the cloth!

My sister-in-law
covers your face; my husband
hands me an ink pen

(ever-present in
his shirt pocket, a good thing,
as you never know

when you might need it,
in this case, to save a life)
so I wield the pen

through the metal grille,
through your feathers, bit by bit
freeing a pinned wing

until you’re sliding
into my cloth-shielded hands
like a newborn child

like a miracle
released at last, in the grass,
suddenly running

yes, flapping both wings
before taking a nose dive
into the clover

unable to fly
at least for now, surely bruised
needing time to heal

—the backyard becomes
bird rehabilitation,
bird sanctuary

where I can watch you
hopping along, pulling worms
these warm winter days

unseasonable
but I’m glad on your behalf,
keeping my distance

hoping predators
do the same, until you’re healed
and take to the skies

lucky bird, forgive
my bad Shakespearean pun:
you’re Robin the Plucked

for salvation comes
in the most peculiar ways,
begging the question

of mortality,
the taking and the giving
in daily living

these two days I’ve watched
your grounded red breast gleaming
by the old arbor

—today, no sighting,
inexplicable sadness
despite the wonder

of your survival
and the part I got to play.
Little Robin, plucked

to live life anew,
here’s to taking flight on your
wings and my prayers.

Robin the Plucked right after his rescue from the grille of my sister-in-law’s SUV. She’d driven down I-95 a few days after Christmas to visit us. Robin had some feathers askew from his ordeal but his wings weren’t dragging; my husband and I put him in our fenced backyard in hopes that nature would take its course, that he’d soon be fit enough to fly again (and that he’d want to). There are no words to adequately describe him enmeshed in that grille, very much alive and calling out, or for the sight of him immediately trying to run once we got him loose and laid him on the grass. I was amazed and elated to see him eating in the backyard with other birds that came and went the next day. I didn’t go near him again, as when I attempted it, he ran. I refused to distress him any more (heaven knows being trapped on the front of a car going 70 mph is enough for a lifetime). I joke that he’s my last good deed of 2021; I kept an eye on him all yesterday. On this first day of 2022, he is gone.

I keep watching, however.

One final observation, regarding the symbolism of robins: They’re tied to a number of legends and mostly positive connotations like spring and good luck (begging another question: Who’s the actually the bringer of luck here, Robin the Plucked or me?). But the perspective of Mother Teresa moves me most at present, as quoted in No Greater Love (Benenate & Durepos) on the legend of the robin and Christ’s crown of thorns: “Each of us should try and be that bird – the little robin. When we see someone in pain, we must ask ourselves: ‘What can I do to give them comfort?’”

Happy New Year and new life to you, Robin, wherever you are.

And to you all.

Redemption nonet

One of my favorite themes in literature—in life—is redemption.

Life’s a complicated adventure. Things happen. We respond to them. Each of us is an individual, complex universe of tangled history, experience, emotion, psyche, and DNA. We make choices and our choices make us … and our story. As Shakespeare would say, “Thereby hangs a tale.”

Since I read The Goldfinch in February, while homebound with snow and a broken foot (which seems an eon ago, now) I’ve thought about how certain choices reveal true character more than others. For all the breathtaking artistry of the author’s craftsmanship, in all the moments I paused to reread passages to absorb more of their glory as the story swept me away, one little, shining nugget wedged itself in my heart deeper than anything else. Perhaps it is strange, I don’t know, and I will try not to be a spoiler here … suffice it to say that the main character, suffering from trauma, descends into self-destructive behavior as a means of coping. As he attempts to escape his circumstances, he takes a little dog with him rather than see it neglected. It’s not his dog and he’s actually embarrassed by its “girlishness” (it’s a Maltese) but his appalled distaste over the treatment of the animal and the conditions in which he first found it motivate him to make a rescue at risk to himself. This I found strikingly heroic. A revelation of the character’s inner wiring working at its best. Redeeming.

Then of course there’s the loving character of the little dog itself and I am quite, quite sure that I would have found that just as poignant if I had not had a little dog curled up in my lap as I read the novel.

I have been wanting to capture these sensations, somehow, ever since. Suddenly, today, it gels. Maybe it’s because the sun dawned so bright this morning on our troubled, changed world as it wobbles on. Maybe because this brightness mingles with a searing sense of grief and apprehension about the days to come. About how much of life as we know it will be lost. Destroyed. I’ve been writing an abnormal amount of poetry so maybe images are standing out with sharper edges and taking clearer form than usual.

At any rate, this is my first attempt at a nonet, inspired by that act of rescue in The Goldfinch. Maybe it’s about wishing for rescue. Or redefining it. Sometimes, in saving another, one is often saving oneself …

Redemption may be life’s greatest theme
a sign that all hope is not lost
overcoming brokenness
in the effort to save
another creature
not capable
of saving
itself.
=Love.

Trapped

Hummingbird

Ruby-throated hummingbird tongue. Pete MarkhamCC BY-SA

I hear it as soon as I step into the garage – a small flapping sound. I stop, trying to locate it – there’s also an accompanying sort of squeak. Mouse-like. I brace myself – I’ve found mice in here before, as well as a small copperhead snake that fortunately got away from me faster than I could get away from it. But mice and snakes don’t make flapping noises. This is the sound of little wings beating.

Desperately.

In a corner, beneath a window, I find the source. A hummingbird. It’s clearly in trouble. Not until I pick it up – almost weightless, just a quivering sensation in the palm of my hand – can I see why.  A bit of cobweb is stuck to its wings and wrapped in its feet. The hummingbird must have flown into it or picked an unfortunate place to perch. Once in the sticky thread, it was rendered helpless, unable to fly or free itself. How it got inside the garage is another question. 

This bird, utterly tiny, trembles in my hand. Its iridescent jewel-tone feathers glimmer like soap bubbles in the sun. I see its heart beating rather than actually feeling it. The bird’s eyes are bright, alert. How long has it been trapped like this? How much energy has it spent trying to rid itself of this confining cobweb?  The sound of its wings beating furiously and its cries of distress are testimony to the fierceness with which it tried.

“It’s all right, it’s all right,” I say in my most soothing voice, although I know my presence alone must be terrifying. “Be still, now.”

I pull the gossamer thread from the tiny, clenched toes, from around the wings where it’s loosely draped. The wings beat now with renewed zeal, as with vibrant hope or celebration. The hummingbird is suddenly airborne. I don’t even see it happen, it’s so quick. I run to the garage door, fling it open, and my little bird zips through like a miniscule fighter plane on a mission, into the wild blue yonder.

I watch it go, and my spirit soars with it.

I remembered the hummingbird this morning, when I heard softer wings beating in my garage, this time a big yellow-and-black butterfly (Eastern Tiger Swallowtail), trying to get out of a window. I caught him, too, and set him free outside.

It triggered the hummingbird memory, and got me thinking about being trapped. How hard it is to free ourselves of those things that hold us back, how they stick to us like a cobweb to a hummingbird’s wings. Past experiences, loss, failures, our own choices or choices of others, pain, regret – they feel more like chains. Burdens that keep us from living fully, maybe even from trusting life again, as that sometimes feels huge and potentially dangerous.

I think of things we desperately want to accomplish and the hindrances, the things that bind us, keeping us from moving toward those goals. The hummingbird fought to be free, in order to live – that was its goal, staying alive.

Surely it’s the teacher in me that suddenly thinks of Frederick Douglass. Reading his Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave  for the first time in college, I was struck by his desperate desire to read and write. As a child he befriended little white boys in his community to get them, bit by bit, to teach him how to read – in a time when it was forbidden to do so. Douglass fought hard and long to stay alive, to have a better life than the one prescribed for him; with the help of others along the way, he escaped the bonds of illiteracy and slavery. A brilliant man of words and influence.

All of this comes to me, on hearing wings beating in distress. Matthew Arnold wrote of Percy Bysshe Shelley: “A beautiful and ineffectual angel, beating in the void his luminous wings in vain.” We do not have to remain trapped, ineffectual. Our better selves, our better angels, would recognize those of others when their beating wings, their beating hearts, are caught in a void. It’s within our sphere of influence, within the parameters of our power, to help find the way out; in so doing, our own do not beat in vain.