Martha in Cincinnati
“Men still live who, in their youth, remember pigeons; trees still live who, in their youth, were shaken by a living wind. But a few decades hence only the oldest oaks will remember, and at long last only the hills will know.” —Aldo Leopold, “On a Monument to the Pigeon,” 1947
They say it gave townspeople quite a fright,
each April in Ontario, when the birds
migrated by the millions, off to nest,
torrential fronts so thick they swallowed light.
In 1854 they reached their peak,
amassing in the sky like Armageddon,
enormous, stupid, handsome-looking things
a foot or more from tip of tail to beak,
a fusillade, a trillion drumming wings.
(“Hard gale at sea”—that’s how John James described
the roaring, terrifying noise.)
And no one thought (who would think of such things?)
that what the Seneca long called “big bread”
would be consigned to horse-drawn history,
shoe buttons, family farms, the whooping crane:
In sixty years, the last one would be dead.
It wasn’t personal, greedy, or malicious.
(When blessed with edible weather, one must do
the right thing out of simple gratitude.)
Their fatal flaw: the birds were quite delicious.
the corpse of Ectopistes migratorius,
Whacked out of air with sticks and stones, divine
sautéed or stewed with onion, carrot, bay—
in every pot, a gift from God most glorious:
the catch for cacciatore, tender, sweet.
Men blew holes through their curtains with aplomb
and gunned down bacon by the basketful,
high-protein manna falling at their feet.
The dumb things wouldn’t hide themselves, unable
to reason, organize, or self-preserve.
As travelers, not passengers, they were
devoid of fear, and destined for the table.
They named her Martha, like the first
First Lady, but without her George. The last
of all her kind: the rest were gone.
In years to come, they’d call
her “endling,” “terminarch.” They nursed
her health, in honor of her time that passed
unnoticed, but she was a chore: no fun
to watch. She breathed, but that was all.
The zoo looked for a mate for her
but it was much too late for that. Her days
would be spent clinging to the same
old, filthy perch. She’d stare,
some bits of bird-brain left to whirr
in circles, parsing gizzard bits, a haze
of memory, boxed in a dusty frame.
Mere motion now was rare,
beyond an infinitesimal sway
as one more breath pulled in, considered, stalled,
let go. She doddered. Wouldn’t eat
or drink, a marathon
of stubborn will, still on display,
while teams of ornithologists, enthralled,
placed worried bets on when she’d finally meet
good Mister Audubon,
who’d limned her like: that famous kiss
(with chick on top). Now, new indignities:
a hooting crowd demanding action,
while all she does is sit,
and barely that. It’s down to this:
the cage, the feed. Persistent dreams of trees
obscure the schoolboys’ bored dissatisfaction.
Now they’re not having it
and, pissed off, wing handfuls of sand
at her impassive form to try and make
her entertain them, or at least
look more like life than art.
But nothing live could understand
her concentration, or the fervent ache
to fall as once she flew, relaxed, released
at last, free to depart
and cut the cord, become unknown,
not living fossil, feathered hourglass,
but lost, one snowflake in a storm
that marks the final act
of the detonation humankind’s
unleashing now, what comes to pass
through us, an asteroid in apelike form,
the E.L.E., in fact.
Or maybe not so grim, and not
as bleak as all of that. There are some tools,
those Michael Crichton recipes
are where the future lies.
Let’s kid ourselves. The juggernaut
of what we are will never suffer fools
for long. The final birds fly where they please
in quiet, darkening skies.
© Jennifer Keith
Jennifer Keith is a web writer for Johns Hopkins Medicine. Her poems have appeared in Sewanee Theological Review, The Nebraska Review, The Free State Review, Fledgling Rag, Unsplendid, and elsewhere. Keith is the recipient of the 2014 John Elsberg poetry prize, and her poem “Eating Walnuts” was selected by Sherman Alexie for Best American Poetry 2015. In 2021 her poem “Cooper’s Hawk” was a finalist for the Erskine J. Poetry Prize from Smartish Pace.