My Son Finds a Bird in the House
The bird beat against the sealed chimney
until we could stand his suffering no more
and wondered to ourselves if God is just
or if he’s just a god, like Hermes clawing
the air and hoping to draw fire there
to ballast his winged feet up and out;
thought of Poe’s pallid bust of Pallas,
heard the little heart and wing thumping,
hovering over the abandoned coal grate,
desperate for flight, for frenzied escape.
I thought then of a communion when
I was ten, and an old man put his thimble
of drained grape juice back in the tray
and mistakenly I took it, saw the snaked
throat straining only afterward, the gray
mottled crop, the pained knees bowing,
then clutching the rail to rise toward
the altar. I was terrified that that sip could
transubstantiate my blood into thick
old-man plasma, brackish miasma
of liver spots and phlegm. I wanted
“This Do in Remembrance of Me” to be
a fortress I could flee, escape from him
straight up to a ravening heaven.
I thought that just two days ago a sister
who always renders news of death had called
to say a preacher cousin I barely knew had died,
expecting that I might care, or even remember.
I expressed the expected degree of distant sympathy
for his pulpit, his family, spent some breath
casting a reel for his wife’s name, the church,
but I wanted to let go the line, free myself
from obligatory empathy. I recalled of him only
that he found something or other nice to say
at the lonely funeral of my criminal brother.
This memory gifted me the debt of faint praise,
something my own wife would later that day
remark: “At least he found something nice to say.”
I told my son a bird in the house signifies
a death coming to the house, and we freed
it under our roof all the same, he screaming
my name and trying to flee the panicked flutters,
scattering crumbs to lure it out the window.
But first it beat against the walls, flitted to the mantel
like Poe’s graceless bird of yore, careening into
the closet door. It made its clumsy escape
and fell into the sky as Atlas shrugged, risen bread
in his claw, a memory of brief indignity.
Forsythia (in a Southern climate)
I have no money on your birthday,
so I stole you a branch of forsythia.
If ever a flower speaks for itself, is the
res ipsa loquitur of shrubbery,
it’s forsythia, curling from the little live wires
it threads, puffing its blazing breath forward,
a mutable fire, this flaming yellow
dipping a summer toe into autumn,
fall to fall, limp but insouciant.
This little spark wants to set kindling
to winter. A man named Fortune
discovered it, described it as a stalk-scented
star-flower. It’s a cusp plant, just as
your birthday bridges the summer to fall.
I leave no note with it, because it has no need
of words that, like underbellies of leaves,
turn on you, trembling, spiraling
to earth already compost, soft rot,
an undertow dragging you aground.
Words aren’t for birthdays anyway because they
give mainly to the giver who hears himself
imagining your thanks. Forsythia
brushes off its praise, squatting in
its comfortable, plain-talk splendor.
It has that shy rube-like modesty,
cooing “Aw, shucks” to compliments.
The Victorians called it forsythia suspena,
for hopeful anticipation, and surrounded
its four-pronged petals with baby’s breath
and Queen Anne’s lace for birthing bouquets.
When the eyes blazed open baby saw flower
and star both, in one look. Like when I see you,
whole earth and sky in one look, wordlessly.
© Pamela L. Sumners
Pamela L. Sumners is a civil rights and constitutional lawyer with a keen interest in religion and speech cases. She also has served as executive director of two nonprofits. A native Alabamian, she now lives in St. Louis with her spouse, teenage son, two geriatric dogs, and her son’s new puppy.