Blackbirds

‘Don’t make him go.’
                ‘I’m not.’
                                ‘He’s only just now
Come in to play.’
                ‘He’d rather be outside, ’
Said the boy’s father. ‘Let him go outside.
He’s old enough to want to help.’
                                ‘Then next year,’
Said the boy’s mother. ‘Let him set the table
That’s more a help than outside splitting wood.’
‘Let Mary,’ said the father.
                                ‘Mary? Set
The table? Let her help with splitting wood!'
The mother countered. ‘After all, she’s older.
Why can’t your daughter?’
                                ‘She hasn’t asked me, has she?’
‘And does she need to?’
                 ‘Jack did.’
                                ‘Why not ask her?’
‘For God’s sake, let them both go,’ said their father.
‘They’re old enough.’
                Just then the boy walked in
Still in boots and a hooded jacket—somehow
Nonetheless guessing at the argument.
His glance raced from father to mother. ‘Can I?’
He asked.
                His mother paused. She’d carried in
The plates and silverware and had begun
To set them.
                ‘If you’re asking me, then no,’
She said. ‘You’re father thinks you’re old enough;
I don’t.’
                ‘I’m old enough,’ argued the boy.
‘Then go straight to Grandpa if you want to help
And do exactly what he tells you. No hospitals
Today. No little boys who’ve chopped their hands off.’
‘Then I’ll tell Mary,’ said the father.
                                                The boy
Ran out the door but never having seen
His father run to do a chore, stopped, walked,
Assumed an air of purpose. Snow was falling
And had already fallen, not in gales
But in that way November snowfalls shroud
The yellowed grass and drape the Queen Anne’s lace
Anew with shawls. The maple in the dooryard,
Its leaves let down, let down no shadows, evening
Descending overall but for the dooryard
And lighted house behind the boy. The path
To where the wood was split went first before
The shed-roofed bays then out behind the barn where
The log length wood was piled. 
                                The closest bay
Stored their discarded toys. Among them were
A tricycle, its rims half buried in
The dirt floor’s ruin and the runner sleds
That just a year ago already would have
Skated November’s early snow—the lettering
Faded and flaking from their slatted backs.
The boy might yet have pulled them out but for
A baby gate that sometime during the summer
Was forced into the only narrow entry
(As if to bar a child’s going in
Or toys from coming out again). The snow
Curled over the metal lip of roof
Above the shed-bay’s open mouth and faded
Into a ghostly exhalation.
                                Drawing
His hood tight as he walked, the boy half stumbled—
A knee to snow. The middle bay was where
His brother stored his car on blocks. The right
Front block had sunk into the dirt so that
The grill’s off-kilter grin would chase the boy
In nightmares. The car still needed work—
And every day less likely to be done.
The doors, fenders and hood were primed
With spray paint (underneath the priming gray
The paint’s original red) but here and there
The rust was rusting through. But mostly when
His brother visited the car he’d take
A girl along. The boy would want to follow
But every time he’d asked them what they planned
His brother laughed. ‘We’re going out to play
A little hide & seek,’ he’d say. ‘You’re not
Invited.’ Then the boy, being troubled by
What kind of hide & seek there was to play
Inside a car, made plans some night to follow
And spy; and meant to soon. Sometimes they’d stay
For just a little while and sometimes late
Into the night. Returning then they’d kiss
And laugh as though in seeking they had found
A thousand hiding places. 
                                Another gust
Of snow. The shrunken spines of black-eyed Susans—
Their desiccated eyes were motionless
And blind to what remained of autumn’s twilight 
Or the boy passing by.
                                The furthest bay
Was where his father kept the tractor—lights
Lifted like attentive ears, hood tarped
And cutter bar drawn up. Some days in summer
The boy’s father might leave the tractor out
Midfield, dusted with chaff. The boy might climb
Into the seat as though he could ignite
The tractor’s heart and bring the gulping lungs
To life again. The metal’s heavy odor
Of grease and oil clung to his clothes like
The scissored grasses. He hardly knew the work
Of tractors other than they worked the fields;
And where he would have traveled had it rumbled
To life meant less to him than understanding
What force of architecture moved the steel,
What housed explosions turned the giant wheels
Imprinting the earth. ‘The cruel machine,’ 
His mother’d say, ‘That cuts the summer’s bloom—
Too much to call it hate—but let the field
For once run riot. We’ve no use for hay,
And have no livestock. Let it go uncut
Or cut it late and let the wildflowers route
The grasses.’ ‘It’s for love of place I mow it,’
His father’d answer. ‘When has autumn ever spared
A meadow? And there are other reasons
Besides.’ If afterward he’d never give them
He’d nonetheless bring back a mason jar
So clumsily full of flowers they’d sometimes topple
Over the kitchen table just as if
A scythe had lain them down again.
                                The boy hewed
Close by the barn where jimsonweed had grown.
He stepped over burst thorn-apples—their rictus
Of seed and snow; and passing by he snagged
The others in his mittens—thorny bulbs
Still topping branches; tendrils spiraling upwards
As if they were a final parting breath—
The smoke of humid summer days turned brittle
And motionless.
                Any other day
He’d have taken the shortcut through the barn,
A storehouse of forgotten generations
Who owned the property a hundred years
And more before the boy’s own family.
Sometimes he’d spend the hours picking through
The slow haphazard regolith of mice
And straw to find a broken tool half buried:
Old bottles, cut nails, rusted pliers, saw-blades
And hammers missing handles; these he’d stockpile
In crates he made himself—half a dozen
He’d cobbled out of scavenged lumber ridden
With nail holes. The boy had found foundations
Grown through with ironwood—remains of buildings
A farmer might take lumber from. He’d wonder
What ghosts still searched the leaf-strewn cellar holes
Looking for the long forgotten button 
That once had rolled between the rough-sawn floorboards—
Themselves long since dissolved; and then he’d flee
The ironwood thicket. If there’d ever been
More than the lumber worth saving then either
That too was lost or in the barn—the lumber,
The tools, the parts (their use gone out of memory),
And the machinery still following
The beasts that drew them, wooden ligaments
Consumed, their frames corroded and collapsing
Into the sediment. And yet the boy
Will mend their failing joints, imagines them—
Painted and metal polished—renewed
Behind a tractor’s thumping pulse. If not
A tractor then he’d clear the cobwebbed arteries
From the barn and there stable either ox
Or horse; he’d load the hayloft with fresh hay
And breathe the fumes of life into the farmyard
Or so, at least, the boy imagined doing
And more.
                He followed round the barn’s far corner,
The muddy yard where log-length firewood
Was piled—the time of year the yard
Rolled seamlessly into the neighboring fields,
Their hollow ribs no taller than the yard’s
Own trampled grasses. Distantly, the ridge
Of field that overlooked the barn and farmhouse
Grew light with snow and darkened with the shadow
Of early winter.
                The boy had often
Come out this far and been distracted by
The sloping fields, wondering at the world
Beyond the world he saw. He dreamt an ocean
Lay just beyond the distant ridge, and beds
Of incandescent sands and whirlpools
Of liquid vertebrae. He dreamt of whales
Who glimmered with the giant eyes of angels;
And waters trembling over them like outspread wings.
Their contemplation wakened him; he feared
The dark that sank his bed into their mystery;
The turmoil of their wake. And though some nights,
In a half-forgotten sleep, he rode
The ocean’s slippery back from shore to shore,
He’d waken to horizons nothing more
Than his own room, the bed, the sheets wound round him, 
A cluttered floor.
                The path veered left between
The logs and barn. The boy tugged at his hood
As wind once more drew down a shroud of snow,
Thrown from the metal roof. He dug his hands
Into his jacket, hunched, and kept his eyes
Half shut until the gust rose over top
The roof again as though the barn itself
Breathed forth the ghostly apparition, vanishing
As fleetingly as it appeared. 
                                The boy
Stopped. The steel of the splitting maul
Gleamed in the icy mud; just by the maul
A split wedge wedged in the wood. The boy’s grandfather
Lay on his side, eyes open, the splitting maul’s handle
Loosely in his hand. The old man’s scarf
Rose up, half lifted by a sudden gust,
Then fell again. The boy stepped backwards, stumbled,
Stepped back again. A little further on
The cattails in the farmyard’s pond had blown—
And silence where the redwing blackbirds shrilled
Before they’d flown. He gave a startled cry.
His sister lightly cupped his shoulder,
Then she stepped past him kneeling by their grandfather.
She turned him gently to his back. She leaned
As if unsure; then being sure, she closed
His eyes. She gazed at him and neither she
Nor the boy moved.
                'Okay,' she finally said.
She stood, went to the boy, and took his hand.
'Come on,' she said. And then said nothing more.
Blackbirds By me, Patrick Gillespie | March 27, 2021

For the first time in decades I considered submitting a poem to a poetry journal. They all wanted anywhere from three months to half a year (or more) to respond. I’m noticing that the New England Review is now charging a $3 submission fee. One can also buy a two magazine subscription for $15 instead (only to submitters). I suppose that’s fair. They must get thousands of submissions and reading them is a full time job. In truth though, the asking price doesn’t bother me nearly as much as the wait time—especially if they’re going to charge for the privilege. Anyway, I made my decision. I’m my own online journal by this point. Do comment if you like the poem—or if you don’t. I’m already at work on my next one. I’ll also be reading the poem later today, along with Bicycles; and posting those separately.

4 responses

  1. I read every word and the narrative is as steady as Wordsworth with many striking rural New England images. For example:

    Snow was falling
    And had already fallen, not in gales
    But in that way November snowfalls shroud
    The yellowed grass and drape the Queen Anne’s lace
    Anew with shawls. The maple in the dooryard,
    Its leaves let down, let down no shadows, evening
    Descending overall but for the dooryard
    And lighted house behind the boy. The path
    To where the wood was split went first before
    The shed-roofed bays then out behind the barn where
    The log length wood was piled.

    Although there might be more active verbs available than “was”—perhaps “slept split,” “lay piled,” etc.

    Also, since the poem is titled “Blackbirds” one would expect to see that image developed or recurring as part of the boy’s apparitional content beginning with the line “The boy had often” Yet the first and only mention of Blackbirds in the body of the poem is “the redwing blackbirds shrilled”.

    I felt a fine sense of character, but the sister as an aspiring registered nurse would have nicely accentuated the vocational contrast of her and the older brother to their sensitive, artistic sibling who apparently shoulders the additional burden of a cosmic imagination.

    But even as is, the poem held me as Wordsworth, and I enjoyed reading it.

    Like

    • Thanks for that Cliff. I really appreciate it. And why I never mind your posting your poems here. :) The older sister isn’t that much older than the boy. Her aspiring to be a registered nurse? Well. I leave that to the reader to decide.

      Like

  2. Thanks, Patrick. I meant her registered nurse aspiration as a singular suggestive element and nothing elaborate.

    ‘And why not Mary help split wood?’
    The mother countered. ‘After all, she’s older.
    And wants to be mission nurse’.

    Also, developing the blackbird conceit (or the expectation of the current title) risks a Ravenesque, Gothic distraction incompatible with the totality of this rather beautiful poem and, besides, a simple title change would save you the trouble (something like “Earth Boy,” “The Youngest,” etc.),

    Like

    • Well, it’s an interesting argument you make because it’s a question every writer has to ask when writing narrative — what to leave out and what to include. Since the poem isn’t about the sister, but almost entirely about the boy, I would say that the most important piece of information about the sister is that she’s older. That’s all that the reader really needs to know. Adding that she aspires to be a mission nurse changes this equation considerably; and the reader would have to ask themselves why this detail was included.

      The more powerful impression is to simply say that she was older and leave it to the reader to interpret that how they will — somewhat like a haiku. I had/have very definite reasons for leaving it that way, having to do with the boy, but for me to say more invites me to analyze my own poem—and I ent doin’ that. As to the title, there’s a reason for that too; and if I discuss that I fall into the same temptation, analyzing my own poem. So. It stands as is for better or worse. I won’t defend it. That is, my argument ended with the poem. You may be right in your criticism, but I leave it to other readers, if they care to, to agree or disagree. :)

      Like

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