The Owl and I

Once the gimcrack cross got burned on our lawn, my mother took off

back north to have me. My father was stationed in Gadsden, Alabama

before the second Great War, commander of so-called Colored Troops,

and he’d invited a few of his men inside the house, it seems,

a radical thing indeed just then in the heart of Jim-Crow Dixie.

So my mother escaped giving birth down there, though I don’t have any idea

why I’d think of this, which, near to her death, she spoke of so many years after.

Why now, on watching a barred owl glide to a hemlock gone dark at sundown,

everything else as well going dark around me here where I stand?

Once, at midnight, she thought she’d heard a whoop of human anguish

and wondered whether some soldier was being lynched outside. My father

went for a look but found nothing. My lifelong relationship with my mother

was vexed, I now suspect, in part because between us two

lay a lot in common. Jews were being crammed into cattle cars then,

but for Dad and those troops, the evil in Europe lay several months ahead.

Still, real or imagined, that cry of mortal misery stuck with Mother,

though no signs of nearby violence turned up next morning. The company

came en masse to mess: Shit on a Shingle, as the GIs said,

dried beef on toast. So life went on, at least for a while­ more or less.

It ought to bring comfort that I’m where I am, aging but safe, my clan

constantly swelling as sons and daughters produce their sons and daughters,

and winter, so harsh this year, giving way at last to spring, with snowdrops

glinting, the freshets making their evanescent cascades through the woods.

I recall how Mother loved this season. Why, then, this lonesome mood?

It feels that I’m in some pitch-black tunnel and won’t get out again,

that this, as the saying goes, is it, and all I’ll have at the end

­of course there can’t be anything to it­ is the sorrowful eight-note anthem

of that single owl, the sound just now having reached my vexed old head,

though I’d be foolish to think that song was addressed to anyone human.


No Consequence

..............................................................................­for Goran Simic

An eagle shot from nowhere and killed

One of two black ducklings

Without the least effort as I canoed

A mirror lake at dawn.

When the small bird disappeared, the hen

Rushed to shield the last of her brood,

Urgent as my own mind, which rushed

By habit to metaphor

And by dint of will alone stopped shy

Of the poetaster’s

For all the sad creatures. I paddled on.

So did the two that survived.

They fossicked again for surface insects,

The mother settled her feathers,

The world went ahead with its usual business,

And I thought of my Bosnian friend,

How he opts for a sturdy manner. He tells

Good jokes in the bastard English

He learned from American comic books

And talk behind the translation

Of television sitcom soundtracks.

He moves on. In spite of all.

That poor doomed duckling’s wisps of down

Floated in air like snowflakes,

Diaphanous, after the raptor snatched it,

Beautiful, backlit by sun.

I recall the eagle as a totem of splendor

While it managed its own savage business,

Even as the pitiable rasps and squalls

Of the grown duck likewise linger,

Indelible, in the brain. And so

I may just write of them soon,

Though I think how my friend beheld the brain

Of a better friend splayed against

A wall in a town so picturesque

It all but beggars the mind.

O, I’m a poet of no consequence.

The sniper picked one of a pair

Who walked a quaint old street together.

I feel guilt, not envy. Indeed,

I’m content enough in life to be

So wanting in subject matter.


Wild Black Duck

I am reducing a sauce whose recipe came down to me from my kids’ honorary grandmother, Annie Fitch of Grand Lake Stream, Maine. I hear it bubbling over the stove’s low heat; soon it will look a little like maple syrup, and in due course it will complement the wild black duck that my wife and I will be sharing this evening. I mean to grill the bird over oak coals in an outdoor hearth. I mean, how else would anyone cook it?


I lost my brilliant duck dog Topper some nineteen years ago, and have hunted few ducks since. The bitch pup who was meant to be his successor turned out to have so many major health problems ­ two intestinal surgeries before she was even two -- that I could never train her, and there hasn’t been an apt moment since to find another duck dog, three dogs already in our house quite enough.


But Topper’s death by cancer (a more and more common story among dogs in our time) coincided with other discouragements. I used to wait until the second half of our season for the ducks, the whole month of October given over to ruffed grouse over pointing dogs. But November and December ducks here have always been the migratory blacks, the red-legged ones come down from Canada, and as greater and greater chunks of precious wetland have been lost to so-called development, and as black ducks have increasingly hybridized with their more adaptable mallard cousins, the species has been badly threatened. Quite some time ago, then, federal authorities reduced the limit on black duck to one. That’s a worthy measure, but as I say, a discouragement: who wants to rise two hours before dawn, put out his spread of decoys, sit unmoving and so the more bitterly endure a brutal cold, only to take a single shot, retrieve the decoys, his fingers burning with that cold, and paddle back to the truck?


But I jump-shot this one duck, the one we’ll enjoy tonight, this past fall in Maine. The weather had been too rainy and miserable for tromping through dense brush for grouse, so my partner Dave Tobey and I floated Tomah Stream in his canoe, the vast majority of ducks too canny to let us drift up on them, but this one lingering just long enough.


My wife and I are mightily craving the evening meal. Not to have eaten wild duck for almost two-thirds of our married lives has felt like a deprivation. Not, of course, the sort of deprivation that huge portions of humanity suffer when it comes to nourishment, but one we have registered nonetheless whenever we’ve spotted a skein of fall blacks in flight overhead or dabbling far ahead of us as we paddle the Connecticut River.


Hunting ducks over decoys is very different from shooting upland birds in New England. Grouse and woodcock inhabit succession forest, the thicker the better, its edges a confoundment of berry-cane, hardhack, popple whip, and so on. Even if one is lucky enough to own a pointing dog who’ll pin a ground bird, and I’ve been multiply so blessed, the instant available to pull the trigger on each of these birds is just that­ an instant. One tends to see ducks, on the other hand, well before he can legitimately shoot at them. Often they will circle four or five times before deciding to come into range, and you use your call as expertly as you know how, hoping to draw them right over the floating blocks.


As I write this, then, I picture myself, either alone with Topper or one of his predecessors, or with bosom hunting pals, moving only my eyeballs to keep tabs on the flight. But whether consciously or not­ and it’s surely a conscious thing now­ I likewise take in the austere beauty of late autumn, the dark hues of oak leaves that cling stubbornly to riverside trees, the pilasters of mist rising straight as string from the surface; I smell the wet of Topper’s feet and shins; the sun is a pallid disc just breaching Sunday Mountain.


Life is more than worthwhile. A shame it should pass so quickly.


I recall from my childhood how Warner Brothers’ cat Sylvester would contemplate Tweetie the canary, his vision morphing into the tiny bird dressed and presented like a turkey, those small frilly leggings on either side, the perfectly browned breast steaming on a platter. I confess to similar hallucinations on spying a duck as it approaches my blind, so greatly do I prefer the taste of wild duck to that of any other wild game. Yes, undeniably, a wild duck is one of the hunter’s great treats. And yet I am certain that my own yen for the bird has something to do with memories that aren’t entirely restricted to taste.


My oldest child’s namesake, Creston MacArthur, had a tight little cabin on Third Machias Lake. He and I used to spread decoys off a certain point there, and when we were lucky, we might paddle back to the camp with five or six ducks after a morning’s hunt. After the ancient wood-fired cook stove took the chill out of our bones, we’d step outside again to dress the birds, scattering the lovely feathers to the breeze and leaving the insides down in a wetland for the minks.


Come evening, we’d kindle the outdoor fire in its ring of stones and, having caged the ducks in a basket broiler, we’d lean the handle against a section of cross-laid road grader blade, which Creston had fetched from somewhere, so that the meat stood in front of the fire and would not char.


You didn’t want to cook the duck too long; the juices still needed to run red when you cut into the meat. Creston and I would sit out there in the dark, eating the ducks with our hands as the few loons left on the lake took up their mournful wails. These were old loons, the young ones already flown to open coastal water. Under the stars of late fall, sharp as razors, we heard one another chewing, groaning, sighing with satisfaction. Now and then a fox might bark along the edge of the marsh, or a loitering bittern, who should have been gone with the young-of-the-year loons, would make that thumping sound for which Creston called the bird “post-driver.”


Those meals were good. By God, weren’t they? So were the old songs he would sing afterwards, his voice at once rough and tuneful, ones passed down by woodsmen and river-drivers: “The Shores of Gaspereau,” “The Lumberjack’s Alphabet,” “Go ‘Long, Mule,” and all the rest. I see Creston lift his chin for the high notes, his eyes near popping, his face the very picture of glee.


I miss him so badly, though he’s 40 years in the grave.


I know there was something primitive about our whole ritual. In spite of that (because of that?) there was also something, well, ritual about it too, if you’ll spare me some circular logic. Even my own family, seeking as we do to buy local meat and produce whenever possible, having insisted when our children still lived at home that we eat together as a family­ even my own family has lost some touch with that ritual basis of consuming our foodstuff. We may not resort to McDonald’s or one of its odious equivalents; we don’t consume prepared or processed food; but we do seem in a hurry: we need to get fuel into our systems like anyone, but professions and projects seem to tug at us.


Our kids are gone, four of the five married, the unwed youngest working in California. Robin and I are apt as not on certain evenings merely to scramble a couple of eggs, make a salad, and sit at the kitchen island for a quarter-hour or so before she heads off to prep a law school class and I, in my retirement, having written most of the day if I’ve been so moved, to find a suitably challenging crossword puzzle, a televised NBA game, a good novel or collection of poems. The notion of a meal as communal, bonding function appears to be fading as quickly as the art of writing letters to post, even in our rather culturally conservative house.


Tonight’s duck will do its part in contravening the anti-ritualism of modern eating habits. My wife is off teaching, and I have spent the better part of two hours getting Annie’s sauce just so (though I can’t ever get it quite to where she could; I need a little flour to thicken it, as she never did). I will split some oak logs fairly fine, so that they will break down to coals the more quickly (there I go!); I will lay a few strips of paper birch bark into the hearth, arrange adequate kindling on top of it, then tent the hardwood splits over the kindling.


I will remember chill mornings with friends of a lifetime ­Landy Bartlett, Joey Olsen, Peter Woerner, Terry Lawson­ as we waited for the ducks to give us a peek; I will remember dear dead folks I loved as well: my father, Creston himself. I’ll remember the many times around the many twilight blazes.


My history, or at least some glorious moments within it, will burst into mind as the duck’s juices burst onto my palate; in fact they have already burst into my thoughts as I write this down. It is perhaps the recollection of wood smoke that slightly burns my eyes until they water a little.


Sydney Lea

Vermont Poet Laureate 2011-2015

P. O. Box 9

Newbury, Vermont 05051

(802) 866-5458

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