May 2001

R.T. Smith


R.T. Smith’s Split The Lark: Selected Poems ( 2000) and Messenger (2001) are both from Louisiana State University Press. He has been published in Kenyon Review, Triquarterly, Poetry, and Southern Review. He is the editor of Shenandoah.

Demotic    Click to hear in real audio

Under the owl's wing
and over the drive and scribble
of oak roots just an hour

before dawn, the cicadas
cling to bark to resemble it
and drill the air

on the amber occasion
just before autumn,
when grief and shivaree

are the only appetites
that endure, and if I wake
to hear their chorus

as the pulse of darkness,
I know the elegant shells
will litter the grass,

each a split visage, while
what I remember will become
sheer song, if I listen hard,

even if I listen wrong.



Birdie    Click to hear in real audio

We called her Birdie, Miss Owl.
Why not? Intent of whatever soared,
she sat at the window in a chair
with silver wheels. Her nurse kept
the feeders filled—sunflower, millet,
peanut chips for anything winged.
She watched us flit between conifers.
Cherokee braves on the warpath
or buccaneers, we crept from hedge
to lily bed, too cunning for her eyes,
we thought. With rocks, we aimed
to knock feathers from the trees.

When my mother said the shut-in
from her next door nest had sent
for me, I didn't want the Ritz crackers,
persimmon jam and lemonade tea.
I feared the words she had to say.
Spiffed up anyway, I went daily
for two weeks and listened stiffly.
"You're blessed," she'd tell me,
"with legs of a heron, a boy's voice."
I stared at glass-eyed wrens in a case,
as she explained preening, flight
patterns, the crest of a rampant jay.

Her parlor was pastel, medicine scent,
lavender and dust. Field guides
opened on pictures of a magpie,
a mockingbird flaunting his wampum.
She taught me how to eclipse
their common names with Latin
and Greek—"tyto albus," "mimus," "perdix"— 
when to catch them splashing the bath
or anting. I gobbled the sweets
and couldn't wait to leave. At last,
she said, "Remember, you're blessed."
I swore I'd never look back,

but she sent me an Audubon book.
Soon, cardinals thrashed in the inch
of water I left. Cowbirds swarked,
and chickadees paused on the eave.
I knew she perched above, gazing
through opera specs, extending
her life list or whistling up doves.
She could even be sketching
feathers and beaks or spinning
straw to stuff a goldfinch breast.
I ran to the creek with my mates
and said she was batty, half-blind.

The chosen boy who had escaped,
I called her "Birdie" and flapped
my skinny arms as I chirped.
With every fallen feather I found,
I prayed she wouldn't mind.



R.T. Smith: Poetry
Copyright 2001 The Cortland Review Issue 16The Cortland Review