Today’s poem is an eerie parable, fairly characteristic of Kevin Prufer’s recent work. His poems are haunting because they are genuinely and fascinatingly haunted. His speakers don’t seem to be thinly disguised versions of Prufer – rather, they seem to express different moods of a postmodern Tiresias, emoting with a stunned but mutedly down-to-earth credibility. They speak with a dual awareness of their isolation and the fact that their feelings and impressions must also represent those of others. Perhaps the best introduction to my favorite kind of Prufer voice is to imagine a Greek play’s chorus collapsed into a single omni-reflective persona, placed in the context of a recently collapsed political/cultural system, in an alternately snowy or sooty landscape stripped of natural fertility and even stability on the geological, planetary level. I could go on – but I’d rather you just read the following poem, which appeared in New Ohio Review 8, Fall 2010.
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A Giant Bird
Its great heart pounded like the distant sea
wounding itself against the cliffs.
We lived in its shade.
Sometimes, my daughter ran her fingers along that part of the breast
that swagged low over our camp.
It’s beautiful, she said, smoothing a feather’s twig-like barbs,
gazing past our mountain toward the burning cities.
What kind of bird is it?
Some feathers were tawny, others tinged a perfect white.
Is it a sparrow?
It may be a sparrow.
Is it an owl?
I can’t see its face.
An eagle? I think it’s an eagle.
We often played this game.
The breezes made trails of the smoke
that rose from the distant burning cities.
Those people worshipped golden eagles.
We saw the statues winking on their plazas in the sunset.
Sometimes, it would soar beyond the mountains to the sea,
its black shadow slipping over the valleys.
But always it returned by evening, settling gently over us again.
I knew it was an eagle
from the talons curling beneath its down,
and the set of its enormous wings.
I’d become accustomed to the fingers of smoke
that rose on windless summer days.
What are they doing?
They’re killing each other.
Why are they killing each other?
The bird shifted on blood-stained talons, resettled itself.
Why are they killing each other?
Their golden eagles glistened in the sun.
Sometimes, one city had acquired all the golden eagles.
Sometimes another city had them, or a third.
Sometimes, the golden eagles were distributed evenly among them all.
we did not worry about the rain, nor the heat of the sun,
except when the bird rose from our cliffs
and vanished in the direction of the sea
where, we knew, it ate.
we learned it fed on men who fished in boats along the shore.
it ate captured soldiers
chained to highly decorated rafts and set adrift.
You will have predicted by now
that one day the bird did not return.
All month, the cities in the valley had been quiet,
as if they’d forged a peace.
The weather, too, was sultry and unshifting.
Then up from the distant cliffs that tumbled toward the sea,
a lighter plume of smoke arose,
and when the sea winds turned, we smelled upon them burning flesh.
After they’d devoured it—
after they’d stripped the meat from its bones,
after they’d fed cubes of its heart to their dogs,
after they’d hung its talons from the doorways
of their holy places—
they built from its bones a scaffolding,
then fastened to it feathers made of worn-out sails.
Its beak they built from the bound-together hulls
of two wrecked ships.
there’s peace in the newly gentle cities,
and freedom I had not expected.
The valley is cool when the winds rise up from the sea.
Sometimes I walk the long path from my house near the east gate,
down the ravine and up the other side,
where I come across what remains of our home.
It towers over me, its canvas ragged and whipping in the breeze,
its lashed-together bones grown white and creaking.
You people with your fancies and distractions
don’t remember how it brooded over this valley,
how lovely it must have been, talons outstretched,
diving seawards in your afternoons.
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Spooky and serene at once, Prufer’s speaker seems simultaneously to be trapped inside the circumstances and distanced from them. It’s got some of the dreamy narrative aggression of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” but with a quasi-futuristic chill.
Once again, I couldn’t get the lineation to behave within the blog template, so if you’d like to see the poem lineated as Prufer intended, please visit New Ohio Review’s website and click on issue 8 (www.ohio.edu/nor). You can also hear him read it on our NORaudio page.
Kevin Prufer is the author of five books of poetry and the editor of four anthologies, the most recent of which are In a Beautiful Country (Four Way Books, 2011), National Anthem (Four Way Books, 2008), New European Poets (Graywolf Press, 2008; with Wayne Miller) and Dunstan Thompson: on the Life and Work of a Lost American Master (Unsung Masters Series, 2010; w/ D. A. Powell). Prufer is also Editor-at-Large of Pleiades, and Professor in the Creative Writing Program at the University of Houston.
See you next week, you people with your fancies and distractions. – JAR