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The Lord God Returns

May 24, 2011

This seemed a good title for the week after the rapture failed to happen.

I’ve been offering a sampling of poems from volumes published in 2011 in the hopes that you’ll nominate one of them for the Indie Lit Awards.

Here’s another poem published this year, “The Lord God Returns” from The Book of Ten by Susan Wood:

The day my friend died the ivory-billed woodpecker was maybe seen
in Arkansas, a bird long-thought extinct. Some say it’s an image
of loss returned as an image of hope, but I don’t know.
I’m not saying there was any correspondence,
Just an interesting coincidence I noticed when loss seemed everywhere.
That was the same month a woman rescued a pair of red-billed ducks
And their fifteen ducklings from a pond behind the Faculty Club.
Such odd birds that mate for life, the male and female
Looking exactly alike. All that afternoon I watched them
In the pond, the father perched on the concrete edge
Flapping his wings as if to warn us away, and the babies
Circling and circling behind their mother in perfect formation,
Always avoiding one small dead bird face down in the water.
There is grandeur in this view of life, Darwin wrote.
She was only forty. I don’t think she believed in that
High Church Episcopal God her parents buried her by,
But I don’t know what she believed exactly.
I believe the Lord God has returned to Arkansas, a bird
That got its name because our ancestors shouted “Lord God!”
Whenever they saw it, a bird the size of a small child,
Its jackhammer beak, a wingspan as long as a tall man’s arm.
In 1837, when Audubon came here to Houston,
He saw ivory bills nesting up and down the banks of Buffalo Bayou.
Now it’s all sludge and skyscrapers. In his famous painting,
The only place anyone has seen the bird for sixty years,
The male cocks his red head, seems to cast his beady, yellow eye
Toward the painter as if to say, “Don’t count me out!”
Of course, the birds were dead when Audubon painted them.
Later, all over the South, they flew out of the nineteenth century and disappeared
in time. But I like to think of my great-great-grandmother and her daughter
fleeing over the Ozarks, how they might have stopped
to rest their horses and heard an ivory bill BAM-bamming
in a tupelo tree, kent-kenting like a tin horn, and shouted “Lord God!”
when they looked up and saw it. Maybe they thought it was a sign
they were bound for better things when all they were bound for
was Texas, the poverty of a small town, its sharp gasps
and held breaths. Still, they were alive, the big house burned
behind them, the land burned, the husband and father,
the Welshman Cawthron, dead somewhere with the First Missouri—
Pea Ridge, Vicksburg, Nashville—gold plates and silver bridles
In the sacks of the carpetbaggers. Or that other ancestor,
My Cherokee great-great-great-grandmother, who wandered off the Trail of Tears
And onto a sharecropper’s farm, her only possession a Cherokee Bible
She couldn’t read. Maybe she stood in the dirt of that dirt-poor farm
And exclaimed “Lord God!” when her tow-headed husband
Pointed to the woodpecker in the loblolly pine.
Did it remind her of the home she’d left behind, this bird
Whose beak her tribe fashioned into coronets to crown its princesses?
Or maybe it was just a distraction in her ragtag life, the worry
Of babies dying before they were two, of cotton crops gone up in drought.
She couldn’t see me down the trail of years writing this poem
And maybe she wouldn’t have cared if she could.
But I’m here, aren’t I? At least for now. Don’t count me out.
There is grandeur in this view of life.
Funny how we hunker down in our little canoes
In the middle of the scummy green swamp and wait and wait
For hope to appear, for ghosts to die and come back as bodies.

I think I picked this poem because the recent Joplin tornado photos make me think of the first big swath of tornado destruction I ever saw. It was in Jonesboro, Arkansas, where my grandmother lived. I’ve always thought of Arkansas as a land of wonders. It was where we went to see family, where I spent as much of my summers as I could, where I went to college and enjoyed the winters that lasted for only a couple of months. It’s not hard to imagine the pine woods and a bird so big it makes people exclaim; yet another wonder.

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16 Comments leave one →
  1. freshhell permalink
    May 24, 2011 8:56 am

    I’ve never heard of a woodpecker called Lord God. Huh. I’m looking forward to the 13-year cicadas emerging. Nothing says summer like the sound of thousands of cicadas out wooing.

  2. PAJ permalink
    May 24, 2011 9:08 am

    This is a great poem and resonated with me now because of some serious health issues a family member is dealing with, but those grave concerns didn’t keep me from laughing aloud at the line
    “Maybe they thought it was a sign
    they were bound for better things when all they were bound for
    was Texas…”
    I was so hopeful that a Lord God bird had actually been spotted in Arkansas; it appears less and less likely as the years pass. But wouldn’t that bird be something to see.

    • May 24, 2011 9:12 am

      Yes, it would be something to see. Reading about it makes me feel like I do when I hear about any big bird, or flock of them, that you can no longer see. Carrier pigeons that turned the sky black? Dodos you could walk right up to?

  3. May 24, 2011 9:33 am

    And it resonated with me because of my sadness over watching the old South disappear in the wake of “progress” in the area where my parents live. A mark of a good poem, I think, is for us to be able to see many things that speak to us. Thanks for posting.

  4. May 24, 2011 9:36 am

    Thanks for sharing the poem and for highlighting the Indie Lit Awards and the upcoming nominations opening in September.

    • May 24, 2011 10:16 am

      Sometimes I get so caught up in the poem I forget to remark on the fact that I’ve been getting a lot of new poetry out of the college library to show people what’s available in terms of the newly published volumes.

  5. Mumsy permalink
    May 24, 2011 10:05 am

    I’ve known of the Ivory-Bill as the Grail Bird. It would be so amazing if they came back…

    • May 24, 2011 10:18 am

      Mumsy, as I said to Harriet above, I hadn’t heard of the term “Grail Bird” before today. What a great name! It makes me think again of one of my favorite lines from the Indiana Jones movie about the grail…”only the penitent man shall pass.”

  6. May 24, 2011 11:43 am

    What a good poem. The easy tone is deceptive. I love it when that works; my scalp crawled a little (in the good way).

    • May 24, 2011 1:25 pm

      Trapunto, your comment makes me realize that part of the reason I picked this poem out today is that I’ve been reading Total Oblivion, with its, um, obliviousness in the face of some pretty scalp-crawling events.
      Also, I’m glad to see you found me over here!

  7. May 26, 2011 8:23 pm

    I don’t know what you call this kind of poetry but I like it … it tells a story and has so much going on in different places to think about. And I love how she used the bird’s name.

    • May 26, 2011 8:56 pm

      Well, it’s narrative verse, which is just the two-dollar way of saying it tells a story. And it’s free verse, which can be defined by saying that the line breaks are what’s most interesting about it, like the one PAJ points out: “all they were bound for/was Texas…”

      And yes, the way she uses the bird’s name is one of the best things about it. The other slightly unusual thing is how she repeats phrases, from Darwin and the imagined one from Audubon’s bird.

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