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Each Bird Walking

June 26, 2012

It’s been a while since I’ve written about a poem. I haven’t been reading them the same way I usually do; I think it’s because I’ve had a certain one stuck in my head and until I write about it, I can’t turn my attention to any of the others. But I haven’t wanted to write about it.

“Each Bird Walking” is a poem by Tess Gallagher which I discovered back when I was newly married, when it was first published in the early 1980’s. It gave me a deeper perspective on intimacy, even though the love seems to be going the same way as the mother.

This is the poem I’ve had on my mind since the second week of November, when I made my last visit to see my father. On the night I arrived, he woke up enough to talk a little. He pointed out that you could see “a dead man” in part of a painting that had been hanging on his bedroom wall all the days of my life. He was unresponsive the next day, when a home health care nurse came to bathe him and my mother asked me to help her turn and lift him. I think he could feel what we were doing, but he couldn’t react except to moan a bit when I moved him, which I kept hoping was not because he fully realized what was happening.  He was farther gone than the mother in the poem; he died the next morning, soon after I left.

This is the story the poem keeps telling, that last care-taking. It was the poem in my mind every time I had to go to the grocery store and avoid looking at the aisle of Father’s Day cards.

Each Bird Walking

Not while, but long after he had told me,
I thought of him, washing his mother, his
bending over the bed and taking back
the covers. There was a basin of water
and he dipped a washrag in and
out of the basin, the rag
dripping a little onto the sheet as he
turned from the bedside to the nightstand
and back, there being no place

on her body he shouldn’t touch because
he had to and she helped him, moving
the little she could, lifting so he could
wipe under her arms, a dipping motion
in the hollow. Then working up from
the feet, around the ankles, over the
knees. And this last, opening
her thighs and running the rag firmly
and with the cleaning thought
up through her crotch, between the lips,
over the V of thin hairs,–

as though he were a mother
who had the excuse of cleaning to touch
with love and indifference
the secret parts of her child, to graze
the sleepy sexlessness in its waiting
to find out what to do for the sake
of the body, for the sake of what only
the body can do for itself.

So his hand, softly at the place
of his birth-light. And she, eyes deepened
and closed in the dim room.
and because he told me her death as
important to his being with her,
I could love him another way. Not
of the body alone, or of its making,
but carried in the white spires of trembling
until what spirit, what breath we were
was shaken from us. Small then,
the word holy.

He turned her on her stomach
and washed the blades of her shoulders, the
small of her back. “That’s good,” she said,
“that’s enough.”

On our lips that morning, the tart juice
of the mothers, so strong in remembrance, no
asking, no giving, and what you said, this
being the end of our loving, so as not to hurt
the closer one to you, made me look
to see what was left of us
with our sex taken away. “Tell me,” I said,
“something I can’t forget.” Then the story of
your mother, and when you finished
I said, “That’s good, that’s enough.”

When a person has had enough, sometimes you have to decide that’s good. I think this helpless conclusion is part of how the title works–birds should fly, but if walking is all a bird can do, that’s better than just lying there. And when the body is finally still, what you have felt for it doesn’t go away. If you work hard, you might be able to recapture some of the glory of its flight by imitation. By art, in Tess Gallagher’s case. By continuing to say some of the things my father always said and do some of the things he used to do, in my case.

My best attempt at imitation is getting something for someone who wants it and telling them that it was “free today.” My father’s day card is free today.

15 Comments leave one →
  1. June 26, 2012 7:29 am

    Wow. That’s an incredible poem. I’m going to be thinking about this one for a while.

  2. June 26, 2012 10:15 am

    I have a cousin who has been a primary caretaker for his paralyzed mother for about twelve years. I’m struck by how much he has to do for her every day – your poem fits that beautifully.

    • June 27, 2012 8:06 am

      That would be a different feeling from the one the poem gives me, which is a feeling of compressed time, because you know this person doesn’t have much left. Unless he’s felt that way for twelve years.

  3. June 26, 2012 5:30 pm

    What has always amazed me is how poetry can not only touch us, but hold on until we recognize that it is speaking to us, and not let go until we understand with our hearts.

    We’ve buried all four parents now as well as our 28 year old son, but the hardest thing for me to hear is, “That’s good, that’s enough.” Letting go is hard.

    Like you, I have moments of imitation and somehow they’re not gone. Pieces of them continue on, and even one day when no one remembers who they were, a part of them will continue.

    I’m sorry for babbling. Both the poem and your sharing touched me deeply and I thank you.

    • June 27, 2012 8:10 am

      It’s hard to talk about this stuff, as well as to live it. I’m sorry about your son. That sounds even harder.
      I’m glad the poem touched you, though, and that you could comment at this length, which is not babbling but sharing its effect.

  4. June 27, 2012 5:24 pm

    I’m struck by how you find and and hold onto and weave these poems into your consciousness – is that accurate? It’s just something I’ve not done or wouldn’t/don’t recognize as something I might have done. But surely, I have read a poem and it meant something. But it has been forgotten. You hold on. I really admire that about you.

    Poetry is just so intimate.

    • June 27, 2012 5:44 pm

      Yes, that’s quite accurate; I do weave poems into my consciousness and think about them as I go through the days. The holding on part is accurate, too, but occasionally people find the way I hold on to everything less than endearing!

  5. June 27, 2012 9:00 pm

    Still teary. My father died in 1996 and my step-father died last year on June 20. “That’s good, that’s enough” is a statement full of tenderness and brutality.

  6. June 27, 2012 10:17 pm

    Yes, “brutality” is a good word for it. When people would ask how he was in October, we would say, “well, he’s dying.” It seemed brutal, but there really wasn’t any other answer to give.

  7. June 28, 2012 12:04 am

    “Parting is all we know of Heaven, and all we need know of Hell.”

  8. June 28, 2012 2:24 pm

    Your connection with poetry is something I am still working on… Great post!

    • July 2, 2012 11:34 am

      Jeanne is amazing at this! Kelly, I love that this is one of your goals. I know think both of you need a post card poem. I’ll work on it…

  9. July 1, 2012 11:44 am

    “….avoid looking at the aisle of Father’s Day cards.” I think _your_ poem is in here.

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