Two Poems

Bird Watching at East 38th & Chicago Ave.

What did the house sparrow witness
from asphalt level,
down where spring softened tar
and winter rough gravel
ground life to stuck,
slowed it to stopped
where discarded chewed-up
tropical fruit bubble yum
gummed to the collective treading
of God only knows how many soles,
heels, flip flops, Jordan 1’s,
wedges, worn loafers,
knock-offs, skippies
with the broke down backs—
having stepped
in every kind of putrid thing,
dog shit, pigeon shit, sparrow shit,
the taint of oil slicked
from loose linked
last decade failing internal combustions,
spit hocked out, vomit hurled,
sidewalk piss-syruped
yellow, spilled Sprite,
swarms of virus waiting to infect,
spots of snot slick antifreeze dripped-drop-dripped slime green
in climate changed premature
Twin Cities’ heat,
bits of pocket lint,
an account overdrawn receipt for
negative $43.17,
a gutter grounded stigmata-stained
Stayfree Maxi with wings clipped,
pennies not worth two cents next to half torn losing raffle tickets,
cigarillo—hint of grape—halfway done,
drawn down butts of Newport menthols,
paid for
with non-counterfeit cash,
the co-mingled urban amalgam
most unrecognizable—
of stank sweet,
funky ass city center scent,
the convergence of all things
tossed, dropped,
discarded, flipped out, excreted—
Humane—but mostly not.
And that one waxy cold orphan fry
(that will actually never rot)
fallen from the Micky D’s number 3
Quarter pounder with cheese
medium (upsized to large) order
that seduced the sparrow
(the Passeridae formerly known as English)—
down from the wire
to the level of a real tall
Black man’s
systematically flattened
road-rashed jowl,
droopy eye mashed to unblinking,
likely tearing,
crying—but involuntarily into the imperviously surfaced
sight fading.
Going slowly blind to any light
that would ever be again,
for him.
Lungs rattling last gasps,
dry-spittled fleshy thick
Motherland lips
kissing all that unspeakable filth.
Calling for a Mama
already dead
to come, to help the son
who soon would be.
The actual live human dying
if he could breathe,
or see through strangulated
blood-tinted eyes enough
to watch birds,
might smile
or wonder on its name,
but is otherwise occupied
that blue sky
that blue serve & protect knee—

I wonder,
what did the house sparrow see?

What the Starling Said

The European starling,
more American than most
on two legs
but without benefit of a hyphen
to prove cross continental citizenship
sat high on an electric wire
mellow buzzed breeding plumage
off Loud
weed cloud upward wafting,
sagged cutting catty-corner between
what was 38th and Chicago Ave—
soon to be named for the human
no longer in existence—
shook its yellow-beaked head
reshuffled spangles
sun sheening
on immigrant iridescence
knowing the status
of being neither
served nor protected by law
or gifted benefit of any doubt
or common decency,
and subject therefore
to the
same suffocating ends
as the corpse
crumpled in the street,
before whatever little “g”
white gods
watch over dark hued beings,
let loose proclamation
that rose above the din
to more metal on metal
raged screech
than smooth practiced speech,
before joining the evening
murmuration in protest.
Sturnus vulgaris,
neither profane or dirty
kept vigil,
sat murmuring
to the flock gathered to watch
organized by empathy on the issue
of whose existences mattered.
that black life
Rain ovdid not.

This poem is part of Poetry Northwest’s “Life List” feature.

Ornithologist, naturalist, essayist and poet, J. Drew Lanham is the author of the poetry collection Sparrow Envy: Field Guide to Birds and Lesser Beasts (Hub City Press, 2021) and The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature (Milkweed Editions, 2017 ), which received the Reed Award from the Southern Environmental Law Center and the Southern Book Prize, and was a finalist for the John Burroughs Medal. Lanham’s essays and poetry have appeared in numerous magazines and journals including Orion, Audubon, Forest Ecology and Management, and the Oxford American,and in several anthologies, including The Colors of Nature and State of the Heart. He is a contributing editor for Orion. Lanham is an Alumni Distinguished Professor of Wildlife Ecology, Master Teacher, and Certified Wildlife Biologist at Clemson University where he works in the Forestry and Environmental Conservation Department. He was an inaugural fellow of the Audubon-Toyota Together Green Initiative and is an Advisory Council member of the North American Association for Environmental Education. Lanham is the poet laureate of Edgefield, South Carolina. Lanham is a 2022 recipient of a prestigious MacArthur Fellowship from the MacArthur Foundation.