Questions for Birds
I know birds are a tired presence,
so I will refrain from describing
this trill, that trill, the clamor
outside my window. I am tired
of the failure of everyone,
the brothers across our alley
striking the concrete, a stampede
of seven-year-old feet. Again,
they squawk back at the row
of crows roosting the neighbor’s
rooftop, stopping to ask
about my older child, “is it
a boy or a girl?” “No person
is an ‘it,’” I chide and do not
smile. The brothers love being
brothers as sparrows must love
being sparrows, swirling majestic
oaks each dawn, crying, “I’m awake!
I’m awake!” Gold-limbed and no
repentance, they flee from me,
still asking “But what is it?”
of my child, their age, who pivots
to better see the panoply
of flocks, the clean sweep that
fall migration makes of the sky.
Which one am I? Which warbler,
which wood thrush will name a self
to a self: a child is a master
of looking and of looking
away. I know what I promised,
that you are tired of the birds, there
in the open, their departure
a path for return. Why come back?
You, who tire easily; the brothers,
clueless to cruelty – their own and
mine; the neighbors, who hesitate
to cross the alley; the cat, who nightly
slaughters; myself, who permits
too much self—
Today I told a man
“I am not you,” meaning:
here are our differences, let us meet.
I watch his careful hands soften
around the gray porcelain face
of a teacup, the calm shuttering
of his lashes against steaming
Darjeeling. I am listening, listening.
All around strangers cradle us
in their restless din and ignore the story
he’s telling me, years rioting
against the fallacies of form
to become a man. Dear Reader,
you do not know my children, or
the flickering lights in the alley
that revise our city into a hazy galaxy,
or how once my dog walked me
to a field of harvest wheat, a poem
I’d read and loved in my dreams.
That I am mother to a question,
that my own answer to gender
has been without disquiet is
the world’s flaw, not yours. One day,
we’ll be old friends. One day,
the brothers will open in their palms
a book of shame, words that spill
and disappear and spill again. In the quiet
of the man’s pauses, I stop myself
from asking, “What is it? What is it?”
When Icarus fell out of the sky,
I was driving my sons to the river.
Mama, what’s that?
Bird, I said,
because I couldn’t say tragedy.
Too young to understand
of trusting a parent,
my sons noted wings
like feet kicking at the earth
from the clouds.
This was yesterday. We were nearing
the Anacostia, racing along
a ribbon of highway—
falling child, is ingenuity
or are you?
I think of my father
and the experiment
of his life. He had a faith in fate
that bloomed with age,
his godlike folly, and sang
the ceaseless blaze of the sun. Even now
I swell with love for him,
and with terrible shame.
It is too easy
to not see Icarus hit the water,
fathoms deep, culled into
the river’s unrelenting rhythms, dead
while every father
somehow keeps flying,
even mine. It is too easy
to hide in elegy, pretending I know
what to mourn, as if art were
no accident, as if my sons
for snacks in the backseat,
each a radius of chaos
that love renames exquisite
and nature. The bird
forgotten; the father
and his reluctant acolyte,
both worn out by glory,
are once and for all apart—
who am I protecting?
When I fell from the sky,
I was finally free.
This poem is part of Poetry Northwest’s “Life List” feature.
Jennifer Chang is the author of The History of Anonymity and Some Say the Lark, which received the 2018 William Carlos Williams Award. She has new poems forthcoming in American Poetry Review, The Believer, A Public Space, and Yale Review, and her essays on poetry and poetics have appeared in Blackwell’s Companion to the Harlem Renaissance, Los Angeles Review of Books, New England Review, New Literary History, the Oxford Encyclopedia of Asian American Literature and Culture, and The Volta. She currently lives in Washington, DC, but will soon be moving to Austin, TX, to begin teaching at the University of Texas this fall.