Every Bird is One Bird
by Francine Sterle
“Here is a poetry of hope “with a bruised hue,” of grace… Francine Sterle’s language brings forth this carefully observed world with a precise and almost electrical fragrance. Her poems inform, illumine, and sustain this human life we share with the wider life of being.” —Jane Hirshfield
Co-winner of the Tupelo Press Editors’ Prize, Every Bird is One Bird explores the intimate and intricate relationships that exist between untamed nature—the world we watch—and inwardness—the world we sense. These poems disclose the unending and essential flow between the two. Fiercely beautiful, they convey an emotional involvement that aspires to pure song.
“Here is a poetry of hope “with a bruised hue,” of grace… Francine Sterle’s language brings forth this carefully observed world with a precise and almost electrical fragrance. Her poems inform, illumine, and sustain this human life we share with the wider life of being.—Jane Hirshfield
Nominated for the Northeastern Minnesota Book Award
Co-Winner of the 2000 Tupelo Press Editor’s Prize in Poetry
Entering the Landscape
1. A tree adapts to a position.
Dropped on a rock, the chance seed
steals nourishment where it can–
a lip of water, some flowerless moss.
Roots slender as spiders’ legs
grip with a bold tenacious hold
the stone’s uneven surface,
push down into a hairline crevice,
push deeper and deeper, not stopping
until they touch the transforming soil.
2. No more liberated seeds
or winged, crimson-tinted fruit.
What’s planted grows.
The soil sends up its fixed idea,
shapes it into a shoot, a branch,
a bud. When a leaf appears
saw-toothed or bristle-tipped
or deeply fluted as a fish’s fin,
it’s easy to forget the time spent
packed in the bud, folded there
like a fan or rolled to fit
the tiny dome from which it rose.
3. The gods grow lean.
Disappearing a split second
before he reaches her,
right there on the riverbank,
earth and water joining forces
so that the laurel will thrive,
so that Apollo, starved of love
by Cupid’s wrathful arrow,
will have to watch as her feet
turn to roots that churn
into packed black earth, as bark
girds her girlish frame, rises
from toes to knees to stomach,
bark stretching up her fingers
to her wrists to her trembling arms,
bark spreading slowly across
her tender chest, her pale,
pale neck, bark inching higher
to obliterate her face, Apollo
dumbstruck by the weight of her
numb, petrified flesh, by the suddenly
cold heart, the rigid jaw, blocked ears,
by the unblinking eyes, the wooden
thighs, the newly unmoving lips.
The god’s eyes widen as she
dips and bends, as her green skirt
sways, her mythic limbs rising
as a lover’s might, but turn away
when he reaches to her cheek, touches
a blossoming pink twig, touches her leathery
leaves, those crooked, unyielding boughs.
4. What a torturous shape for a tree:
a straying crown, flimsy foliage,
the rugged homeliness of the bark,
a leggy trunk artless as a pencil,
the scant, unbalanced branches.
A large snapped bough dangles
downhill over an eroded bank.
Low sun lights the pendent branch
where hoarfrost has collected.
How clumsy it looks under its burden;
how cold against the snow-charged sky.
Its isolation attracts attention
the way a misshapen bush atop
a barren hilltop becomes a landmark.
No question where the eye will come to rest.
Though not as pleasing as the downy-coated
poplar, the polished holly, I’ve been given
this tree to plant in the soil of the page.
5. Let a tree be a tree.
Let its form intensify.
Bark of all barks.
Crown of crowns.
Let a tree be a tree
pushing toward the day’s
simple light, turning
the way the wind turns,
turning as a flame
turns in the fire
when dried wood burns.
6. Illuminated by moonlight,
trees lose their detail.
From a distance,
even a well-trained eye
cannot see leaf scars
or scale-covered buds,
cannot determine the ratio
between short and long shoots,
cannot distinguish tree needles
flat as nail heads from four-
sided ones that exude a skunky
odor when they’re crushed.
Only the shape is unique,
conforming to the habit of the tree.
Differences exist between
a steeple-shaped balsam fir
and a towering white spruce
even as blue panoramic shadows
fill the hollows between branches,
tier upon tier disappearing in the dusk.
7. In Delphi, the Pythian priestess
chewed leaves to induce oracular powers.
The moment the gods
poured their prophecies into her,
she must have cried out
as purely as a bird.
A note swelled inside her.
Birdsong spread through the boughs.
Music that’s never stopped arriving.
8. In the expansive territory
between night and day,
sleep sways through dreaming trees,
through visionary evergreens,
Breathing air scented by quilled pines,
we wake to find the parent bough
and its straying offshoots, an aging
elm log, ready for firewood,
breaking into blossom, the just
record of time and stress
seen in that gaunt skeleton
determined to defy
another century of storms.
Withdrawing into ourselves,
we take the world with us
and invent, all over again,
the circumference of our lives.
9. After an exquisite gray
washes over wintry trees
and familiarity fades,
dropping its leaves; after
shadows fall without distinction
and the road blurs into the bank,
the bank into the thicket; after
the cadence of falling snow,
the surrender that comes
with melting sunlight; after the resinous
sweetness of a forest, the habitual
wind, the theatrical landscape;
after the solitude, the harsh
solitude; after the inwardness,
the exile to the wooded slope;
after the vitality of the stalk,
the suave lines of a budding twig;
after the subtle undulations of a stem
and the graceful rhythm of a branch
and the dance, the dance
you must enter to understand,
my words crop the underwood
and sky breaks through tilting leaves
and the very quality of air is a poem.
It starts with a tranquil thread,
a few more, then more and more.
A landscape is woven in:
nature’s ubiquitous wick
announces itself in the invading grass,
grain-laden fields, in the commanding
canopy of a forest, the primal wash of the sea.
It demands attention in the edible,
vegetable world. It marries
every single flower. Hope claims it,
offering renewal, reproduction, youth.
Nothing can surpass it. It is impossible
to count its hues and shades and tints.
It is the color of vines and pines,
ferns and frogs, of stems and stalks.
It expresses love, justice,
the infancy of the world,
the light of the spirit. It blossoms
inside me, but there are days
relentless in their lack of promise
when the ambivalent fuse of joy
turns toward nausea, envy, ignorance.
It becomes a poisonous snake,
some slime, mold, pus, bad baloney.
It is a cancerous tumor, a maturing
bruise, disemboweled viscera.
Corrosive, it eats away at my life.
It is a paradox I cannot get my mind
around. In the midst of all this life
why so many thoughts of death?
I try to get back a thread of inspiration.
What stops me? Like Nero, peering
through a polished emerald to watch
starving lions devour Christians,
I indulge it: the malignance,
the malaise, the mystery. I am gullible
to its charms. Stripped of everything
good in this world, I wait for a single
tendril to emerge, wait all day if I must
for the sedge and the spruce and the sage.
1. Found stunned northside of Townline Road,
the snowy owl drove boxed in my car
two hours to reach the raptor volunteer
who held the half-blind bird overnight
then rode four more hours before
delivering it, disoriented,
to a steel table where men
took a silver scalpel to its head.
2. In my cupped hand, the real
fruit of Eden: smooth, leathery,
thick-skinned, forbidden for its
crimson juice, thin vesicles,
dripping pulp. The venous-
colored seed Persephone welcomed
into her mouth. It was the owl
perched at the threshold of Hell
who saw her swallow, who
denounced her for obediently
swallowing. It was the owl.
3. A deep sweetness on the tongue.
The simple yes I give
to the things I love.
4. Thrashing in the closed
coffin of that box, the owl punched
holes in old cardboard where
the hooked beak broke through.
Specks of blood and battered feathers
littered the makeshift nest.
No matter the effort,
wings failed to bring it to flight.
5. Over the pitched spine of an abandoned barn,
a ghostly owl, over
snow rows and fence posts,
over chips of bottle glass flashing
in a ditch and the deserted
over the emotional weight of that road,
it crosses straight out in front of me,
and the car so accurate as it skids
on ice, slides trunk-first into a tree.
6. Where the moon has been shining,
a predatory eye
and something breathing
beyond the gate where the cemetery lies.
7. Like pond lilies floating open,
drape my gloved hand,
but I feel claws leafing out,
gripping me, not wanting to let go.
Behold the convulsive dive,
the heartstopping drop as it breaks
a crust of snow to take exactly what it wants.
8. A savage, unlucky creature,
the Chinese say, terrifying
because it devours the mother.
Yet how do you judge one
that eats what it sees,
sees what it eats?
9. The moon: no light of its own–
it is all reflection.
10. Those milky wings hunt me
into the night as if I were harmless
as a field mouse or tree frog
but a penny of consciousness
as it dies. My eyes close.
I whirl down,
a tide of bones at my feet.
11. One eye changes places
with another. The owl swivels its neck,
sees me with one good eye. A moon appears,
and I float there, my reflection
gliding in icy light. There I am
fully seen for the first time.
There I am, fingers brushing its neck–
out of foolishness or arrogance
or grace–stroking it as I would
a lover’s brow, touching my lips
to the dangerous pillow of its head.
1. In winter, I tunnel through snow.
In spring, it’s the plow.
A thousand cuts in the field.
In summer, a thorn
scrapes a bloody furrow in my skin.
Ditches fill with color.
Trees, once green, go bare to the top.
My feet make a trench in the leaves
as an insistent bee
rises from the underbrush.
Does it expect to soothe me
when it kisses my hand?
2. I wanted you
as mush as you ever
but I waited
while the first gray hairs
appeared on my head,
waited for the stars’
glacial drift around a snowy comet
that comes once a century,
its fading tail
luminous as fishline,
waited for the other woman
to die or divorce,
waited long after I refused.
I was left waiting
while bees hummed in their hives
and winter choked
the river’s throat with ice.
3. Amid green thumbs of weeds,
a most common flower
sends up from masses of dark,
deeply-cut leaves, tall blue blossoms.
Just opened, it lures a visiting bee
that zigzags flower to flower,
disappears inside a petal’s puckered skirt.
Eurydice, I think. When I turn, a head
powdered with white pollen emerges,
and the shadow mine makes
moves plant by plant around the garden.
4. The day I found
the plump corpse of a bee
lying motionless on the window sill,
I held it in my hand.
Cradling its velvet-coated body,
I noticed my own lifeline
like an arrow underneath it,
while outside, toiling bees
crisscrossed in the sun.
Consider the bee and see how she labours.
5. Everywhere in the exotic
flowering of that garden, bees
soared and hovered, wings
beating the air, heart-shaped heads
visible on honeysuckle and catkins
collecting acres of pollen, the world
astir around me. It was there,
between the dense notes of your pulse,
you kissed me, bewildered
about where to place this moment
given our complicated lives.
Days later the tremor you sent through me
returned: the aftershock of bees
drawing nectar to make
a single drop of honey.
6. Look at the beehive you’ve made of my heart
Look at the swarm clustering around me
and the wax I use
trying to seal myself off
Look at what you’ve become
clumsy and mulish
Look at yourself
nosing the feathery ferns
the milky-colored mushrooms
ignoring the dizzy funnel of bees at your back
Look at the muscles bunch in your legs
then stretch the long length of a tree
Look at your claws thrusting toward me
your muzzle smeared
by the dripping honey
Look at me tremble
Look at the paper-thin comb
wedged between my ribs
Look at it
then tell me again how the wind you miss
sleeps in my hair
about the tangled hues in my eyes.
7. Inhabited by bees.
Spring still burning in my eyes.
The intricate dance
home from the flower.
In my deepest thoughts,
the smell of the hive.
I surrender to it all.
My heart is thick with pleasure,
but I’ll tell you
about the holes inside,
I’ve worked for years to fill.
8. A secluded nest
breathing beneath my ribs.
A scent of clover in the air.
Certain summer nights
love comes to me
frantic for meaning.
I haven’t got the answer,
but I know how honey
sweetens the tongue,
how my own blood hums
from the bee’s nimble bite.
9. First the swarm tone,
then a dense cloud forming,
the impetuous flight
to limb or random stump,
fence or ladder where bees
alight. Are these the ones
Aristaeus saw sicken and die,
that touched the lips of Pindar
and Plato laying helplessly
in their cradles, that crossed
the lips of St. Ambrose
before entering his mouth?
10. The greedy bee
returning to its hive
with sticky feet, a packed pollen basket,
looks half-drunk from venturing
beyond the petal’s crease
and into the trumpet-throated lily
left drooping on the garden wall.
It drones, the same sound
that flows through my veins
as we sleep, side by side
across a continent, our words
holding us together like the thin
cells of a hive. Is this the unhesitating life
I was meant to lead?
Many chambers? Much noise?
11. From my pursed mouth,
a single word
works its way out
like a pillow feather
then floats to the floor,
but I’m not ready for the truth,
cannot ask who or when or why.
Why bother with explanations
when my tongue is dead in my mouth,
and thoughts half-crazed in my head.
I stare out at a frozen landscape,
at moonlit gardens of ice
spreading over the fields,
at a fraction of light, so far off,
shining at me from the other side.
12. A hum of bees from dry lips
all night in my ear:
a swarm of words inside a crimson flower.
It clings to me–the sugary
smear of honey on my hands,
pollen dusting my breast.
What frightens me awake,
lighting a flame deep in my cheek?
I fly out of myself,
all that we love between us.
13. From an open window,
a breeze blows in
thin bandages of fog.
The black night softens.
On the fringe of audibility,
the truth draws near.
14. The moment they’d sensed
thick puffs of smoke
filling the hive
the feral bees forgot their tending
and readied themselves
to abandon it.
Gorged on honey,
too full to bend
into stinging position
for defense, the docile workers
forgot how singlemindedly
they’d returned from those snow asters
spreading through the meadow.
Spooked by fire
from a smoldering bee smoker
that smelled of pine needles
and sumac bobs, they ate their way
into a stupor while the beekeeper
cut that dead limb and carried it away.
15. When your letter appeared,
I held it for an hour, remembering
the way our bodies joined
one last time to say good-bye.
I barely spoke for a month,
my words falling away
as I stared at snow swirling
a thousand miles between us.
Not even a warm day
could woo me into the world
to watch the bees’ brief
You never wrote again, but
I will tell you about memory,
the crust it formed so I could heal,
the scab I picked until it bled.
16. For months winter disguised
the hidden hive body
nobody touched, but after spring
melted the last snow from my hand
and all that was unsaid
vanished in a river of water,
the slow-headed bees
dropped from the comb
one by one, half-starved,
the colony so strong
they’d run out of food
weeks before any flowers would bloom.
I put out pots of sugared syrup
to save them. It was only a matter of time.
How could I stop those clumsy,
richly-veined wings from stirring inside?
17. How sharply the thorn stuck in my finger,
how reliable my blood
making its own rose in my hand,
and this memory of you:
the flower didn’t feel
when it fell …
Certain Moments Come
1. The sludge-colored truck,
speeding toward its next delivery,
braked with a blind
mechanical strength, skidded
fifty feet, rammed my car
broadside, didn’t stop–
the rutted gravel road
slid past, and rust-red leaves
lashed across the windshield,
and wind made dust
to cover up what happened.
Blood gurgled up my throat
while the suddenly tilting world
touched my forehead
with its dizzy thoughts.
I was so alone, so startled by it.
What’s dead and dying
fills the autumn air.
I smell it wherever I go.
2. On the October tree:
three shriveled leaves, drab
brown and barely hanging on.
An idle gust of wind blows them
into the hurt world whose piles
dry at my feet. Bundled children–
ah, the plump wings of their arms–
play among damaged limbs, cut
branches, wind-bent weeds. Everything
will feed the fire. It’s as if winter
steals the leaves, and a skeleton,
a skeleton stands for your life.
3. Dead light from a star far away
shines off fields of frosted stubble
picked clean by hungry crows.
Cold and lost in thought, I follow
a loosened string of fencewire,
my aching lungs a honeycomb of ice.
Spotting a discarded feather, I bring its velvet
delicacy to my cheek. One simple gesture
unlocks the heart. Blackbird, blackbird,
your discomforting cries come alive in my mouth.
4. Three inches of new snow
and a full moon in the garden
and the dozens of ways
we’ve learned to say I love you.
It was a kind of aphrodisiac–
the world opening again to possibility–
but this time, the words we spoke
were cancer and surgery,
and in that exaggerated moment,
we reached out as if for the last time,
already knowing what the world
would come to mean without the other,
but I was not prepared for your blood everywhere–
between our legs, on our bellies, streaked
across the sheets. Sharp cries filled the room
as we rushed to wash ourselves clean,
not yet ready for the final question
we ask about our lives, not yet ready …
as water bled red down the drain’s cold throat.
5. Dumped back into darkness.
Everyone gets a turn. It happens
even to saints this temptation
to despair. It might begin with a few
discontented branches rising then falling
with the saddest of gestures. It might
start one snowy day when the world
goes deaf to your voice. You sigh
but no one hears. The sky is gray.
The river creeps by with its mushy ice.
Sometimes a dream will get you there
when the one you love appears pale
and statue-still in a gravedigger’s cart.
The future yellows like old corn
left too long on the stalk. Ask those
happier than you; they’ll tell you
nothing lasts forever. Start with saplings,
and before you know it, scavengers arrive.
6. Were it not for the delight of feeding,
carcasses would litter the ground
so thank the fox, wolf, and raven
who attack the dead with their hunger,
the swarming bottleblue flies and grubs,
minuscule gnats who lay black eggs
in putrid water, even hard-winged beetles
extracting glutinous matter out of dung
cattle drop in the field until it’s
light as the dust wind carries
miles before it slows. No bones
to be dragged to an open hole
then mournfully shoveled closed.
Each fallen tree rots and crumbles
offering itself to fungi and slime mold,
spiders, bark lice, earwigs. What a simple end
for all things short-lived, fast-growing,
so why do I squirm imagining worms
wrapped around an eye socket
or sticking like bandages to your
discolored, decomposing bones?
7. The air is dense with birds
as if something could happen,
as if a wing could be torn,
as if memory,
most fragile of all wings,
could hold forever what is torn.
This thinning wind
barely keeps my
far-flying thoughts afloat.
The one I love flies through this poem.
Now, every bird is one bird,
every branch conquered by its weight.
8. The snow goose’s neck:
a slender stem
where winter grows.
It leads me
straight to field-hardened wheat
stretching all the way to the horizon.
A part of me goes with it.
All birds should be as white
as it is, the whole world
as it is: wing after wing,
each thought cold
and clean, feathered
the landscape dreary
and utterly remote,
I’m aware of your face,
the cast of ashes
I see in your face:
that same slate color
first perceived by a newborn
whose world stays
bathed in gray, whose eyes
accept color gradually
over the next few years.
Here we are, together,
back at the beginning again.
Here we are, dismayed
by that leaden sky,
these circular days.
10. No angels this year,
just a wing of snow the wind
tossed on the porch.
It wasn’t like a bird.
Not at all heavenly.
It came with the force of
wilderness behind it
when it swept over me,
blurred my vision.
There was no rejoicing, but
it found the shape of my face
just before it fell.
11. A peak of snow on the cut trunk:
a little requiem of white
covering growth rings
nested inside each other
so closely in this northern clime
they are impossible to count.
On my own finger, a ring.
Let me recite the vows.
Night after night.
Like a slish of oil across the skin.
I’m happy now, I’m happy.
Don’t die. Don’t ever go away.
12. In the lightning was–
oh, but the sky,
too, was part of it,
its gloomy mood
an inky stand of pine
and then that repetitive
boom boom boom
until a tree trunk exploded in one
magnificent pop, cracked
in half, its defeated crown
the hospital window.
If prayer means
launching out of the heart
then surely I prayed
each time another bolt
sent down its strict
tightrope of light.
13. Ditchwater eases off the sandbags’
swollen hip, a provisional pause
on its way downhill to the churchyard
basement where run-off leaks
between cement cracks, oozes
around worn brickwork, seeps
into the carpet where children sit
on folding chairs, their own hands
folded in prayer. For a time,
it loses itself before emerging
beyond mossy gravestones
and straightaway from the afterlife
promised here, from the black-backed
Bible, the faithful with scripture trained
to habit on their tongues, committed
to its own course, its own muddy path,
gathering speed as it goes until it sounds
stunned by its own daring, and birds
waken in the swallowed fields
where everything freed and floating is
unleashed at last from the straightjacket of winter.
14. Today it is coltsfoot with petaled suns
overrunning the roadside, drowsy flowers
bowing to that red thread in the east
I follow as if it were Ariadne’s light.
Last week, two thousand miles away,
it was a jellyfish with its single satin lung
fluttering in water. And before that,
a wafer of ice in a pocked metal saucepan
I left by the garden. Months ago,
after the hospital and the tubes and the blood,
it was the way that new scar slept
on my husband’s body, how the gold
wedding ring, worn smooth as a relic, felt
between my fingers as I rubbed his hand.
It could be almost anything. Certain moments come
when I turn away from the heart-shaking darkness
that governs a life, away from the odylic crows,
the decay I’m forever stirring into soil.
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The Boston Review gives Every Bird Is One Bird its sweet reward! https://bostonreview.net/poetry-books-ideas/microreviews-octnov-2003