A Drawerful of Meadowlarks

1,003 total words    

4 minutes of reading

Ed. note— Joan, a contributing author to the City Creatures project, recently offered this poem for the blog.  The poem is inspired by the work of Terry Evans, one of the contributing artists to the project.  A variety of the images that Joan references in the poem can be found here (Terry’s website), and the book in which they are collected is available here.   
A Drawerful of Meadowlarks
On From Prairie to Field: Photographs by Terry Evans

1.  Contents

a drawerful of meadowlarks
two ravens
fifty-four cardinals

great blue heron
folded in half like a yoga master

Eskimo curlew
body straight as a compass
beak to the back of the north wind

red-tailed hawks
tag clear in the Iris print:

killed 7 miles South of Kooper 
Nebraska November 5, 1926
Crickets and Snake found in
Stomach Eyes Yellow

twenty photographs acid free
with brown string bound

scrolls of spiderwort
sand bluestem, three-awned grass
coneflowers with haloed heads
(the nimbus stain of drying/dying)

bull snakes coiled in jars
Aunt Maybelle put her piccalilli up in

prairie lizards, carp suckers
boxes of bones, moths, butterflies
a jackrabbit in mid-leap

Plate 20: trumpeter swan
in its bent head the Death of Marat

cabinet of wonders
bones and feathers of our ancestors
gastroliths of creedless space
with what fear we turn each page
wait for the rare, the extraordinary
to surprise our souls


2.  Glossary

Eastern meadowlark:
family TROOP-ih-al
from habit of gathering
in a large flock or troop

a bird of prairies whose songs
mean spring whose nest
is lined with lespedezas
whose back resembles dried grass

also called common lark
crescent stare, marsh quail
mudlark, medlark, medlar

Eskimo curlew:
one-hundred shot by breakfast

land suitable for tillage

Field Museum, Chicago:
twenty-two million objects
organized in realms
a collection of bird skins
fourth largest in the world

insects occupy two floors

fifty thousand Belizean
neotropical freshwater fishes
recently acquired
while the world rages along, 
scientists must still collect

iris: flower, iris: part of the eye
Iris print

prâr’e:  noun
as tall as a man on horseback
as far as the eye can see

song comma birdsong:
(not represented in the Contents
lost in the case of the curlew
God’s ear may hear)

trumpeter swan
once nearly extirpated
its skin made into powder puffs
its call a deep and sonorous
ko ho ko ho

we wait, our souls
still capable of wonder
yet fail to see in these extraordinary
bones and feathers of our ancestors
our names upon the page
our doubts, our tattered space


3.  Historical Background

a summer’s night in 1915
the doctor Bergtold
driving through the canyon dark

observed ahead two small pink spots
reflective eye shine of a night bird

he stopped the car, got out
and fired at the bird
to make certain its identity

Whitman’s friend John Burroughs
of a long-legged thrush: I shot it and saw 
that it was a new acquaintance

I do not believe that anyone 
could have shown more zeal

said Darwin for the most holy cause
than I did for shooting birds

in 1824 off the Falkland Islands
the ocean covered with foam like a washing tub
Scottish naturalist David Douglas
caught on hooks baited with fat pork
forty-nine albatross

their voice like the bleating of goats

after Cyrus Hall McCormick
made a better reaper
he built a factory in Chicago

the increased times
hayfields were mown
led to the meadowlark’s decline

within the sunless space
of drawers we file our souls
then turn the page
more than mere wonders
these bones and feathers of our ancestors
a confessional extraordinary


4.  The Photographer

quail-eyed goddess
who holds in her hand
a prairie that is past

who opens drawer upon drawer
of its mute remains
and stamps her feet in joy

and gratitude for what she finds:
the swaddling clothes
the pattern-revealing outstretched wing

the calligraphy of care that labels demonstrate
affirmation of life in ghastly death

hers a quenchless lust for beauty
a demon need to sing a cradlesong sharp
as blizzarding skies when grasses
crash their cyan cymbals

their yellow black magenta keys

confessional extraordinary
within its margined space
the bloodied trap lines of our ancestors
the tortured longings of our souls
beauty, art, and truth among life’s wonders
a billion drops of ink on every page


5. The Exhibit

past strollered crowds
museum store, McDonald’s T. rex Sue

through spirit world of drums and totems
stick figures wearing skulls
beyond but not outside these oceanic shadows
(draw magic circles for your safe return)

a prairie hangs

to its left, Maori meeting house
museum floor its Earth and ceiling Sky
gods and ancestors its walls

and from the TV monitor nearby
there issues forth an incantation
(the beloved dead
keep company with the living)
the sweetest, deepest
most sonorous chanting

engrossed in these harmonics
I do not see the visitor when she arrives
nor sword unsheathed until the blow

then wings dipped low I bow
I raise my feathered head
and trumpet to the walls

ko ho ko ho 
children of the meadowland 
ko ho ko ho

silence drags its feet across the page
thus all the more extraordinary
that we, before this cabinet of wonders
this f-stopped space
pour forth from deep within our souls
the sacred music of our ancestors


6. On Returning Home

they say the males at sunset
sing facing the sun

chevrons blazoned against gold
they whistle cricket tunes

earth song Thoreau called it

I remember how the jars
in my Aunt Mace’s cellar
were organized by color
sometimes the jars exploded

blood red shards on sweated walls

we ate the piccalilli
with fresh picked lima beans
that grew beside the hen house

I pushed my hand
beneath the hens’ warm bodies
felt for the womb’s dread work

we cannot know our ancestors
except as pictures on a page

how can we touch again their joy our souls?
their flame extraordinary?
gastroliths of creedless space
all that remain of wonders

wonders of our ancestors
their extraordinary space
and our souls on every page


— Joan Gibb Engel

  • Joan Gibb Engel

    Joan Gibb Engel writes about how we children of nature can preserve the natural world in all of its splendor for the children of tomorrow. To this end, she has contributed personal essays and poetry to a variety of publications and has edited several works that deal with environmental ethics

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