Requiem with “Little Wing”

By Craig van Rooyen

Featured Art : Kenyon Cox (1856-1919)

Perhaps, on your downtown lunch stroll
in unseasonably cheery weather,
you walk up on a flock of grackles
on the ground in front of Urban Outfitters,
their impact marks still drying on the window
recently washed to display Big Sur Ribbed Pullovers
and the Willow Fuzzy Drawstring Teddy,
as if anyone believes October’s still a sweater month.

Perhaps you become suddenly dizzy,
a strange gravity drawing you toward this constellation
of twitching black holes
opened in the sidewalk at your feet.
And perhaps this brings to mind
how it feels when your face falls from your face.

In the old days before the imminent apocalypse,
the pattern would be read as omen:
a toothache’s coming on, the breath of your bride-to-be
will sour every time she walks in moonlight,
your best cow will soon grow milk-sick.
The prescriptions would be just as clear:
wash your warp and dye it while a new moon waxes;
steal a neighbor’s crickets and install them in your hearth;
milk with one hand only.

Perhaps, even now, you try to read in the little bodies
some feathered correspondence: this relates to that.
If you step on a crack, the snowy plover will slip
into extinction; if you breathe out while passing a cemetery,
Greenland’s ice shelf will break off and float away.
But the letters blur and you can’t discern the news
from the wrecked wings and necks.

Before you pull yourself together,
step over the inside-out sky,
and walk into the air-conditioned Autumn
Sale. The man who plays guitar for dollar bills,
with only a left hand,
leans his battered Fender up against the window.
Right arm lost to dirty needles, he’s learned
to crank his amp to get “Little Wing”
out of four fingers on the fret board.

Right now, he’s on his knees. A divine slow hand
checks the downed birds one by one
until he finds a candidate for resurrection.
Once this single starling’s blinking
in a nest of dollar bills (and one five),
the savior shimmies the strap over his neck again
and starts in on “The Wind Cries Mary.”

His audience: you and the blinking bird
and 17 still-warm bodies on the sidewalk.
He plays in the key of we’re still here,
one-armed blues, a ballad in lost time—
in other words, a left-hand song so American
it’s enough to make you drape your beehives in black cloth,
toss your wisdom tooth on the roof at midnight,

prepare to go out a different door
than the one you came in by


Craig van Rooyen‘s poems has appeared in 32 Poems, Best New Poets, The Cincinnati Review, Poetry Northwest, Ploughshares, Rattle, Willow Springs, and elsewhere. He lives and writes in San Luis Obispo, California and holds an MFA in poetry from Pacific University.

Originally published in NOR 28

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