OPENING Poem by Ross Gay


You might rightly wonder what I am doing here

in the passenger's seat of this teal Mitsubishi

with the hood secured by six or seven thick strips of duct tape,

sitting next to Myself, who sits in the driver's seat,

having quickly pulled into the lot of the Kentucky Fried Chicken

on Rt. 413 in Levittown, Pennsylvania,

from which years ago my father would sometimes

bring home a bucket of hot wings to share

just with me, his comrade in spice and grease and gore,

rattling the little charnel house like a bell

to indicate a joy impending and plucking

the lid to waft the scent toward the vents

into my room where I'd catch a whiff and toss my Avengers

comic to vault down the steps before high-fiving

my smiling old man, stinking of his own hours working

at the Roy Rogers down on Cottman, and plunge into the scuzzy muck,

the two of us silently cleaning the bones while the laugh track

of some re-run ebbed and flowed;

you wonder rightly what it is I am saying

quietly in the ear of Myself, and what I am pointing at

with one hand while the other rests on Myself's shoulder,

tenderly if not a bit tentatively, for Myself

is still a very big man, and quick, and trying hard

not to take anyone with him over the ledge on which he stands,

which you can tell when he just barely looks in my direction

a bit animal with sweat glistening the back of his neck

and his temples, his jaw flexed with his hands

clutching the wheel, the slightest whistle in his breath

while beneath the looming sign of the Colonel smiling

like one concealing some awful and bloody secret

a family in the rearview parks their minivan

and not mostly noticing us makes their way out:

an older brother gripping the wrist of a smaller one

who clutches his purple and yellow jacket; an infant snugged

in its father's arm tipping its head back to see us

from beneath its light blue cap, opening and closing its hand

as the glass doors swing shut behind them.


You likewise might wonder how Myself has arrived

at this flamboyant terror, an accretion

the way in caves, where nothing without light

is seen, minerals will gather into impossible spires

waiting to impale a thing, that he actually, while driving

home from his dear mother's apartment, saw

in his mind with a clarity like the semis behind him

trudging toward the on-ramp to Philadelphia or New Jersey,

like the carts wandering about the PathMark lot or the woman

in a housedress and slippers waiting at the crosswalk

smoking a cigarette, his own hands working a vial

of some sort from which he poured a poison

into his mother's half-eaten tub of blueberry yogurt,

which imagined matricide is perhaps especially jarring

to Myself, given the awkward walking he does

avoiding ants and other tiny beasts,

given the long prayer he found himself giving

the chickadee that met its death against his windshield,

lodging under the wiper blades and drumming the glass

with the one free wing until he could pull over, whereupon

Myself did kiss the unlucky thing, folding its wings into its body,

before laying it in a small hole at the foot of a dogwood tree

in full regalia, its thousand flowers like a congregation

walking arm in arm in the river.


And knowing Myself well now I can see

what murderous birds flew numerous and hungry

into the attic, shrikes especially, working

their ways in at the slimmest shims of light

between shingles and through rotholes wedging first

their heads in without blinking and collapsing

the bones of their bodies their tongues thrust out

and necks made long wriggling in leaving behind

clumps of shivering feathers blood-glued to the cracks

one after the next prying through loose boards

snapping at the tail feathers of the ones in front of them

the clawing feet skitting in one after the next

until the attic roared with soaring and the war

screams of birds clutching one another with talons

by the neck or back and veering quick

toward any piercing thing barb or thorn

or snapped branch jeering into the air like this

the impaled thing writhing and fluttering

once or twice its wings and twisting open its beak

from which came no sound—

which is, in fact, the wrong metaphor, the more I think of it,

for the birds in question favor the long view

of open meadows. They love exposed perches on which they fasten

their talons and unwrap their beautiful wings in the wind.

And the birds I'm talking about are not birds at all,

but common sorrow made murderous simply by nailing

the shingles tight, and caulking with the tar always boiling out back

all possible cracks. Which is to say, the metaphor here

has become the sealing up as much as any bird, has become

the way Myself had made unwittingly a habit of slathering

mortar everywhere, almost by accident,

for fear of what might forever slip in and be felt;

which was, in addition to everything else, simply, goddamn,

how sad my mother was when my father died, goddamn,

how sad was Myself; and how scared was Myself,

scared nearly, in fact, to death, at his mother afraid

or not sleeping well or not unpacking for months in her new apartment,

outside of which Myself, visiting, would sit in his car

for a half hour or more, staring

into the yellow aluminum siding's patina and the seam

it made with the fake white brick

as he felt the bones of his chest breaking which was the feeling

of the very real terror he had at what his hands might do, which his hands

would never do, which was like the wood shake helpless against the prying

shrike, clawing and snapping its hunter's beak, which, I am happy

to remind us both again, was not the feeling at all. All Myself was feeling,

in fact, was not feeling his heart break again and again.

The way he did for some time sitting with his mother

in her living room, watching the Eagles that year have a good season

while she sobbed and didn't sleep well and in some way

shone in her sorrow complete though it was very hard

for him to admire for the roaring in his head, which was nothing

more, it turns out, than the sounds of not weeping, the sounds

of sadness turned back. Nothing savage, nothing cruel or vicious,

not a bird in sight—just sadness. Which is to say,

in other words, just being alive.


My Beloved Chickenshit; My Sweet

Little Chickenshit; don't run,

My Baby. Don't flee, My Honey.

Hunker down. Hunker Down.


There is, in my yard, a huge and beautiful peach tree.

I planted the thing as a three-foot whip,

a spindly prayer with a tangle of roots so delicate,

so wild, I took ten minutes to feather them apart

before spreading them in the hole like a lightning storm

in one of those images of the brain. Now the tree reaches almost

into the grumpy neighbor out back's yard, the one who once

snarled at me and my house why would anyone paint a house that color?,

and whose unsmiling middle-aged daughter mows the lawn

twice a day, though I've seen in March or April

when the tree's thousand pink mouths unfurl

and blow kisses to everyone in sight, the burdened curl

of the old lady's back uncoil—I've seen her stand up some and wink

at that tree, and, no kidding, saw her once teeter out

in a gloomy gray pantsuit and, scrubbed by the bloom,

change her costume right then and there to something

frilled and blazing, which she wore on her trot

through the neighborhood whistling to the birds swirling

behind her. In this neck of the woods you have to prune

a peach tree if you don't want the fruit to rot, if you don't want

all that fragrant grandstanding to be for naught. Which is why

today, this sunny April afternoon with no rain or real freeze forecasted,

I dig out my tools and sharpening stone, making the blades

all shimmer enough to skim the hair from my arm.

Then, after cleaning each with a rag dipped in

some watered-down bleach, I move around the tree's

sprawling limbs, the ruddy young growth all wagging

at the sun, all shivering with the breezes

muscling through. And with my loppers and snips I

look up into the behemoth tree and begin clipping,

first the wisps of growth and pencil thick sprouts, before hauling

myself into the tree, wedging my boot in the sturdy crotch and clinging

to a fat branch to keep thinning: overlapping

limbs or those with some hint of disease; those grown haywire

or deranged twisting toward the light; and those from which

last year grew maybe half a bushel of fruit, limbs

wrist thick with bark whorled and cleft by age,

but whose tight angle might snap this year

and wreck the tree, and require a saw to remove, which I do,

watching the last branch tumble into the pile of clippings below.

I do this again and again, crawling through the branches

as though through a beloved's ribs. Friends, if you haven't guessed,

every time I do this a little bit I mourn,

leaning the pruner's steel flush against the flesh,

or working back and forth the saw's grin and feeling

the smooth wood tumble or twirl into the little tomb which, after

the cutting is done, is about my size—is about the size,

give or take, of everyone I've ever loved. This is how, every spring,

I promise the fruit will swell with sugar: by bringing in the air and light—

until, like the old-timers say, the tree is open enough

for a bird to fly through. Which, in fact, they do—two cardinals

flirting; a blue jay flashing its pompadour; one of those little greyish birds

I can't remember the name of, landing on the furthest limbs

where it does nothing special besides maybe dump its teeny

chamber pot while whistling this very ditty:

half dirge, half disco, some giggly trill

loop-de-looping from its tiny beak,

while its ruffled, musty body sways on the tree's furthest finger,

resting exactly where I put it,

singing just as I asked it to,

which, from up here, where the newly open view is good, I can see

is what I was pointing to, what I was saying quietly to Myself,

in the parking lot of the KFC in Levittown, Pennsylvania,

as Myself shivered, and looked up, trying to see,

trying to hear.

Ross Gay

Ross Gay

Ohio / United States
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