Still Life, Mouth of the Vistula

Daniel Bourne

After a while the bird starts to twist
to turn this way and that
as if to show me every side
so I can better understand
the fact it is dead.

But it wasn’t the cigarette pack of Cristals
or the styrofoam bobbing nearby,
yellow as chicken fat,
that made the webbed feet of the krzyżówka
seem so relaxed
as they paddled the current of the Vistula,

the water here on the befuddled edge,
as in the fast middle, just trying
to make it to the sea—its northern migration
along the slippery wall of laid stones
only nineteenth-century Prussians could make,
and my own wet and precarious perch.

No, it was not styrofoam
that came to rest in its mouth. Something else
must have killed it,
some quick blow to the head
or a more slow

and complicated dying
before it tucked its head in
to one shoulder
and drifted closer to the shore.

We circle each
in our own eddy, and I wish
I could at least see its eyes, its mouth. Not
that it would need
to speak, but that there would be a message
left to salvage. The wreckage
of even this contaminated poem.

And the species? I note
the brown and gray striping—
but the feathers
may have changed in death. And how to distinguish head from body
no matter how much this creature bobs,
coaxing me to keep on talking
to find my own words and Baltic Sea.

—Sometimes death
collects in one place only:
the feathers finally
giving up the ghost of flight …

—Sometimes death
collects in one place only:
black cormorant on a pylon
spreading shit and wings to dry …

Daniel Bourne is a poet whose poems have appeared in Guernica, Ploughshares, Field, Plume, American Poetry Review, Cimarron Review, Prairie Schooner, Shenandoah, Salmagundi, Quarterly West, and elsewhere. His books include The Household Gods, Where No One Spoke the Language, and a collection of translations of Polish political poet Tomasz Jastrun, On the Crossroads of Asia and Europe. He teaches in English and environmental studies at The College of Wooster in northeastern Ohio, where he edits Artful Dodge. Since 1980 he has worked in Poland on collaborative projects with Polish poets and visual artists involving the environment, as well as on translations of contemporary Polish poets.
Originally published:
July 1, 2018


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