All That From a Feather

Once again a child asks me suddenly What is a poem?,
And once again I find myself riffing freely and happily
Without the slightest scholarly expertise or knowledge;
But I am entranced by how poems can hint and suggest
And point toward things deeper than words. A poem is
An owl feather, I say. It’s not the owl—but it intimates
Owlness, see what I mean? You imagine the owl, owls,
Silent flight, razors for fingers, a wriggle of mouse tail
Slurped up right quick like the last strand of angel hair,
A startle of moonlight, a fox watching from the thicket,
All that from a feather. It’s like an owl is in the feather.
A poem is a small thing with all manner of bigger in it.
Poor poems only have a writer in them, but better ones
Have way more in them than the writer knew or knows
About. This poem, for example, amazingly has owls in
It—who knew we’d see a flurry of owls this afternoon?

~Brian Doyle, “A Flurry of Owls”

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive.

I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,

or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.
~Billy Collins “Introduction to Poetry” from from The Apple that Astonished Paris.

I walked into our big hay barn this week,
finding scattered atop the few remaining bales from last summer
these few owl feathers…

they were waiting for a poem to hide within,
just as the barn owls are tucked invisibly in the rafters
until the cool air of dusk and hunger lures them to the hunt,
swooping outside to capture both moonlight and mice
to be coughed up in pellets of fur and bones.

These feathers, dropped like so many random snowflakes,
carry within them the glint and glow of the moon, a reminder
what we leave behind matters,
whether it be feather or fur
or a wee dry skeleton,
a shell of who we once were
yet are no longer.


A new book from Barnstorming, available to order here:

Fitting Exactly Where Needed

The river is famous to the fish.
The loud voice is famous to silence,   
which knew it would inherit the earth   
before anybody said so.   

The cat sleeping on the fence is famous to the birds   
watching him from the birdhouse.   
The tear is famous, briefly, to the cheek.   
The idea you carry close to your bosom   
is famous to your bosom.  
 

The boot is famous to the earth,   
more famous than the dress shoe,   
which is famous only to floors.
The bent photograph is famous to the one who carries it   
and not at all famous to the one who is pictured.   

I want to be famous to shuffling men   
who smile while crossing streets,   
sticky children in grocery lines,   
famous as the one who smiled back.

I want to be famous in the way a pulley is famous,   
or a buttonhole, not because it did anything spectacular,   
but because it never forgot what it could do.
~Naomi Shihab Nye “Famous” from Words Under the Words: Selected Poems

Detail from “Descent from the Cross” by Rogier van der Weyden

Here’s the truth of it:
no one really wants to be famous
but seeks a life of meaning and purpose
rather than one empty of significance.

The button alone is
pure window-dressing,
a flash in the pan,
a bauble ready to loosen and fall off,
easy to go missing.

A button hole by itself
without a button to latch around
is plain and gaping and lonely and allows in drafts,
blending into the background,
silently waiting for its moment of usefulness.

We cannot forget who we’re meant to be
and what we’re meant to do –
we fit the task for which we’re made.

Send me a button and I’ll make sure it is secured.