At seventeen, how Claire stands at sunset with stranger of sixty-seven who happened to be kin. The stranger praises the shore birds. In the Midwest the storms come in across the lake, approach you just as sure as I’m standing next to you. It’s small compensation for the flatness but we take it. The stranger herself is a master at taking it: Midwestern, optimistic, resolute. A doctor’s widow, just now coming into her own, though Claire will only know that later; for now there is only the screech of the nail inside the brain the stranger can soften but not silence. Humans are the only ones, stoned kids say at seventeen, who do shit that’s bad for us.
At twenty-seven, listening to the poet, also twenty-seven. His favorite topic is the poets he hates. No one cares about your fucking bird. She smiles because it’s the nail in his brain and hers is still there too, and when she doesn’t feel it she misses it. She tells her students the story about the old man, how he told his students to look out the window and name the tree and that was the test because writers should know the name of things. She doesn’t look up the truth of the story. She looks up the names of the trees and the birds and writes them down even though the concrete makes the list sound as though she is seven: pigeon sparrow starling pigeon sparrow pigeon pigeon pigeon.
At thirty-seven keeps other lists, the lists of the dead, the dead beyond the dead. The newspapers list them next to the year’s dead celebrities. Birds don’t have it worst – those would be the large lumberers, the slow reproducers, the big-habitat takers. But like ambitious B-listers, they’ve started to make themselves known: the Bermuda flicker, Bermuda hawk, the Mauritius turtle-dove, the North Island Snipe. Never to be appreciated in their own time, never to read the articles, never to know about the seminars. Claire mourns them even though to mourn them is to kill them again. Render the flesh absent; turn absent flesh to ink; turn ink to pixels, pixel to one and zero like electricity like flint.
Laura Tanenbaum is an Associate Professor of English at LaGuardia Community College, City University of New York. Her fiction, poetry and essays have appeared in a variety of publications including Narrative, Cleaver, Dissent, Jacobin, and Open Letters Monthly.