It is time.
Everything says it is time.
In the lingering corners
Of original prairie
In the thrumming
And tossing meadows
And hayfields ready for reaping
It is August
And it is time.
Now! Say the shortening days,
Like the angel imploring Joseph—Go!
This way! Point the stars
And the Earth’s magnetic poles.
“But they had only arrived in May!”
“A ten-thousand mile
Ordeal by flight
From the Pantanals!”
“And their young
Are but three months of age!”
And they are off
From their natal fields,
Ahead of the descending apocalypse
Of ice and snow,
As they were known
For their tinkling call on the grasslands
When we christened our wild brethren
With all of the affection of kin,
When they were our workmates our playmates
Our thieves our guardians
When their music was the only song on the dial.
Of the manically sparkling lyric,
Troubadour of the once-unbroken prairies
And their vertiginous horizons—
The female in her sparrowy earth-tones, dressed to vanish among the grass stems where she nests and rears her young. And the bedraggled drunk-with-love male, that the Creek Indians named the skunk bird: a besotted butler in a livery buttoned on backwards, with a maid’s saffron shower cap slapped on his head, as he does his best vocal impersonation of R2D2—
But it’s time to turn in the tux
Rented for the spring ball
Time to foreclose
On their nests in the forbs
To leave to Herod’s harvesters
Those unable to journey
And converge in solemn flocks
On the marshes of Lake Erie,
To secretly molt
And for a final feasting on insects.
Bobolinks from many fields, fattened and freshly feathered, males now in female guise, podding the cattails in watchful listening silence
As the day dies away and
And in flocks of hundreds
They launch by the Moon
On an Odyssey
They memorized in the egg,
Over the first great water,
The first flight for their lives,
Overtaking echelons of Canada geese,
Coalescing their aerodynamic flocks
With their flight-call of bink bink—
And there is no turning back, no spacetime behind them, on this outrageous commute from the Heroic Age—
This expansion ad absurdism from the Ice Age’s end, as the retreating glaciers drew migrants ever-further north to their accustomed breeding grounds—
Landfall before daybreak,
Then instrument flying
A mile over the Alleghenies,
The green mountains that autumn ignites in its scorched-earth retreat from winter, so the first descending snows will find nary a spoil to divide—
Eastbound for the Atlantic coast
Burning away their fat stores
Under the cosmic migrant Cygnus
Kind in the morning chill
As they merge with flocks from the Northeast, from Quebec and Newfoundland, and sojourn on in a unanimous Babel of many dialects
Over the grid of our fanatical partitioning of the Earth—
The circuit board of the human electron,
Into the coastal estuaries,
Of the Delaware
And Chesapeake Bays,
Where they were once the reed bird, the marsh bird, in the Golden Age of the bobolink, arriving a century past in blizzards of a million strong, driving, negative snowstorms of blackbirds, that gun-hunters dropped by the hundred thousands and restaurants served as an autumn staple—
But the infinite prairies where they bred are gone—
Gone are the endless hayfields that fueled our original horsepower,
And the flocks are a tenth those numbers now—
Before more famine
On the seeds of tidewater grasses
In grainfields by moonlight
Where a perfectly silent owl
Snatches away a wingmate—
And who was saved?
Who was spared?
When there is no escape
But in the going on
By the circumpolar stars
By their magnetized iron wills
This way! Go!
Replenished for the sojourning on, south on the Atlantic flyway, a riverbed carved into the coastal skies by the wings of innumerable migrants—
Over the glittering
The maddening constellations
Floating beneath their wings—
And they must divert their eyes from the deadly allure of the glowing tower windows, those illusory portals to light and warmth and rest—
No! Don’t look!
You must go on!
There is no destination
But the austral spring!
But the sirens of the towers beckon, “Come and rest! Come if only for a moment. World-travelers, where is your home? Where is your place of rest? You who only ever arrive to journey again! Come to the light and rest and be warm!”
And birds peel off for that realm of mystic holiness,
The weariest elders
And dreamiest young,
But the flock drives on
And only the flock matters
On this extreme sport
For the highest stakes—
This biannual labor of Hercules
Assigned to a blackbird,
To the Carolinas
Where they were once the ricebird,
The loathed rice bunting—
“Long-clawed devourer of rice,”
When sun-blackening plagues of bobolinks descended on the coastal rice plantations, nightfalls of famished blackbirds settling to plunder the emerald ricefields,
And the African slaves who winnowed and milled the crop were driven into the fields, flushing thousands of birds into the sky, as cannons fired hopelessly at the dizzying cyclones—
Of bobolinks profiting from human slavery, for the freeing of the slaves bankrupt the estates and the paddies were abandoned
And a shadow of those flocks must now journey on without that provender
Under fair-weather cumuli
Passing a prehistoric convoy
Of Sandhill cranes
Over the scarring pox
Of sprawling development
Of which we are the microbe
To the southern swamplands
Where they bathe
And forage feverishly
And are joined
By fellow travelers
On shorter commutes—
And in a milky way of migrating songbirds they stream onward, a secret mission slipping past the roofs of sleeping Georgians
And in the Morse code of their flight calls
There is no Why?
No What if
There is only the summons
And the martyrdom of going on
And without despair
As brethren ahead in morning fog slam into a cell tower—
As a crying sister behind is swept off in the talons of a hawk—
It doesn’t matter! They were not the chosen!
Bird thou art—
Bird and only bird:
You must fly on!
Over the settled golden dew of electric light
And the formic processions of glowing cars,
The magical webs of luminosity
Til they wake on their wings
To a dawn of molten blue sky,
Then a dreamless sleep in an orange grove
Through the high heat of day.
And a cousin will be left behind
In the jaws of a snake
And a virus will weaken
The already weakened when
Wake up and go!
And they swarm into the heavy air—
A barely breathable broth under leaden skies,
To their counterpoint of bink bink
Before landing blind in a cloudburst dowsing the everglades, where they roost in the slash pines until they can forage, and are foraging when a tailwind cries,
And they launch
In silent gravity
Out over the Florida Straits
Leaving below the gull-littered beaches
Follow the one ahead!
Lead the one behind!
No one will catch you
If you fall!
Over the white comets of the trawlers
In the blowing blue grassland of the sea
With its herds of not cattle but dolphin
Until latitude and longitude
Are nowhere and nowhere,
For stopovers in Cuba
And to berry in the Blue Mountains of Jamaica
Where they were a delicacy known as the butter bird, and where males in spring were trapped for the pet trade, to sing of their heartbreak in birdcages until they battered themselves to death against the gilded bars
Because they heard the cruel summons Go! but were even more cruelly confined—
But that exploitation is largely over,
And when the wind cries It is time!
The stars point This way!
And they set off from the island
Like a night-mission
Of suicide pilots
Emboldening each other
As they push away the last of the land—
Because it is time to drown
Or it is time to fly
Across the blue desert
Of the Caribbean Sea
An aqua incognita
On the map of Mercy
And they will burn away their fat stores
And sweat away their blood-warmth
Jostling in their flight pattern
For an aerodynamic edge
In this all-or-nothing crossing
As the Moon blind from having seen everything
Rises in its fullness to watch
And two miles above a blinking jetliner overtakes them: a soaring metallic pod on the divine side of the clouds—but never further from heaven—crammed with wingless travesties of the gods, the morbidly obese and incurably bored and obscenely ungrateful, in the nowhere between two airport terminals, eyeing idiocy on video screens and stuffing their gullets with slaughterhouse offal, in an inconceivable consummation of the miracle of human flight—
While the bobolinks are below
Invisibly peppering the infinite dark
Star-compassing for the smell of landfall
In the briny darkness
But the thrusts of their wings
When suddenly they are braving headwinds, and the stars go out, and a thundersquall rolls in, and its fury is plunging hundreds into the combers—
They are plummeting into the mountainous waves
Like so many expendable avatars on the screen of a gamer!
Ride the winds!
Keep your bearings!
Who are you to give up?
Who are you
To vanish into the sea!
You must stay aloft!
You must keep going!
And the rest fight on
These wandering minstrels
Pitching in the slaughterous winds
Sounding the starless blackness
With their cries
Heeding the cries
Of those ahead
And those behind,
Until the sea gusts weaken
And stars reappear—
The voyeuristic stars
Counting the survivors
Crimson in the east
For their battle for their lives,
Though they regain their bearings
With no fuel at all—
Famished and thirsting, without even a memory of rest, and maybe life or death doesn’t matter anymore, so that the cessation of breathing is every bit as natural as breathing itself, and only their collective inertia propels them forward
As day breaks
And they steer by the sun
Over a tranquil blue oblivion
Oh to sleep in the blue furrows harrowed in the sea!—
How narcotic is the thought of a watery demise below, and here and there relations tumble from the sky in fatal exhaustion—
Even as seabirds are banking the winds, and a salt breeze awards them the bouquet of landfall—
And the endurance flight is over
And below are gulls bobbing in the waves—
Waves breaking on the South American coast
The Gulf of Venezuela
Where the incurably weary, like selfless escorts, too exhausted even to feed, will be left on the shores in the clutches of crabs
Will be tossed from the poor fishermen's nets
Sieving the shoals
While the rest graze in a silent delirium
Before the impossible boon of sleep
Under a shower of green comets.
But the Earth is too frugal
For bobolinks to stay in one place for long
And they will follow
The rice and sorghum fields
Two thousand miles
Into the heart of the continent
Where in Spanish they are the Soldadito Arrocero, the rice soldier, and in Portuguese the Triste-pia, the singer of sorrows—
Vagabonds leaving behind
Their fellow travelers—
The orioles peeling off to the fruit orchards, the tanagers to the rarified air of the Andes—
Flocking by invisible milestones
Though the Brazilian Amazon—
Past the surreal oil fields, the devouring logging camps, through the smoke of the slash-and-burn subsistence farmers—
An agricultural pest
Thieving from both rich and very poor
For which they are netted,
Poisoned and blasted out of the air,
As they compass for Bolivia
Reaching the Pantanals by January
Where they will thrive again as a marsh bird
Snatching wetland insects
And drinking from the edges
Of piranha-infested waters.
You have arrived.
You have completed your assignment.
But you have no more a home in space
Than in time.
Your journey is your destination
And your destination the journey—
You are a migrant
Flung in flung out
Of an endless migration.
And March will summon them north once again, and the males will don their formal attire, and along the way rehearse for their recitals in the boreal grasslands
So the enduring
Beget the enduring
And every egg explodes
With a voyager
For the journey
Chasing spring’s providence
With reckless faithfulness
Across a sea and two continents.
Bird of two worlds.
Bird of half the world.
Small world, isn’t it?