RIFF ON A LINE BY CHAR
Avec le lente neige descendent les lépreux.
—René Char, ‘Victoire Éclaire’
Somewhere inside the sacerdotal
Thicket of Leviticus, there’s the ritual
Concerning those ‘struck with skin blanch.’
Once a leper is cleansed the priest commands
That crimson wool, hyssop, and cedar wood
Be brought along with two clean, living birds—
Swallows, I think.
One swallow is slaughtered
Over a fresh clay bowl of fresh spring water.
He then dips the living bird—with the wool,
Hyssop, and cedar—into the vessel
Of blood and water; this messy handful
Is the aspergillum with which he sprinkles
The afflicted seven times to be purified.
The living bird is released into the sky.
I recall the summer they were everywhere,
Suddenly remarkable outside air,
Splayed on curbs, crushed on roads, curled by doors:
Dead birds. As if left for me to take care
Or kind notice of. Or—too late—to love.
Something pained, Levitical, in each curved
Talon, in the way it seemed a carpenter
Carefully lathed each dactyl like a chair
Spindle, or in the fern frond of each plume
I saw in a house sparrow half-entombed
By mulch in the park. These should mean something,
I told myself, not meaning they held meaning
To suss out; rather, I’d make the birds mean.
Make of them some art of starting again, clean.
Now it’s November first and the first snow
Of my worst year flirts with rain, is slow,
Short-lived, and little more than morning dew.
The birds are packing up or passing through.
I’m holed up in a studio my wrecked car
Looks roomy next to, restless, half-wrestling Char,
When his line summons a poem left undone
My first year as a seminarian.
It was about finding dead birds all around,
As though the remnants of some distant
Cleansing rite had flown to my feet to die.
It was a wordy unhinged thing, but not a lie.
This slow snow is a wringing out of wings.
Someone out there has new flesh. My turn’s coming.