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The Southern Book of the Dead

I. The Travels of the Dead
were slower in those days. How many weeks
until a Quaker from Philadelphia would stop
at a plantation on the Savannah River?
At night, he wrote, shortly after our arrival,

servants came home with horse loads of wild pigeons,
the pigeon of passage having been taken by torchlight,
crowds going out of an evening for the sport of it.
Some took little fascines of fat-pine splinters

for torches; others carried stacks or staves.
Into the swamp they waded, to the place
where the pigeons gathered on low trees in the winter.
The sudden blaze of light blinded the birds,

which, in huge fluttering numbers, fell to the ground.
Others were beaten off the lowest branches
with sticks, and stuffed into bags. The water,
the flame, and live oaks -- on their small sweet acorns

the birds feasted, having left behind the North.

The scratch of a quill in the underbrush
of an evening, a man dipping the pen's beak
into the dark, still waters of the inkwell,

the next word bleeding onto the page -- why,
that night in the winter of 1776, did he write
the word servants instead of slaves, he who held
each plant much bear a white man's name?

II. The Field Guide of the Dead
was as big as an old family Bible,
but worth more: deep in the vault
the librarian had to go and cart it back
so I could turn a page of this tombstone.

Each bird was still bright, the gouache unfaded
on the feathers, as if just yesterday
the long-dead artist had sat in a nearby swamp --
sat still enough he could draw from life.

For so he claimed he had. But what did life mean
to a little yellow bird hung from a branch
by a black thread? Or to the robin
on a stump, legs in the air, eye gone dark?

perfect tinge of its blood-orange breast
glowed like a coal in the fireplace
of some Liverpool study. Who was trying
to keep warm as he turned another page?

A lark in a cage singing at a window
across from the Commercial Inn,
a pousse-café in the salon
failing to clear his head of homesickness,

coal smoke in eyes -- Audubon,
you old con artist, you smell
of bear grease on your long, wild locks.
Was that your ghost riffling the pages

till they whispered stiff, stiff, stiff?
Here's a bird you'll recognize.
You caught it better than Catesby did:
the ivory-bill woodpecker, now extinct.

And how false the next page is,
where a "pigeon of passage" struts carelessly
on the ground, not a single hunter in sight.
Have you been born yet, the painter

who'll swear on his coonskin cap
to his subscribers to capture each feather
before it fades? They are enough alike,
you can pin another in the same lifelike pose.

-- Debora Greger

Explore Other Departments
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Poems in this Issue
The Southern Book of the Dead
By the Little Pamet River in Winter
Seven Caveats in May
The Scented Birch Near the Fountain Where You Walk

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Illustration: Gina Triplett

OnEarth. Spring 2005
Copyright 2005 by the Natural Resources Defense Council