Killing Chickens

By Bruce Weigl b. 1949 Bruce Weigl
Never mind what you think.
The old man did not rush
Recklessly into the coop the last minute.   
The chickens hardly stirred
For the easy way he sang to them.   
Red sun is burning out
Past slag heaps of the mill. The old man   
Touches the blade of his killing knife   
With his fat thumb.
I’m in the backyard on a quilt
Spread out under the heavy dark plums   
He cooks for his whiskey.
He walks among the hens singing
His chicken song way down in his throat   
Until he finds the one who’s ready   
And he holds her to his barrel chest.

What did you think?
Did you think you just jerk the bird   
From her roost and hack her head off?

Beyond the coop
I see the fleeting white dress of my grandmother   
As she crosses and recrosses the porch
To fill the bucket with scalding water.

How easy the feathers will come
When she drowns them for plucking   
And clouds the air with a stench
I can’t stand not to breathe.
I’m not even a boy yet but I watch   
The old man sing out into the yard,
His knife already at the chicken’s throat   
When everything begins to spin in my world—
He slices off the head without a squawk,   
And swirls the bird in circles, a fine   
Blood spray fanning out far enough   
To reach me where I wait
Obediently, where I can’t stop watching   
The head the old man picks up,
His free hand becomes a puppet chicken
Clucking at me, pecking my head with the cold beak   
Until I cry for him to stop,
Until he pins me down, clucking, laughing, blood   
All over his hands.

He did it so I would remember him
I tell myself all these years later.
He did it because it was his last summer   
Among us. In August he didn’t feel the fly   
Come into his cancerous ear and lay its eggs.
He didn’t feel the maggots hatch
As he sat dazed with pills in the sun.
He pecked my head and laughed out of love,   
Out of love he snatched me roughly to his chest   
And sang his foreign songs way,
Way down in his throat.

Bruce Weigl, “Killing Chickens” from Archaeology of the Circle: New and Selected Poems. Copyright © 1999 by Bruce Weigl. Reprinted with the permission of Grove/Atlantic, Inc.,

Source: Archeology of the Circle: New and Selected Poems (Grove/Atlantic Inc., 1999)

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Poet Bruce Weigl b. 1949

POET’S REGION U.S., Midwestern

Subjects Family & Ancestors, Pets, Youth, Living, Relationships

Poetic Terms Free Verse


Soon after turning eighteen, Bruce Weigl enlisted in the Army and served in Vietnam for one year, beginning in December 1967. He was awarded the Bronze Star and returned to his hometown of Lorain, Ohio, where he enrolled in Lorain County Community College. As Weigl states in his best-selling prose memoir, The Circle of Hanh (2000), “The paradox of my life as a writer is that the war ruined my life and in return gave me my . . .

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SUBJECT Family & Ancestors, Pets, Youth, Living, Relationships

POET’S REGION U.S., Midwestern

Poetic Terms Free Verse

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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