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The Transmigration of Souls

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Inside the starboard window
of his room in a boat at sea,
the piece of earth he's scraped from a dead gull’s leg   
sprouts eighty different species, green   
under bell glass. By the sunlight   
of the oil lamp he makes rain   
as the wind picks up toward Chiloe,   
Port Famine, Concepcion, and then Galapagos.
Here he finds shipwrecked sailors’ epitaphs cut
into the shell of an old tortoise   
who’s tame enough to ride,
too huge to slaughter.
Here the birds are fearless.
He can catch them with his hands, let them   
perch on his finger before he
breaks their necks and wraps them
in his shirt and sets their eggs on branches drifting
from the shoreline, island to island.   
Now everywhere he meets himself.
He’s tired, and half the world from home.   
But his mind has entered the morning   
the way all the animals
kept in his cabin in jars along the wall grow   
smaller in sequence
until the window opens on the sea,   
so that what he’ll remember
are the wasted spaces, the desert rock spread out for miles   
as if the earth were flat again,   
dangerous at the horizon,
where the stones, piled, shine
against lava black.
Dew pools in the evenings.
A few pale leaves appear.

Deborah Digges, “The Transmigration of Souls” from Vesper Sparrows (New York: Atheneum Publishers, 1986). Copyright © 1986 by Deborah Digges. Reprinted with the permission of the author.
Source: Vesper Sparrows (Atheneum Publishers, 1986)
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The Transmigration of Souls

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  • Poet Deborah Digges was born Deborah Leah Sugarbaker in Jefferson City, Missouri, in 1950. The sixth of ten children, Digges grew up accompanying her oncologist father on his rounds, as well as visiting a women’s prison where her mother taught religion. Her poetry often recounts episodes from her childhood, as well as her experiences as a young wife and mother.

    According to James Naiden, who wrote a long appreciation of Digges in Rain Taxi, “Digges is a wanderer in her past, and in those of her many siblings—‘Four brothers. Six sisters.’—and from this draws much material for poems.” But Digges’s poetry is also concerned with the natural world; in her careful lyrics, finely wrought metaphors trace the experience of perception and understanding one’s place in a world of animal and vegetable life. For David Gewanter, Digges “names the heart of an extinguished world, sounding out with hard measures the many...

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