Vesper Sparrows

I love to watch them sheathe themselves mid-air,
shut wings and ride the light’s poor spine

to earth, to touch down in gutters, in the rainbowed
urine of suicides, just outside Bellevue’s walls.

From in there the ransacked cadavers are carried
up the East River to Potter’s Field

as if they were an inheritance,
gleaned of saveable parts,

their diseases jarred and labeled, or incinerated,
the ashes of metastisized vision

professing the virus that lives beyond the flesh
in air ...

               The first time I saw the inside of anything
alive, a downed bird opened cleanly

under my heel. I knelt
to watch the spectral innards shine and quicken,

the heart-whir magnify.
And though I can’t say now what kind of bird it was,

nor the season, spring or autumn, what
dangerous transition,

I have identified so many times that sudden
earnest spasm of the throat in children,

or in the jaundiced faces of the dying,
the lower eye-lids straining upward.

Fear needs its metaphors.
I’ve read small helplessnesses make us maternal.

Even the sparrows feel it,
nesting this evening in traffic lights.

They must have remembered, long enough to mate,
woods they’ve never seen,

but woods inbred up the long light of instinct,
the streaked siennas of a forest floor

born now into the city,
the oak umbers, and the white tuft

of tail feathers like a milkweed meadow
in which their song, as Burroughs heard it,

could be distinguished:

down-the-hill ...
here, where every history is forfeited,

where the same names of the different dead greet
each other and commingle

above the hospital’s heaps of garbage.
From the ward windows, fingerprinted,

from the iron-grated ledges,
hundreds flock down for the last feed of the day

and carry off into the charitable dusk what
cannot be digested.

Deborah Digges, “Vesper Sparrows” 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)
More Poems by Deborah Digges