The Owl

1

No one knows where I’m going,
not even me. Although that owl
I heard outside last night might
lead me to the terrain and call out
the custodians so they can
surround and welcome me, or
do whatever they want to do. I won’t
speak, won’t say my name even if
they try to coerce me, or play
unearthly music, such as sailors
hear far out on the Atlantic, in fog
so thick they venture to climb it
to reach clear sky. Some do and speak
of large blue birds that glide there
silently as ghosts, but those men
return too damaged to speak much
or stay above ground very long.
The owl could tell more, if he wanted,
but he won’t. And not only that,
he’s decided he will never be seen.


2

I’m happy to honor that, but I’d like
to know what kind of owl he is.
I mean, is he blue, or is he striped
so he can blend with the forest?
Is he tall and white, from the Arctic,
or a pygmy, from further south?
Is he long-eared or spectacled? I want
to hear again the noise he made,
was it a screech, or a staccato huhuhu
followed by a deep-drawn whoo,
or did it sound like wood being sawn?
I am ashamed I paid it no attention.
I did not know then he was a messenger,
albeit a taciturn one. How does he know
me, and why is he so interested? Once
a parrot took stock of me, learnt to speak
my name in exactly the tones I said it in,
mimicked it endlessly and so loudly
that I ran from my laughing friend’s house
with my shrill-voiced name hurling after me.


3

Where does the owl go during the day?
How can he know I’ll still be here
when he surfaces? I do take trains — 
I go north sometimes, pulled by my past.
I fly to places. Will he know all this
and follow me everywhere? When can I
expect his sounds to morph into spoken
words that I understand and act on,
if I agree with him? But if I decide
to stay put, never leave the bedroom,
will he get fed up standing there
and row away through the night air,
hooting a farewell? I don’t think so,
no, this fellow is here for the duration
of my stay on this enormous ball
and could tell right now how long that
will be, and what messy adventures
are still ahead of me, but his trick is
to keep as schtum on such stuff as
the wooden owl on my bedside table.


4

I’ve heard stories about owls, how they
appear from nowhere at the edge of things
to sit watching, usually staying silent,
but sometimes uttering a few words in
their night language we don’t understand.
That’s my fellow, although I don’t know him.
Should I leave the house and hold my
right arm out for him to land on and turn
his big eyes on me? As if he’d be so compliant.
Or should I try to forget him, pretend
he’s not there in the dark, like a tree
I hadn’t noticed growing? Oh, at least
I should stop mentioning him here, but what
else can I write about? Not the journey
I’m taking that I know nothing of, not yet,
and when I do I mightn’t feel like writing.
I think the solution might be to buy
a T-shirt with an owl printed on it,
a blue owl, on a yellow shirt, and write
about that small fellow to begin with.


5

What I want to learn is this: do owls
ever venture inside, to stand on a corner-
table, cock their heads to one side,
and take in completely what’s going on?
There are mice here that may be welcome,
but I know my owl would be suspicious.
He’d assume I want him inside to see
what he looks like, to make friends with him,
so he’ll be kind to me. I could promise
to wear a blindfold and say nothing,
act like I don’t know he’s there, but I will
know and that’s enough. I think I hear
his thoughts and I’m sure he hears mine.
I feel his big eyes on me all the time.
Maybe I should start carrying the wooden
owl around with me, and practice owl noises.
When is he going to tell me what he has to?
I’m not asking for a map, but I’d like to know
where I’m headed, if not where I’ll end up.
And I’d like to know it as soon as I can.


6

When I say I hear his thoughts, I hear some,
not the important ones. And here’s one
of mine — if he ventured inside this house
he’d see something that might intrigue him,
a hand-knitted toilet roll cover, in rings of
purple, red, and white. Like an unknown planet
hanging in the sky. I’d let him have it, take it
back to his nest, or his hollow tree trunk, or his
half-sunken boat. I know he’ll assume this
is another example of special pleading,
and I accept that. Would I do better to ignore
him, let him stay out there, like a pinecone
that remains unobserved? I saw my doctor
yesterday, he spoke of the deterioration,
and I felt the owl was hiding in a cupboard,
agreeing with every word. After that I went
to my sister’s grave and the owl flew back
to wherever he’s been ordered to lurk
while observing me. Maybe I should feel
privileged to have his full-time attention.


7

This morning I captured a beetle climbing
the parsley. I put him in an empty matchbox,
wondering what the owl thought of this.
Would it impact what might be unfolding?
I doubted this. I slipped on some spidery jazz
that I knew would annoy the owl. He needed
to be in control. I ground coffee beans
and made espresso. The aroma wafted through
the house. I freed the beetle to explore
the table, and when it wandered off the edge
I let it. I’m sure it survived, but I’m not bothered,
just as I know the owl doesn’t care about me.
We are thrown together, all of us, by winds
that come here from far-off worlds. I sipped
my coffee, humming the tune spun through
the jazz, and I felt quite well for the first time
in weeks, even months. Was the owl watching — 
had he been in contact with the beetle?
And what was their collective verdict on me?
Did it add up to more negative evidence?


8

OK, I’m blanking him. I watched a crow today,
really admired how he operated, looking
after the young ones, his partner, none of
this spying on others. I’ve decided I don’t like
owls, their self-absorption, or their nosiness
about people. I know which I’d rather be.
And I don’t have to deal with a crow stalking me.
The owl would laugh about these thoughts.
He’s been given the task of waiting to release,
when he can, exactly what I need to know
or what he can reveal. I admit he’s not easy
but, shit, he’s the dumb card I’ve been dealt
and I have to pretend I like him. Can I ask him
about the Oxford and Cambridge rowers,
or about the hairdressers the Louisianians use,
or the tiger cubs that Texans keep as pets?
The owl would make minced meat of them all.
I wish he would hoot another noise to me.
I might even acknowledge his importance,
given my situation, but I won’t reveal anything.

9

I felt the presence of the owl last night.
He was in the room with me. Not literally — 
he appeared in a dream, where a blue van
struggled up an icy road before sliding back
in a horrible, wriggling way, to what felt
like an end. I’m not sure how it seemed so.
And I can’t say where the owl was in this
little film, except he was definitely there.
This morning I came down the stairs,
expecting some sign from him. I found
a few brown feathers on a white plate
on the kitchen table. OK, then, he must be
a brown owl, but why donate some feathers,
and what did these denote? I made coffee,
then put on a CD of Anouar Brahem’s oud
that seemed to suit the moment. And I
decided it was the time to poach two eggs
to serve on top of two slices of rye bread
while I primed the espresso machine again
and asked myself what the owl was saying.

10

Those feathers were gone from the plate
when I went back for them this evening,
so I wondered if maybe I’d imagined them,
or if they’d fluttered up from the eggs
before I’d poached them. That doubt was
caused by the owl, I was sure — I’d made him
careless, and he was recovering his poise,
his control. And I was back in the place
where I knew nothing, where he liked me to be.
I opened the door and stood there, listening,
but no owl sound came. Then a bat just barely
avoided my head, and glided toward the moon.
I stood watching this leathery fellow, then
closed the door, and opened some wine.
How much did the owl control? Would I
be attacked by a rat tonight while I slept,
not savagely, but enough to terrify me?
Or would cockroaches swarm on my duvet,
clicking enough to wake me? The idea being
that these would render me so punch-drunk
I’d welcome whatever the owl had to say.


11

I spent the morning drawing owl after owl
on bits of paper, and after I’d got somewhere
near a proper depiction, I found a black marker
and reproduced it on an A2 drawing page
which I Pritt Sticked onto the gable wall, then
I dug out my old black bow and four arrows
and unleashed these into the body of the owl.
I knew I was being provocative, maybe even
launching an act of war, but I could take no
more, and couldn’t see what I had to lose.
The owl clearly was unmoved by this, so I
repeated the desecration four times over
till the drawn owl looked machine-gunned,
whereupon I flung the bow down on the grass
and went in to pour a large glass of  Talisker
for the first time in months, if not years.
It still tasted good. I slipped on Kind of Blue,
which always chilled me, and lay on the sofa
with my shoes kicked off, and the curtains
wide open. I thought, let the owl do his worst.

12

When the dark came, I lurked in the kitchen,
bow in hand, arrows in the quiver that hung
from my left shoulder, like the Robin Hood
I wanted to play in the school pantomime — 
I got Little John instead! I kept looking out at
the dark garden, wondering if I should be there,
waiting to fire arrows at any sound or movement.
Why did I want to kill the owl? He hadn’t given
me the news I dreaded, but he’d stayed silent.
That was more than I could bear. I poured a
glass of Malbec and put on a CD of Baltic jazz.
Did he think I could wait forever, as if I were
a rock? I sliced some cheddar and a heel of bread,
opened the back door and went out. The moon
turned its big eye onto me, and I saw it wobble.
The stars hummed along. Where am I going?
I shouted at all of them. There was no response.
Then far off, I heard a faint huhuhu followed by
a whoo. You cowardly bastard! I roared, and
sprayed the arrows all over the blackened world.
More Poems by Matthew Sweeney