Poetry Porch: Poetry


by James Plath

           for Norman Plath (1925-1995)

Today, while Antillean bullfinches stiffen
their wings and hop defiantly against each
other on our patio tiles, brave but comic
as Mel Gibson in a kilt, I think of you,

strong-jaw stubborn and battling five
days longer than any of your doctors
predicted—as if to make your joke come
true, to pay them back for all the hours

you waited for them in stiff-backed chairs
and grumbled to Mother, always too loudly,
What’s the sense of having an appointment?
Hours after the call, I’m still dumbfounded

by these tiny birds, watching their nervous
movements and realizing how their own hearts
must beat quick as a hummingbird’s, fluttering
fast as the rapid eye movement that wings us

into the land of dreams—a netherworld that pays
us back for the lives we’ve led when we’re awake.
When we first came to this coral island, godlike,
we took to naming birds, to try to reflect

the subtle quirks that set them apart, these
otherwise identical dusty-gray sparrows.
One bullfinch called “Spike” used his wings
for balance, like a fighting cock, spurs kicking

up a concrete fuss, while another we had to call
“Earful” because of the way she’d sputter and
scold like an athlete going nose-to-nose
with an umpire, shrieking, wings flapping

like chattering teeth from a novelty store.
But today I’m reminded of “Peg-leg,” one
we thought a con man, a pirate who came
to us first every morning, as if the others

had sent him to turn us to dough, to prompt
our return with bread to crumb. He’d pose
like a beggar on our patio rail sans tin cup,
one leg retracted like an airplane wheel,

balancing without the slightest hint of wobble
or strain. Then we noticed the tumor at first
joint—watched it grow, as if our daily ration
had nourished it too. One day Peg-leg flew off

and returned weeks later without a foot:
Doctors be damned, he had chewed himself
well, re-created himself to fit the nickname
we had bestowed, as if to acknowledge

that here in Barbados almost everyone
has another name, one they’ve earned
on the streets, in the schools, a name
that tells the whole story—secrets and all.

Everyone has a dead father poem, a hospital
poem, a tribute poem, and I know you’d be
the first to say you’d want none of this
sappiness or bluff and bluster. But watching

these birds that hop on countertops and fly through
louvered windows as they please, I can’t help
but think of your own irreverence—like
the time we were fishing and you suddenly

stood to relieve yourself, rocking the boat
and grinning, “You know what they say:
If you can’t catch them . . . ,” then
leaving a ten year old’s mind to finish.

Watching these birds and thinking of one
in particular who finally flew off, brave
as Earhart, into the past, I can’t help but
remember your own resilience, your own

resourcefulness, the lesson you took
thirty years to explain: Anyone can
learn to stand on two feet; you
taught me to balance on one.

Copyright © 2011 by James Plath.