Woman at the Crows’ Funeral and Other Poems

Sally Rosen Kindred

 

Woman at the Crows’ Funeral

They found you in the ink of your bed:
smelled your sorrow from the window.
They called you Girl. You

trailed them out
to the pines, your heels
dragging silver loam.

You choose a place now among them.
Bend like a doll to black collars, black bells.
No one here is a ghost.

You can regret your body
among the mothers of this glade.
You can go to ground.

(Antonyms for ghost:
Darkness. Reality.)

Your skin will attend
black feathers. Your mask
mourns carrion waters. The crows won’t ask

what kind of daughter you are—
if your grief remembers wings,
if you wear shoes of iron or shoes of wind.

(Antonyms for ghost:
Woman. Entity. Crow.)

Do you begin to know who is lost?
The choir swings
its tarry cry between towers—

work your mouth can’t do.
The receiving line is a path
of rain-breath leaves.

And bristle-close, this warmth: the chance
to kneel, forsake your hands, to roost
in pitch and shine—

to dream back your hunger
cracking from a wet nest,
torn from a dim cloud’s throat—

but the receiving line is a signature of crows
lifting, scraping barbs
in a soot-bright sky

and you are alone again in cold roots.
You are lost. Do you begin to know?
Only your hands burn now with wanting.

Only the clouds, dread-thin, can sing.

 

Ravenous

To be
this hungry.
To be ravened
with regret. To wear
a black bird’s thirst, the kind
of ribbon you’d press against

your throat.
To have a
nest trapped in that
place where your vow needs
to break: be a casket
on the river, a breath-shell

wet with
folded wings.
To swing ajar
for the blooms to fly
out. To shriek on open-
ing with a call, a caw, a

carcass
song. And to
remember you
were wing and tree, to
seal that memory. Long,
starved for loss, this unkindness

your last.

 

Letter to the Month of Floods

November, my dove, flung over the rail
like wreckage, you come
back with death in your mouth. You

cost too much: my empire in a penny.
I know your thumb, the way
it skims the river

of my tongue, drags my nightgown
in the mud. I’m your witness,
you Eucharist

of black leaves, drunk bird
in the pulpit. I heard
you gate-crash the hymns. My gray

bed-star, my near
Sister Dread, I wear you
like a necklace, I bury

your pearl in my wrist. Bite
down on the pulse of it. Tin comet,
bruised flute, torn

mast: let the hours
spit you into winter, olive-sour,
let rain careen through your greens, soak you

to bone. My dove, low
ember, uncertain skin-song,
my ache where the belly

used to be: you lie
down too long, pretend to be a ruby,
never

what you are, a world
in flood, black sea, never
the ocean I need.

 

My Father and the Moon

I. I Am Twelve: You Leave

There is no water on the moon, but you
are swimming in its oceans. You are knee-deep
in its dry, dark chalk. Blue trunks
and the hat with the navy checks.
You can’t see us from there,

but we fill an album
with shots of you afloat
against the phantom tides
in a cracked black cardboard sky.

I grow an inch this year.
My sister learns Chopin’s Prelude No. 3.
Through the lower atmosphere she hits the keys
and I rise, picking up speed
in the minor chords.

II. I Am Forty-Five: You Stop By

The Chevy weighs two thousand pounds, grinds
along the asphalt. You brake when you see
my boys. Your hands turn
in galaxies of broken spider-skin,
celestial, held to the silver wheel.
I’m not sure

it’s safe for you to drive. You have trouble
on the stairs. Sometimes
I can’t believe you’re still alive, climbing

to my son’s room before you leave
to say goodnight. He doesn’t care
if you make it the whole way.
He waves. You blow moon dust, a kiss
splintered to particulates. He can’t know
how fast we’re spinning in its wake.

III. I Am Twenty: You Take Me to the Doctor

Get better, you say
at the frosted door. Opaque.
Your voice thins like steam,
like distance—an order? A wish,
ridiculous. I don’t
speak. The silver

knob gleams. I wrap my hand
in my sleeve
to turn it. Don’t plan
to come back. I take a step.
I leave you, suited up
on the other side.

IV. 1969: I Am Not Yet Born

The woman you still love is swollen
with my dim satellite body. Off-screen
I orbit the cord you made.
The TV cracks, light floods out,
and you’re on the couch
reaching for your coffee cup. Static.
A small man swings, umbilical,

from the mothership. You could slip
from the story here, could rise
and choose the door
but you don’t: you thumb her palm, stay
tethered to the hour. And turn
a gray page inches from her
apple-scented hair. I won’t see you

like this in my life: instead on a loop
thousands of miles over the roof
this moment swims: again and again I’ll see
a boot arrive, hit the blank silver sand.
The high pane admits a crescent of neon
and this is my birthday song.
This is as close as we get.

 

Reading Little Women, 1981

“I am angry nearly every day of my life, Jo.” –Marmee

Once I lay down with Jo’s lamplight and paper.
Once I wished for things
I was not meant to have:

a temporary poverty that draped
like muslin on the wrist, a cellar heart
like Marmee’s, the faith

that fine pencils or a cloth-bound
Undine and Sintram
could save Christmas. A father

who wrote, shadow-flat, from the front
instead of sweating on our porch Christmas Day,
his beige Nova running in the drive

while my mother in her bathrobe
hurled the mean sex book he’d wrapped for her
so it hit his shoulder. Nearly every day

I wanted being a girl
to mean something I could touch,
a cat’s soft ear or the scratch

of thumb at the inkwell.
I longed for
a ringing fever, a ruler to smart

(I am angry) my fingers
if it meant I had a body
made for transcendence

and a future kitchen-warm
clothed in sweet soot hymns.
Saturdays I curled on my purple shag with the book

and longed to be good, or to care
what pages of my life
simple good might turn.

Beside me, my Bermuda bag gaped
for a wild daughter’s taste
of breakfast in New York. But

even Beth’s invalid dolls
outlived her, and Louisa May
didn’t lose her hair

in a blade’s brave swing
to save a father. Instead locks fell
from her, limp

in clinical clumps,
when sour blood made it hard
to sit at her desk every day

and write Marmee
folding her lips tight together
chapter after chapter.

I wanted not to know this on the purple rug.
In a year of torn covers and uncivil war
I wanted a heart

like a winter piano,
the breath of girls around it
flushed and candlelit: to live

inside that singing rosewood
night of sisters,
and outside, girlish weather, field of wordless snow.


Interview with Sally Rosen Kindred
by poetry editors Julie Barbour and Charlotte Mazurek

 

Border Crossing: In three of these poems, birds show up in numerous ways: as an emblem of wreckage, as a voice when the speaker does not have one, and as a synonym for the emptiness of loss. Could you discuss your symbolic use of birds in these poems?

Sally Rosen Kindred: Like so many poets it hurts your head to count them, I have loved birds for the elegies their bodies are, since they’ve mastered the best temporary mysteries—flight and song. I can’t stop being amazed by the flight part: I spent a lot of time when I was nine and ten studying Birds of North America and the green feeder I got for Christmas, making charts of birds that lived in my yard—learning the different kinds of chickadee, and how many bones in a bird’s tongue. It’s amazing to think of what you can hold, a feather, or bones in a tongue—the weight of those things, in the sky. Amazing, and necessarily temporary. So their bodies and names assumed importance to me when my own body was small, grounded, and out of a new sense of mortality, constantly aching to speak, to name whatever mattered.

I’ve been writing about birds since No Eden, my first book, which drew from the narrative of Noah and the Flood. The way they emerge in these poems remembers that story—how birds (both the raven and the dove) bring news, gifts or curses in the mouth, to haunt the overwhelmed. Actual crows do have “funerals”—and that seems right to me, as if their bodies would know how to mourn. I guess in these poems my identification with crows, ravens, and doves is something I assume–or really, just imagine–is mutual.

BC: Could you talk specifically about the ways in which birds become a voice for the speaker and embody loss in these poems?

SRK: I love how you’ve said the birds “embody loss,” and how you see both body and voice in their gifts. I hope the poems are doing that! “Woman at the Crows’ Funeral” suggests a world where crows, mourning, create and assume psychic space for the speaker’s (tangled, nebulous) grief. And for what she can’t say, doesn’t know about herself. Something about their cluster of bodies on the night ground, their ritual, makes room for her body. Something about their voices names her (“Girl”), and that name makes room for her to “go to ground.” They are a receiving line; their voices and bodies hold the potential to redefine her own. Their difference, their strangeness contains that possibility. And as they make room, and they mourn, they question, they point to what’s missing—what she can’t name.

The “you” in “Ravenous,” too, is silenced. And hungry. But also angry. Playing with the overlap of raven and ravenous, I was thinking of mouths (and beaks, and wings) opening and closing, in need and noise and satiation and silence. And the syllabic form, I hope, supports that movement.

BC: We like what you say about the birds making room for the speaker’s body, that the birds’ bodies hold potential for the speaker’s, especially that “strangeness contains possibility.” The speakers of these poems want to belong somewhere; however, it seems they won’t truly fit in until they find their voices. Could you talk about this need to belong as well as the desire to be one’s true self, no matter how strange?

SRK: It’s interesting to think of strangeness in terms of a place where the strange self can go to belong. Yes, these strange worlds offer the chance for—maybe not exactly belonging, but connection, and intimacy—between authentic selves, so that suggests acceptance, too. However, it’s temporary, right? The encounter between speaker and November in “Letter to the Month of Floods,” and the Girl’s attendance at the funeral. The moment in “Ravenous,” which ends when the poem ends.

I’m definitely drawn to the strange in literature (and in people!). Strangeness offers the possibility for emotional intensity and surprising, weird beauty—which is the best kind–and I think, too, I’m interested in beauty that includes, speaks to sadness. As a child, I sometimes felt too sad for the conventional world to claim me. So I am attracted to beauty that arrives on its own, otherworldly terms, and that recognizes all kinds of intense feelings—not just the most comfortable ones. My poems, and my reading tastes, reflect that.

BC: Your poems have an otherworldly quality to them that conjures a fairytale landscape. What was your inspiration for these poems?

SRK: One inspiration was November. Several of these poems were begun in the grayest—and, I’d argue, strangest—month of the year. And my yard was full of crows this last November…which led me to read articles about crows and find out that scientists have been studying crow funerals. That was all I needed! I walk in the woods every day and see crow assemblies all the time. I’ve probably attended several crow funerals without knowing it.

I’m also inspired by what I read, and I feel like I’ve been “reading towards” this writing for some time. These poems are part of a larger project that contemplates illness, womanhood, and family, and their intersections with narrative, including fairy tales as well as other stories (of which Little Women is one). In addition to re-visiting stories I first encountered as a young person—Grimm tales, Dickens novels, Little Women—I’ve also been profoundly influenced by the otherworldly work of Louise Gluck, Anne Sexton, Angela Carter, and H.D., who engage with fairy tales and mythology in such rich, provocative ways. There’s a lot of exciting new work that uses fairy tales in ways that inspire me, too—including powerful poems by Molly Spencer, Jeannine Hall Gailey (Unexplained Fevers), Jennifer Whitaker (The Blue Hour), and Maggie Smith (The Well Speaks of Its Own Poison).

BC: Your passion for books and learning is evident throughout these poems, especially in one which draws from the novel Little Women. While the speaker’s love for the characters is clear, so is the need to belong in this world, though it’s evident it’s a tough one. Do you think that readers, when they fall in love with a novel, want to be part of that world? Does this often happen to you?

SRK: I can’t speak for all novel-readers, of course, but I imagine that they must, in some ways, want to live inside the story, because reading is kind of a commitment to inhabit the rooms of the text, no matter how challenging the world is there. Certainly there can be a particular comfort in knowing where the door is, but I’m the kind of reader who really struggles with a story when I don’t feel some kind of love for the characters, so I want NOT to want to leave. Not every reader feels that way, I know—there is something to be said for a book of despicable people that’s made of delicious sentences—and yet, it’s hard for me to conceive of a different, less intimate relationship to reading.

I think the same is true for poems: the poem I love is not one I can read from a distance. I need to be attached. And my attachment is often visceral. Stuff happens to my skin when I’m reading—and the air, and my hair, and my breath and the way my muscles hold my bones. If that stuff doesn’t happen, I may not keep reading. Or re-reading, which I love doing with my favorite books; I read Little Women every few Christmases.


SRK photo

Sally Rosen Kindred is the author of two poetry books from Mayapple Press, Book of Asters (2014) and No Eden (2011), and a chapbook, Darling Hands, Darling Tongue (Hyacinth Girl Press, 2013). Her poems have appeared in Quarterly West, Blackbird, The Journal, and diode.