Writers' Corner

Maggie Dubris

2001 Poetry

Author's Statement

Being awarded the NEA grant was a truly wonderful and unexpected honor. In addition to being a poet, I have worked for 18 years full-time as a 911 paramedic in New York City's Times Square area, a job which is very rewarding but physically and mentally stressful. Two years ago I went part-time, both to get a break from the streets and to spend more time writing. This grant for me is a grant of time - time to spend writing and not have to worry about making money.

The work that these poems are taken from is a series of 113 linked poems called, Toilers of the Sea. It is a series about extinction and vanishing, something I have seen a lot of in my work, but also in the world outside my own personal experience. It seems to me that each thing that vanishes from this world - whether an animal, a person, or even a language or memory, takes with it something special. A curious characteristic or way of being that belongs only to it.

In the section that is shown here, I was thinking of my great-great-grandmother, who came to America as an eighteen year old Salvationist in the late 1800s. I thought about her leaving all that she knew, coming to a new world, and never seeing the world she left again. Then I realized that she had probably seen the passenger pigeon, and that was what inspired the poem, "The Interior of the Abyss, suddenly revealed". The information about extinct birds I learned from a beautiful book called, The Doomsday Book of Animals, by David Day, which is sadly out of print, but can still be found at used bookstores.

from "Toilers of the Sea"

Excerpt from First Part, Book VI: The Drunken Steersman and the Sober Captain

III. Conversations Interrupted

          Got to drown you, huh
          You don't drown got to burn you up with infernal fire, huh
          You don't burn got to freeze you in the rings of Saturn, huh
          You don't freeze got to smite you till you shatter shatter
          Got to cover you with boils, huh
          Got to afflict you with lice, got to rampage on your wife
          Got to send you off into the wilderness, huh
          Got to send you off into the wilderness, huh
          Got to-

          In the past is a garden.
          In the garden is a tree.
          In the tree is a fruit.
          In the fruit is a seed.
          In the seed is a world.

IV. Captain Clubin displays all his great Qualities

          In the world is a past.

          Unco-land.
          Babylon.

          The wind is cold.
          The candle flickers.
          Her skirts are filthy
          And filled with pomegranates.
          A thousand upon thousand upon thousand years gone
          And still men dream of her
          In the rush of the wind
          The flap-flap of a nighthawk's wing

          To become an astonishment. A hissing.
              . . . out of this garden you must get . . .
          To become an astonishment. A fire in the bones.

Get ye to the racetrack, girlie. That's where the sinners are.

V. Clubin reaches the Crowning-point of Glory

          Is it strange, then, for a woman to yearn to burn? Not in a
          Lake of fire, but as a lake of fire.
          A hearth in a kitchen
          In a town in a land in a world.

          A man's heart can just be a chunk of flesh
          The heart of a carrion crow, the heart of a goose.

          A woman's heart is the remnant of a Beltain fire
          Lit not by a match but by a rotating wheel

                    I loved everything I saw.
                    My eyes weren't flesh, but whirlpools
                    Spirals, spirals down into the light.
                    I shall say now what I loved:
                    I loved the great bird wanderers
                    The kingbirds, the killdeer, the marshhawks.
                    I loved what the earth gave me, thorn apple and
                    Bitter plum, chokeberry, wild white indigo. I loved the swales
                    And the wallows, the tattered snipe nests
                    Nestled in saltgrass.

          A woman's heart is a grass fire
          Out by the racetrack where the sinners are
          The flap-flap of a tent
          In the evening dews and damps
          The call of a bugle
          The dim and flaring lamps

VI. The Interior of the Abyss suddenly revealed

          1. Birds who became extinct before she was born:

                    The Elephant Bird (extinct c. 1700)
                              Whose enormous eggs were often stolen by sailors as curios
                    The Giant Moa (extinct c. 1850)
                              A fierce denizen of the New Zealand grasslands
                    The Reunion Solitaire (extinct c. 1780)
                              When captured made no sound, but shed tears
                    The Tanna Dove (extinct c. 1800)
                              Lived on wild nutmeg, and had strangely yellow eyes
                    The Blue Dove of St. Helena (extinct c. 1775)
                              So little is known of this species, no name has yet been assigned
                    The Great Auk (extinct c. 1844)
                              Were slaughtered by being hurled alive into huge bonfires
                    The Tahitian Sandpiper (extinct c. 1800)
                              A shy white-winged wader
                    The Painted Vulture (extinct c. 1800)
                              Feasted on the carcasses of reptiles roasted in the grass fires
                    The Rodriguez Little Owl (extinct c. 1850)
                              Whose lonely, twisting cry foretold fair weather
                    The Mascerent Parrot (extinct c. 1840)
                              The last Mascerent Parrot died in the garden of the King of Bavaria
                    The Leguat's Rail (extinct c. 1700)
                              This whistler exhibited a morbid fascination with the color red

          2. Birds who became extinct during her lifetime

                   The Passenger Pigeon (extinct c. 1914)
                              Traveled in huge columns that coiled across the sun
                    The Bonin Wood Pigeon (extinct c. 1900)
                              Noted for its metallic, golden purple feathers
                    The Choiseul Crested Pigeon (extinct c. 1910)
                              Inhabited remote cloud forests
                    The Guadalupe Storm Petrel (extinct c. 1911)
                              Was believed to embody the souls of drowned sailors
                    The Quelili (extinct c. 1900)
                              Made a curious gabbling noise when riled
                    The Laughing Owl (extinct c. 1900)
                              Lived in cracks in the limestone cliffs, and laughed on rainy nights
                    The Carolina Parakeet (extinct c. 1910)
                              The only parrot native to the United States
                    The Puerto Rican Conure (extinct c. 1892)
                              Fed in the corn fields, and nested in hollow trees
                    The Heath Hen (extinct c. 1932)
                              Mated and traveled in groups of several thousand
                    The Guadalupe Flicker (extinct c. 1906)
                              Made a low chuckling sound while mating
                    The Chatham Island Bellbird (extinct c. 1906)
                              Whose beautiful song sounded like bells

Real Audiofrom "Toilers of the Sea" read by the author