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
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.
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