I LOVE CHICKENS
~This poem first appeared in Cincinnati Review (2012).
Because they spend the day paying attention—
One eye looking for what they can eat,
One for what can eat them. Because they hang
With me in the yard, their clucks and coos a comfort
While I plant and they dig. Because for them
Roaches are a rare and challenging treat.
Because an egg tucked amid pine shavings in the dark
Coop is a brightness and a marvel. Every day.
Because their eggs are not only white but also brown,
And blue, and dappled, and fit perfectly into my palm.
Because they walk like wind-up toys and run
Akilter, careening like roller-coaster cars.
Because everything we haven’t eaten tastes like them.
Because they are delicious. And their eggs are delicious.
Because they are a world of recipes: Cordon Bleu,
Kiev, Curry, Florentine, Parmigiana, Pot-pie.
Because each of the one-hundred folds in a chef’s hat
Represents a different way to cook an egg.
Because sometimes they think I am a rooster
And squat down to be mounted.
Because they are not mascots for sports teams
Even though they are fierce with their hypodermic
Beaks and their scaly feet’s claws.
Because they like to have their scaly feet rubbed.
Because after eating they use the grass like a napkin
To wipe their beaks. Because they are flappable.
Because every night they return to their coop
And every morning they walk the plank into their day.
Because like us they brood, follow a pecking order, desire
A nest egg. Because even their shit is useful.
A SMALL HOLE
~This poem first appeared in Lake Effect (2012)
First was the whispering above us in our sleep.
Not every night. Intermittently. Unpredictably
It woke us and we listened, trying to understand.
When we touched the ceiling, it stopped—listened
To us listening—waited. We vowed to know it
But by daylight we thought better to live
And let live, get to work, soon enough it will end.
Then the ragged hole appeared above our bed.
We bandaged it like an ear with packing tape.
The whispering continued, widened the hole.
I climbed with poison into the attic’s beams
And struts and gently set the tray. In days
The rank rot began seeping down into the house.
We burned candles and incense but it wouldn’t be hidden.
We bathed in it. Ate in it. Made love. Imagined its mouth
Moving over us. Then the flies arrived, climbing the walls,
Washing their feet in the folds of the curtains, dimming the lights
Where they gathered, humming their one-note hymn.
~This poem first appeared in The McNeese Review (2014)
He was a nerd before there were nerds
But one thing you had to say for Mark—
The guy knew how to die. In our wars
He was the first to scream I’m hit, tumble,
Sprawl, pitch forward face first, call
Mama and go still, not flinching
The gnats from his eyes
Because this was death and he knew
The physics—body in motion, opposite
And equal—wherever it takes you.
We envied him, we who were afraid to risk
A rash, a tear, our mothers’ wrath.
He perfected the staggering collapse,
D-Day at the beach, knee-deep in surf, we’d barely
Begun when Mark screamed, clasped his head
And fell into the dead man’s float. The rest of us
Zig-zagged through sound effects—burping guns,
Whistling missiles—until we made it up the beach
To the picnic table, bellowed triumph, took slugs
From canteens and ran toward the smoking grill.
When Mark staggered up dripping, he wanted
To know why we hadn’t waited for him, if we knew
How long he’d held his breath. We didn’t look at him—
Nobody told him to die. We planned another assault.
~This poem first appeared in The Southern Poetry Review (2014).
He was football player big, wore a suit
Every class and carried a black satchel
Thick with notebooks written in braille.
His eyes fixed in a permanent squint,
He stared at the back wall and called roll,
Fingering each figure of our names
As if he knew us like no one else,
Not even us, as if he could feel
The possibility within us—unheard
Music rippling outward until we sang it
When we answered Here and Here and Here.
When he finished calling us he started
Lecturing, by rote, monotone, his hands
Still, inscrutable eyes aimed above our heads.
He liked to shake us up by looking out
The window and making a comment—
Looks like rain he might say, or I love the wind.
He didn’t expect us to speak, but once,
Striding into the classroom he smashed hard
Into an out-of-place desk, yelped shrilly
And dropped his satchel. For the first time
He looked blind, uncertain, jerky, groping
The desk until he pulled himself upright
And spoke in controlled but unconcealed rage,
Why didn’t you move that desk? What the hell
Is wrong with you? Nobody spoke. Nobody
Looked when he called the roll, but we felt him
Pressing every letter of our stupid names.
~This poem first appeared in The Southern Poetry Review (2014).
My son, age four, appears
Beside the bed, middle of the night
Whispering in my ear
That the neighbor’s system is on.
Though he can’t tell time, he says
They’re watering the yard
At one in the morning.
I’m still surfacing from sleep
But remember this week, seeing
The lawn backhoed, leveled, networked
With pipes, timers, pressure monitors,
Then completely re-sodded, the entire
System an extravagant waste
As far as I was concerned.
I walk Ben back to his room and we stand
At his window hypnotized
By a watery chapel all silver and mist
Created by dozens of arching, overlapping
Sprays, the only sound in the star-still night
The shh-shh-shh of the sprinklers.
THE STORY BEHIND THE POEMS
I always have a hard time talking about how or why my poems come into being, but here goes. Almost all of my poems are brief narratives of events from my own experience. This is especially true of “A Small Hole,” “Our Wars,” “Professor Cook,” and “The System,” all of which began as prose notes in one of the notebooks/journals/daybooks that I’ve been keeping for a million years.
Periodically I browse my notebooks looking for passages that seem to be good raw material for a poem—something that seems to say more than it says, i.e., the literal event suggesting a complex idea/metaphor/concept. Then I start sculpting—paying attention to word choice, rhythm, sonic effects, imagery, figurative language, and so on.
The process of writing “I Love Chickens,” was similar but a little different in that the poem is more lyrical than narrative. The story behind the poem is that several years ago my wife decided that we should have backyard chickens. Sustainability and all that. I was dead set against it. Nevertheless, we got the chickens (three initially, five now). It wasn’t long before I was completely fascinated by chickens. What amazing things they are! Writing the poem became a matter of listing (in an engaging, musical way I hope) the reasons why I love them.
ABOUT ERIC NELSON
Eric Nelson has published five collections of poetry, including The Twins (2009), winner of the Split Oak Press chapbook contest; Terrestrials, winner of the X.J. Kennedy Poetry Award (2004); and The Interpretation of Waking Life, winner of the Arkansas Poetry Award (1991). He teaches creative writing at Georgia Southern University.