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Study Skins, and: Decoy Birds
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Study Skins

The majordomo of the hissing cockroach was tapping the terrarium
    & his charges—flown from
Madagascar sans their green cards—hurled themselves against the plate glass
    with a fury & a sibilance recalling
battle scenes in Homer. Antennae atwitch & the high-pitched strophes
    of a hundred radios on scan.

& Reginald—his face to the glass at first, then jerking back. Members' Night,
    the Field Museum, nineteen
ninety-something, the back rooms opened so the staff could enact
    its grown-up science fair.
We've come to swig cheap Chard from plastic cups as a trio
    of lab coats dissects a still

half-frozen ocelot, courtesy the Lincoln Park Zoo. To determine
    cause of death for the sake
of fund-raising, it's been stored half a year in deep freeze, stench
    of formaldehyde, commingling
with rot. The scalpel parts the matted belly fur. We decide to move on.
    & Reginald: every couple months

we'd meet over Thai or sushi, movies, shoptalk of poetry & po biz
    with its dull-attendant gossip. Often
he asked advice I knew he wouldn't follow, letters of rec to this & that.
    His pride & dignity were worn
like chain mail & easily he'd hurt, easily fuck up the teaching jobs (some I helped
    him get) that scrolled down the pages

of his bottomless cv. But also the projects, the demented single mother—how
    can you emerge from that unscathed?
& what makes us better at lines than at life? I write because I would like

    to live forever, he wrote, & meant it—
his Crane & Stevens necromancy, the radiant unspooling cadences,
    unflappably & proudly Orphic.

A reading once: He adjusts the mike: "I am not a Neg-ro poet." And the sheen
    of milk across the sky, the galaxy
poured out like me, true sky, false dawn. Fumbling with the mike again:
    "I am not a homo-sex-ual poet."
There you are pinned to the lyric distance, small point of reference I call love.
    Page after page I could go on quoting

his burnished effusions. But I choose instead to watch him push
    through the crowds on the Field staircase,
shaved head agleam, the fireplug frame & the bob in his walk
    faintly Chaplinesque, the cancer
a decade off. & we come to the room of study skins, where the red-haired
    woman in pigtails & a lab coat

is placing the stiff simulacrums of birds on a stainless-steel tabletop
    & to touch them is permitted.
Back & forth she scurries, pulling open the bird-morgue drawers,
    taking requests, Reginald
ordering "a peregrine falcon & a nightingale." & me, half joking—"passenger pigeon?"
    But duly she's gone back

& fetched them all. We don our latex gloves—arsenic was the main preservative—
    & pass the sad trio between us.
The peregrine's eye, a droplet of golden celluloid, pops from its socket
    to the table & rests against
the lacquered arced beak. & here's the pigeon, bloated with a century's extinction,
    the salmon-hued breast feathers caked

in a nimbus of dust. & the nightingale, Teutonic & squat, roly-poly, dishwater gray,
    a miniature Richard Strauss. All
the night song of trill & whistle & gurgle stilled, no more to warble his native
    woods-note wild. Do I remember it right?
Reginald has gripped the thing in both his hands, upright so the soundless aria
    is poised to resonate again,

poised but unsung, poised though stilled, poised though the vocal cords
    have long since grayed to nothing,
poised to utter the raptured music, radio-telescoped, & broadcast earthward
    from the spheres, poised to channel
the heavens' dumbfound seared lament. Afar, afar, afar. Already he hears
    its fervent approach. Poised.

in memory of Reginald Shepherd

Decoy Birds

Consider it: to sew shut the eyes of the living bird
must have required a certain delicacy

uncharacteristic of hunters. Blue thread
atremble in your meaty hands, the needle-eye

pierced, the glassy pupils shut like sarcophagi
& all the while the bird is writhing (needle too deep

& the thing will bleed out) & all the while the cry
will issue forth, a breathy panicked coo. You've sewn up

the eyes of an adult male passenger pigeon;
the breast, fat & salmon-hued, heaves as the bird is placed

among a dozen wheeling others in a...

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