- Study Skins, and: Decoy Birds
The majordomo of the hissing cockroach was tapping the terrarium & his charges—flown fromMadagascar sans their green cards—hurled themselves against the plate glass with a fury & a sibilance recallingbattle 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, nineteenninety-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 sakeof fund-raising, it's been stored half a year in deep freeze, stench of formaldehyde, comminglingwith 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. Oftenhe asked advice I knew he wouldn't follow, letters of rec to this & that. His pride & dignity were wornlike 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 [End Page 255]
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 galaxypoured 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 cancera 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, Reginaldordering "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 againstthe 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. Allthe night song of trill & whistle & gurgle stilled, no more to warble his native [End Page 256] 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 channelthe heavens' dumbfound seared lament. Afar, afar, afar. Already he hears its fervent approach. Poised.
in memory of Reginald Shepherd
[End Page 257]
Consider it: to sew shut the eyes of the living birdmust have required a certain delicacy
uncharacteristic of hunters. Blue threadatremble 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 crywill issue forth, a breathy panicked coo. You've sewn up
the eyes of an adult male passenger pigeon;the...