What were the odds of it being
this crow in particular and not
one of its hundreds of brethren
now squawking futilely on its
behalf as its hapless, now limp
carcass is being carried furious
and fast across the lawns of
Jacqueline Drive, hard in the
talons of this hawk who passes
within yards of my bicycle as the
victim’s fellow crows dive bomb
every determined flap of its wings?
Every crow spared but this one,
dead, snuffed, just like that, a
meal in the waiting if the hawk
can elude the battalion of angry
crows acting for all the world as
if they will not stand for this atrocity.
So startled am I by this raw hard
scene of everyday terror that I stop
my bike in awe and alarm as the crow
army screams and circles far above,
their fallen comrade then dropped as
suddenly as the hawk had pounced
and snagged it mere seconds ago.
And now it lies inert, heaped in the
middle of a neighbor’s driveway, the
hawk departed, the surviving army
of crows quieting, dispersing, onto
their evening affairs that will tide
them over through another night
of life, and death, lucky, or not.
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Death can be so unexpected, not to mention damned inconvenient. It has no respect for human rights, cutting short the lives of the young and strong, those who have led lives of courage, respect for others, and have lived virtuous lives. The worst part is our inability to see it coming. It’s like a hawk who, without warning, swoops into our path, no particular reason why, and ruthlessly yanks us out of our assumption that death is far far away. Sometimes I find myself mentally slipping into thoughts about my coming death, after all I’m seventy-one, and I can’t escape the reality that somewhere, out of sight, there is a death hawk out there, circling closer each day.
I have, in spite of my attempts to stop it, I still find myself pondering the inevitable. I wonder, will I take its assault with dignity and courage, or will I find myself gripped by fear and pleading with God to spare me. The fact is that it won’t really matter how I feel about it, death is inevitable and the hawk has no interest in making his victim feel any comfort. If my ponderings have taught me anything, it’s that pondering death is pretty much an exercise of futility. So I compartmentalize it, try to not think about it. But trying to not think about death is also an exercise in futility. So on good days I am so preoccupied with life that I forget to look around for that old hawk. But on the darker and colder ones, say in the middle of winter, I wrestle with the thoughts of that deadly old bird. Se la vie.
Robert, yours is an essay unto itself, and I thank you very much for it. It gives me much to wrestle with too, but not without enjoying your rooting around in this thought play that bears no ultimate answers but profoundly rewards the exploration in any case. It is the journey, after all, the road, the “preoccupation with life” itself, that is far more critical to our well-being and service than is any unanswerable questions about an ultimate destination. The road is, indeed, vastly superior to the inn.
That said, I find death a very useful little bird, singing softly into my ear from a place on my shoulder, where I invite it to stay for as long as it helps keep me noting the important messages about time and love and engagement and joy and yes, sorrow, that it is always ready to convey.
Death is, of course, inevitable and I also feel that pondering it is far from futile; it can be an inspiration and a guide for how to actually live. Some of us luckier ones can also shape the way we approach and meet that inevitable death, as well.
Like all victims of sudden and violent death the crow didn’t get much of a chance to shape that experience, and some of us will undergo that same fate. However, many of us do get an opportunity to create our passage: to seek and find joy to the end, to be reflective and honest about our life, to say goodbye to the places and people we love.
Far from futile, for both the dying and the living.
Andrew, your poem sent me back to Robert Frost’s “Out, Out-“, another poem about the fragility of life, the arbitrariness of death, and the “carry on” responses to another’s bad luck/demise. I read “Out Out” in high school and was incensed by, what felt to me, its cold cruelty. I still don’t like it. I much prefer your poem, the way you bore witness.
BY ROBERT FROST
The buzz saw snarled and rattled in the yard
And made dust and dropped stove-length sticks of wood,
Sweet-scented stuff when the breeze drew across it.
And from there those that lifted eyes could count
Five mountain ranges one behind the other
Under the sunset far into Vermont.
And the saw snarled and rattled, snarled and rattled,
As it ran light, or had to bear a load.
And nothing happened: day was all but done.
Call it a day, I wish they might have said
To please the boy by giving him the half hour
That a boy counts so much when saved from work.
His sister stood beside him in her apron
To tell them ‘Supper.’ At the word, the saw,
As if to prove saws knew what supper meant,
Leaped out at the boy’s hand, or seemed to leap—
He must have given the hand. However it was,
Neither refused the meeting. But the hand!
The boy’s first outcry was a rueful laugh,
As he swung toward them holding up the hand
Half in appeal, but half as if to keep
The life from spilling. Then the boy saw all—
Since he was old enough to know, big boy
Doing a man’s work, though a child at heart—
He saw all spoiled. ‘Don’t let him cut my hand off—
The doctor, when he comes. Don’t let him, sister!’
So. But the hand was gone already.
The doctor put him in the dark of ether.
He lay and puffed his lips out with his breath.
And then—the watcher at his pulse took fright.
No one believed. They listened at his heart.
Little—less—nothing!—and that ended it.
No more to build on there. And they, since they
Were not the one dead, turned to their affairs.
Very hearty thank-you for this, David. I was not familiar with this poem, but the subject matter parallels are striking. I’m not sure I like it either, but it has an undeniable power, Frost being the poet he is and working with this stark imagery.
I found it a touch too disturbing, with nothing to hold onto but the horrid, bitter tragedy he describes. Maybe the difference is as basic as I’m writing about a mere bird, after all, so we can contemplate the violence and arbitrariness of nature at an emotional remove, without the underlay of a young boy’s life being cut short in such a sudden grisly way. Lots to think about here; I will be turning this one over quite a bit more. Thanks again!
Robert, the inconvenience of death came to roost for us a few days ago, and the fact that a 91-year-old life ended and the word “inconvenient” slipped into the narrative is a bit disturbing, though true for those involved. My wife and I are house-sitting in Manitou Springs, Colorado for folks on sabbatical in New Zealand. Alan’s father lives in Florida, recently turned 91 and suffered a stroke this past weekend, resulting in his death on Monday. The inconvenience is that Alan and Edie were not scheduled to return to the U. S. until the end of July, and ending our stay in their home. All four of us were carefully calibrated for a July 27 transition. But, alas, along came the hawk and now all plans are furiously changing to accommodate the “inconvenient” timing of this man’s death. Thankfully, there will be family, friends and acquaintances that will gather to reflect on a full, rich life well lived and the “inconvenience” of the timing of his passing will soon be forgotten, though likely a story passed for some time regarding the abrupt departure from New Zealand and the scramble met by those (us) on the homefront to adapt to a new plan.