Photo credit: Bruce Kennedy | Interview by Zoë Brigley
The writing process involved the two competing impulses – invention and harmony.
The cowbird’s song masks her intentions. “Like water falling,” my mother would say, before the music in her brain dazed her words. The cowbird sings to mark the nest she’s laid her egg – another’s nest because (as we were taught) she doesn’t care for her own brood, but leaves it to other birds, who feed an open mouth same as their own. The cowbird chick will grow and peck and kill its nestlings. Fully fledged, it flies away. Don’t ask me how I know. I’ve seen things. I’ve seen a crow rob a starling’s nest, limp chick in its beak; seen a hawk catch the crow, seen feathers fall like water to the grass below.
You chose to write about the parasitic cow bird, which lays its eggs in the nests of songbirds.
Very often we like to humanize nature with motherly imagery or as a paradise for human beings.
What drove you to write about the stranger, harsher side of the more-than-human?
This poem reveals a glimpse of the personal here with the mother whose language seems to be
failing her. I think newer poets could learn a lot from how voluble the silences are in this poem,
from how it holds back but communicates so much. How did you manage the tightrope walk in
this poem between sentiment and sentimentality?
Nature is profluent and neutral, and has a system. The poem begins by considering the cowbird
paradox, which is that it propagates by abandoning its progeny. The cowbird wants what all
other living things want, which is to keep living. When my mother said that the cowbird’s song
was like water falling, the apprehension was purely esthetic, which is what makes us human. All
we can do is appreciate it, really. Anything else is dishonest.
The poem pivots in line 11 because knowing about life and death is sad, which is also a human,
esthetic response. You see things. I didn’t want to overplay the great chain of being idea, but it’s
kind of obvious that the hawk’s on top. The death of the crow is the same as water falling, a kind
My mother often spoke in poetry. Twenty years after she made the comment about the cowbird,
deep into dementia, she would hear music everywhere, all the time, because she couldn’t help it.
She had no silence. She didn’t always like it. “Every night,” she told me, “there’s a band playing
in the field behind the house. But I don’t know which song.” Near the end, she asked me “Where
is Matt living?” I told her that I was Matt and I was living in Ohio. She paused for a moment and
said “Oh, it must be pretty crowded there.” The poem reenacts the distance between her words
and their meaning.
The writing process involved the two competing impulses – invention and harmony. I began by
doing a kind of chaotic word dump of barely connected observations, recorded on my phone and
initially transcribed as prose. My goal then was to shape the draft deliberately into pre-planned
structure, as an enabling constraint. I thought of a broken sonnet: fourteen lines split into stanzas
of nine and five, iambic pentameter, odd and accidental rhymes. Chaos is just a pattern we can’t
see yet. To write the poem is to find the pattern, or part of it, anyway.