The Curlew

Poem by Michael Shewmaker

Plate 291 (Numenius borealis) is the only instance in which the subject appears dead in the work of John James Audubon. 



Beneath the cedars stirring in the churchyard,

stone angels endure the weather for the dead

while townsmen, slinging shovelfuls of dirt,

strive in a singular rhythm. He sits alone

sketching the angels from the shade—a kind

of heavenly bird he reasons with himself—

although their wings are broken, faces scarred,

each fragile mouth feigning the same sad smile

as the one before it. Offered double his price

to paint a likeness of the pastor’s daughter—

buried for more than a week—he reluctantly

agreed—times being what they are. The men

call from the grave—beckon with their hands

calloused and swollen with the wage of work.



The nervous bird worries the waterline,

probing the sand between the waves’ retreat

and surge. Its shrill call dies into a wind

that scours the wide, airy stretch of shore.

How dull it seems against the gulf—with no

raised crest or striking plumage to admire,

no flamboyant breast or ivory bill,

only the markings of a common plover.

And yet he studies it—from behind the dunes—

studies its several postures, grounded and

in sudden flight—and not content to praise

it from a distance, to sacrifice detail,

unpacks his brushes and arranges them

before raising his rifle and taking aim.



The men still beckon from the grave. The angels

seem expectant. In the short walk between the shade

and where they wait, he thinks, for the first time,

of the work ahead. The men, who moments ago

joked about worms and the girl’s virginity,

delicately scrape the remaining dirt and clay

off of the coffin’s lid. They sweep the lacquer

with their hands. The cedars rattle overhead. 

And while they struggle with the lid, he vows

to recreate her—as she might have been—

to excuse her blemishes—whatever they

may be: the jutting cheekbones of her face,

her sunken skin—to find the form that once

was there, and, afterward, erase what was.   



Wings stiffening against its breast, the curlew

refuses the rigging. Driven by the sun’s descent,

a lack of wood, and never being one to work

from memory, he lays it in the sand

beyond the tide’s tall reach. Nothing escapes

his hand: from alien feet to modest crown,

the upturned wing and speckled down, the throat,

the meager curve of beak—the small, dark eye.

He thinks it wears its body like a cloak—

or like the white gown draped loosely around

the pastor’s daughter, the shadow of the cedars

branching over her folded hands, her chest,

her exposed neck and clavicles—her face

still radiant as if she might sit up to greet him.


American Arts Quarterly, Fall 2013, Volume 30, Number 4