A native of Johnstown, NY, I retired in June 2016 after 29 years of teaching writing and literature at Ripon College in Wisconsin. I've published six collections of poetry, including Stutter Monk and Second Wind; I also co-edited (with Kate Sontag) the essay anthology After Confession: Poetry as Confession. Essays, reviews, and individual poems have appeared widely, both in print and online. In recent years I've spent nearly as much time on photography as poetry. A gallery of my work is online here: http://instagram.com/doctorjazz
For the Birds
It was my father's strongest dismissal.
He who never cursed or raised a fuss,
never in my earshot spat out a shit!
or fuck it!, who seldom sent back a dish
at a restaurant, and never in his life told
a smutty joke, might sometimes mutter,
leaving the bank, how that officious teller
was really for the birds. . . .
Waiting in line to shake the crooked hand
of the Governor. Buying lottery tickets
or vitamin supplements. Praying too loudly
at the midnight Christmas service:
all for the birds, which even as a kid I knew
means useless, phony, not worth the time
or money, sucker-bait. What I didn't know,
as just occurred to me today, watching
two bluejays skirmish in the pines,
raucous as sirens, vulgar and flashy scolds,
was where the expression came from.
A few minutes online, and now I know:
U.S. Army slang, first recorded in WWII,
where my father no doubt picked it up
in the jungles of the South Pacific.
It was, of course, originally shit for the birds,
which seems self-explanatory. As is
the fact that Dad left out the shit. Swearing
was the lazy man's crutch, a vulgarian's
idea of honesty. It was strictly for the birds.
Sooner or later every gray October
comes a day I remember Miss Gallo,
our second grade teacher, who yells
and yells at us most days before lunch
till her voice turns to soggy sawdust.
We're looking out: pale bleak morning,
either raining or about to. No shades
to stop us. Where else to look?
The blue vein on her forehead, cords
bulging up her wattled neck?
We are the worst class ever. Not even
trying to learn. Lazy and dirty and
worse. But that's not true, Miss Gallo.
We're ready to do most anything
if it would stop your shrieking. But
our resources are limited. We gaze
down at our weathered yellow desks
when the windows cloud over with
you stalking down the rows. Anything,
do you hear me? Anything, I suppose,
but whatever it is you need from us.
It's second grade for a time, then
it's not. I could not know it then,
but you'll fade like the big map
on the south wall, green Canada
yellowing fast, blue America looking
a bit gray, until no one at the fortieth
reunion can remember your first name
or whatever happened to you.
Back from the bar, Robbie Boswell,
who lived down the street from you
and your one-bedroom house, pipes up.
He used to steal hickory nuts from
your tree. She hated me, he says, but
it's clear that's the end of his interest
in the matter. He never knew your
first name or anything else about you.
How lonely you must have been,
screaming at seven year olds. Do you
hear me now, Miss Gallo? Yes, I finally
got curious. I looked you up. Wrote
this poem and it turns out that it
ended my interest in the matter.
©2017 David Graham
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