The Bird Frau

BY RITA DOVE*

During my first time in Europe, in 1974-75, I spent the year studying German literature at the University of Tübingen. For the first two months, while the weather was still mild and I would walk from my apartment to school and back, I always passed by a yard shielded by a hedge so high that you couldn’t see over, and so dense you couldn’t peer through it. But when I went by, I heard many more birds than anywhere else in town. So I began to fantasize what might be hidden behind that hedge, and this is the poem that evolved:

When the boys came home, everything stopped
the way he left it—her apron, the back stairs,
the sun losing altitude over France
as the birds scared up from the fields,
a whirring curtain of flack—

———-Barmherzigkeit!
her son, her man. She went inside, fed the parakeet,
broke its neck. Spaetzle bubbling on the stove,
windchimes tinkling above the steam, her face
in the hall mirror, bloated, a heart.
Let everything go wild!

———-Blue jays, crows!
She hung suet from branches, the air quick
around her head with tiny spastic machinery
—starlings, finches—her head a crown of feathers.
She ate less, grew lighter, air tunneling
through bone, singing

———-a small song.
“Ein Liedchen, Kinder!” The children ran away.
She moved about the yard like an old rag bird.
Still at war, she rose at dawn, watching out
for Rudi, come home on crutches,
the thin legs balancing his atom of life.

* Rita Dove is the 1987 Pulitzer Prize winner in poetry and a former U.S. Poet Laureate. The only American poet who has been honored with both the National Humanities Medal and the National Medal of Arts, she teaches creative writing at the University of Virginia. “The Bird Frau” was originally published in her first book, “The Yellow House on the Corner” (Carnegie-Mellon University Press, 1980), and is here reproduced with the author’s permission.

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