Each day the world grows smaller & larger

as we retreat to our homes (those lucky to have them),

stock up on what we think we’ll need—toilet paper,

hand sanitizer, flour, beans—begin to understand

what it means to hunker down. In public, try out

social distancing: smile, nod, nervous, wonder

is this six feet? when what we want is to embrace

every service person we meet: the efficient,

masked bagger at QFC, the weary pharmacist,

the stoic neighbor hobbling up the street.

The world now in our living room

and we watch in disbelief as bodies stack up

on nightly news, as doctors in Italy must choose

whose life to save. Meanwhile our phones beep

the rising Covid-19 count for our county,

new guidelines for gathering, from 250 to 50

to 10 in a week. Then tonight, on the news,

watch those exiled on ancient iron balconies,

the last common space, join their voices, reach across

what little divides—to fill the death-drenched air

with song: rock, arias, and last, their national anthem.

And from our living room, an ocean and a continent

away, we hear a voice, our own stubborn belief

in the human species, despite all the ways

we’ve bungled it, rise above the fear,

the uncertainty, the despair—join in.

 

—March 18, 2020

Great Auk

Pinguinus impennis

 

Once, flocks of great auks nested on the rocks

off the coast of the North Atlantic. The first bird

 

to be called a penguin, they were built to swim,

but slow, defenseless on land. Pairs mated for life,

 

nesting shoulder to shoulder in dense rookeries,

laying one egg on bare rock, taking turns tending

 

the egg until it hatched. Devoted parents, they cared

for their young even after they’d fledged;

 

adults were seen swimming, chicks perched

on their backs. In those days, a sighting of great auks

 

quickened a sailor’s heart, signaled landfall ahead.

Their end came when the Europeans’ love for featherbeds

 

brought hunters in search of down (after every eider

had been plucked, gone). To loosen their plumage,

 

auks were boiled in cauldrons over fires fed with the oil

of auks killed before them, since there was little wood to be found.

 

In 1830, a volcano erupted off the tip of Iceland, submerging

the last nesting colony on Geirfuglasker, great auk rock.

 

Refugees, the auks moved to the island of Eldey. There,

on July 3, 1844, the last pair was killed by hunters

 

gathering specimens for a museum. Here’s how one hunter

described the scene: I took him by the neck and he flapped his wings.

 

He made no cry. I strangled him.

 

 

Note: Great auk specialist John Wolley interviewed the two men who killed the last birds, and Sigurour Ísleifsson described the act; the words in italics are his.

 

“Great Auk” originally appeared in Passings, first published by Expedition Press in 2016 and reprinted by Wandering Aengus Press in 2019.