To read Joyce's visit to the West Chester Writers' Conference

To read Joyce's review of Nadya Aisenberg.

To read Joyce's column on a critic's poetry collection.

To read Joyce's column on Stephen Burt and Michael Scharf in the PSA Panel on Criticism.

To read Perloff and Vendler Spar at PSA Panel on Criticism, part one of Joyce’s OBSERVATIONS

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A review by Joyce in Summer 2000 of Thomas O’Grady

More work by Joyce Wilson in Spring 2000

Poetry

A review of Wit

Poetry Porch Feature

The State of American Poetry: Roundtable Discussion

penObservations: A Column by Joyce Wilson


My Chickens


      On September 10, our ten-year-old white hen died. She was the last of our 1991 flock, a large, plump, eager hen called Whitey and sometimes Oldie, who had roused herself stiffly but energetically to be the first to the mash bin, where she picked out the nuggets of corn kernels amidst a new measure of feed until only the mash remained, which they all pushed and poked and flung onto the floor and scratched into the straw. The young chicks of the new flock, purchased during Easter Week of April, had tolerated her and let her bully them out of her way. Her full figure lying inert in the corner of the hen yard was unmistakeable when I looked out of the second storey window. It was seven o'clock, and she was in full rigor mortis.
      It was too late in the day to bury her. I put on plastic gloves and lowered her body by the feet into a large garbage bag. Then I twisted the top of the bag and put the whole parcel into a galvanized pail with a cover. Before I secured the cover of the pail tightly, I heard a loud engine sound. Like a generator or a plane, the roaring announced its determination to overcome some obstacle or limitation. I soon discovered that the noise was coming from inside the bag. I opened the top and out swarmed a cloud of buzzing angry flies. Their fury at losing their recently possessed home was frightening; they had made real plans to set up house in that chicken carcass for the duration of the cycle from egg to maggot to fly. If I had known what was in store for the following day, I might have interpreted the buzzing of these escaping flies as an omen. In my mind, I returned to their angry sounds over the course of the succeeding weeks and wondered if I were becoming superstitious.
      On the following day, September 11, I arrived home in the late afternoon from teaching at Boston University and had to bury the deceased chicken. It seemed fitting to have something to do. I had been in my office when both planes hit the World Trade Center towers and did not learn of the catastrophe until two of my students, sensing my ignorance, stayed after my second class to inform me of the news reports. I was able to proceed with the lesson plans of the day, and soon, the university issued a letter condemning the attacks and urging us all to go on as usual. Yet that afternoon, after watching the televised images of the third building collapse like a deflating accordion and the desperate office workers jump to their deaths from the smoking windows, and my heart was smitten like grass, and withered (Psalm 102), digging a grave came as a welcome task. I went outside and set the shovel into the rich layer of humus down into the coarse gravelly subtexture of soil. I separated enough rocks and stones to make a kind of marker.

      On September 24, our fifteen young chickens all suddenly cackled nervously. Their voices soon reached a clamor with their alarmed squawking. I had been marking papers in the living room and ran outside where I met a dog, a German shepherd mix, carrying a white bird in its mouth. It dropped the bird at my feet and slunk off. I picked up the hen who was clearly in shock, with those eyes that registered the frozen look of trauma, and put her in the barn. Then I busied myself with preparations for her convalescence in our basement, lining a cage with straw and gathering food and water containers. I went back to the barn and picked her up to take her to the new hospital accommodations, but where she had once been a plump sturdy being in my hands, holding her head erect even though she was stilled from the shock of being carried in the mouth of a dog, she was now soft and limp, and her body sagged in sections, jointed like a bean bag. Her head hung toward the floor, a small medallion at the end of her neck, now a lifeless stem. Even though I had seen the blood from her wounds on my shirt and the pile of white feathers in my neighbor's yard, I had been hopeful that she would live. The change in her body as I held her in my hands transmitted its horrible message of finality. There was no bringing her back.
      It was five o'clock, and I buried her in the garden near the other chicken. Our garden rows suddenly seemed like a grid of spaces designating a scheme of plots. That weekend my family celebrated the long holiday and a number of October birthdays. Each of us had a story to tell about where we had been when the planes struck the towers. An aunt described a friend who worked in the emergency ward in one of the New York City hospitals: “The staff was ready to work, and they had nothing to do. No bodies arrived. They just sat there most of the day, doing nothing and feeling helpless.”

      The dog came back on October 10. It spooked the chickens by running at the fence so that they all flapped up against the netting and one gray one rose out over the top. As I ran around the corner of the house to the back yard, I could hear the gray hen voice its protest as the dog's jaws crushed its bones. This time I left the chicken, which was still alive, and followed the dog to the playground where I confronted its owner with the crime. By the time I returned, the gray chicken had died. I left her on the bench in the barn and called Kim, the Animal Control Officer, formerly the Dog Officer. She came the next day and observed the chicken and interviewed my neighbor Mary who had seen both killings. I also called a cremating service for pets and recorded their rates. Seventy dollars to cremate a chicken; one hundred and twenty for burial plots. Kim said she would not enforce the town ordinance if I buried this chicken in the garden where I had buried the others. So, later that day, I buried it.
      For the next few weeks, my neighbors were concerned that the chickens were flying out even when not frightened by some invader from another part of town. “You might want to put a top on your chicken yard,” Kim suggested. Mary was more emphatic: “Joyce, you've got to put a roof on that fence!” That weekend the president announced that our country was at war and was sending planes to bomb Afghanistan. Suddenly our lives were in constant peril; suddenly some unity of action required, if not a blanket conformity of heart and mind, a method of containment. This was the return of the war mentality: if you're not for us you're against us. I understand that a concerted effort is necessary to defeat the terrorists, but I hate the suspicion and paranoia. Have I become accustomed to leisures of peace? Now it seems that to be undecided is a luxury, and one that we can no longer afford.

      Later that fall, I woke one morning to hear a chicken cackling the way they often do to announce that an egg will soon be laid or an egg has just been laid, and I realized that the hen was audible from outside her house, which had been shut up for the night. This meant that she had spent the night outside, when she should have been safe and secure with the others inside. I realized that I had neglected to count the members of the flock before I bolted the door closed. Feeling guilty and irresponsible, I went out, and there she was, behind the hen house, anxious to get back in. I had to herd her around the yard to usher her through the gate. As I walked past the woodpile, I noticed an egg on the ground. Once she was inside the yard, I opened the house, and she joined the other chickens, who ran around, stretched their legs, their wings, and showed the energetic behavior of release into the morning and another day. I went to collect the egg near the woodpile. It was warm. A foot away, I found more eggs partially buried in the leaves. There were sixteen in all, and they were all warm! While our planes were dropping bombs on the Afghanistan desert and the young men of our community were joining the National Guard, this chicken was stockpiling eggs in the woods. I pictured her settling down at dusk, fluffing out her skirts with her treasures securely underneath her. She was preparing for a concentrated period of incubation, murmuring contentedly to herself, “My eggs, my eggs.” Such broodiness is labeled a problem for a thrifty hen yard, but I could not stop myself from taking pride at the symbolic dimensions of her act: she came, she nested, she nurtured.
      I saved these eggs to set with bulbs I planted in front of the hedges after the frost began its work on the ground's surface. I trust that they will provide a suitable fertilizer. Now, with the arrival of the solstice, the hens are growing out of their adolescence and becoming more complacent. They are heavier and no longer able to fly out over the fence, although the little gray hen continues to try. She seems determined to lay her eggs in the woods, a mark of her independent spirit, her refusal to conform—it is consoling to anthropomorphize. If I had a less strenuous schedule, I would enjoy spending more time with this flock to observe their interpersonal relationships within the communal unit. Who gets along with whom? How do they share? Do they show signs of compensation for individual excesses? What sacrifices does each make for the whole? If I had time, I would name each one. This little gray hen has called up a friendship I remember from childhood. I verify the choice by looking up the root meanings. The derivatives of the root “mel” are mild, also strength, and of the root “melit,” honey. As these things come to mind, strong, great, and honey-sweet, I think of her as Mildred.

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***** Joyce Wilson is the editor and publisher of The Poetry Porch and a Contributing Editor and a columnist for The Drunken Boat.