Tess Gallagher: “Each Bird Walking”

In the eighties, when I was an undergraduate and trying to understand poetry, I came across Tess Gallagher in the Pushcart Prize Awards (I think it was the ’84 issue).  Anyway, this poem struck me, and it has been a favorite ever since.  I had a friend whose mother was dying of cancer, and in the last days of his life he took care of her, bathed her, fed her.  Plus, I was in my early twenties, trying to understand love and romance, so all these things combined made this poem particularly moving to me.

Each Bird Walking

Not while, but long after he had told me,
I thought of him, washing his mother, his
bending over the bed and taking back
the covers. There was a basin of water
and he dipped a washrag in and
out of the basin, the rag
dripping a little onto the sheet as he
turned from the bedside to the nightstand
and back, there being no place

on her body he shouldn’t touch because
he had to and she helped him, moving
the little she could, lifting so he could
wipe under her arms, a dipping motion
in the hollow. Then working up from
the feet, around the ankles, over the
knees. And this last, opening
her thighs and running the rag firmly
and with the cleaning thought
up through her crotch, between the lips,
over the V of thin hairs–

as though he were a mother
who had the excuse of cleaning to touch
with love and indifference
the secret parts of her child, to graze
the sleepy sexlessness in its waiting
to find out what to do for the sake
of the body, for the sake of what only
the body can do for itself.

So his hand, softly at the place
of his birth-light. And she, eyes deepened
and closed in the dim room.
And because he told me her death was
important to his being with her,
I could love him another way. Not
of the body alone, or of its making,
but carried in the white spires of trembling
until what spirit, what breath we were
was shaken from us. Small then,
the word holy.

He turned her on her stomach
and washed the blades of her shoulders, the
small of her back. “That’s good,” she said,
“that’s enough.”

On our lips that morning, the tart juice
of the mothers, so strong in remembrance, no
asking, no giving, and what you said, this
being the end of our loving, so as not to hurt
the closer one to you, made me look
to see what was left of us
with our sex taken away. “Tell me,” I said
“something I can’t forget.” Then the story of
your mother, and when you finished
I said, “That’s good, that’s enough.”

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One response to “Tess Gallagher: “Each Bird Walking”

  1. I read this and responded similarly to it in the 80’s, when I was newly married. I’ve been rereading it after going through a similar experience with the death of my father and responding to it in a different way. It’s such a good poem. (My post about it will appear on Tuesday, June 26, 2012.)

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