Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Poem: The Great Gray Owl


It was disappointing Sunday when I was sitting outside in the summery breeze, writing on the laptop, and Don came rushing up to call me back to the pines where he had seen a great gray owl. I went with him, also rushing, then creeping quietly when we got to the pines. We searched high and low in stealth, but he was gone. I have never seen an owl outside a zoo, though I have heard them at the farm. Don looked into eyes just like these. We did find three pellets on the ground, things that Don's third grade students dissected in his classroom last year, and that was thrilling. (Owl pellets are regurgitated; they're not poo. You can read about owl digestion here, it's fascinating.) As the experience worked in my consciousness, other things floated up and into a poem.

The Great Gray Owl

When I was a girl, at night
I stood in the shower
like a shivering field mouse
afraid of yellow eyes
behind the curtain, the man who wasn’t
          the man
not from the street, or the window,
but from the shadowed attic,
or the basement, clammy and dark,
the invisible one who came behind
my skittering heels
while I carried a can of beans upstairs. If only
I had the swiveling head of an owl to always
see the predator,
though what good would a swiveling head do
if he is invisible?

There was a great gray owl in the pines
on a summery day in April
when the wind pushed the bamboo
like dainty bending ballerinas in a row,
first this way, their thin arms up, swaying,
then the other way, leaning at the waist.
My husband came running to me, to pull me back
to the woods to see those black and yellow eyes,
staring as my grandfather’s
had from a sepia portrait
at the top of the stairs
when, the youngest, I had to go to bed
before everyone.
          A man
I did not know, a figment, a phantom.
Handsome, dignified, staring, terrifying.
How could I know — That he,
if he had really been there,
not just gray eyes in yellow skin, flat
man on a flat wall, if he had been full and flesh
as he was at last one year visiting from New Jersey,
that he would torment me on his aging,
bouncing wool gabardine knees with foolish mischief,
teasing until I would gasp
between a giggle and a sob. O too soon
when we buried him he was skin and bones, leaving me
to wonder if ever, ever
I would know for certain that a man was really there,
and whether he was benevolent, or cruel.

The owl was not there.
He had flown. On the ground we found
three owl pellets — hair-covered remains of mice, rabbits, moles —
cocooned bits of skull, white ribs, vertabraic knuckles, teeth.
No eyes. Nothing
but gray shrouds of fur.
What the owl could eat, he ate, then gratefully,
even compassionately it seemed,
delivered them up — whole, like small torsos
without need for arms or feet, beautifully
and purposefully wrapped, woven in wool, napped
and cowlicked, tweedy, suited for the earth,
elegantly prepared for burial.

one of the owl pellets we found; owls regurgitate them, they're not poo;
for more on owl digestion (fascinating), read here

Great Gray Owl photo found here.


Louise Gallagher said...

Amazing - both your poem and the pellet!

Last fall on a painter's retreat a grey owl roosted on a pole outside the lodge where we were staying. I grabbed a photo -- not great, but a photo none the less.

Later, while walking in the woods, I spied him swooshing through the trees. It was stunning to see his huge wingspan and how he navigated his environment.


Ruth said...

Louise, that must have been awe-inspiring. There is something so annihilating about large birds in flight. Don tells me the great gray has a wing span as broad as a man's.

I am envious of your photo. Maybe one day I will at the very least see one of these birds (or any owl). If I can capture him on the sensor too, that will be something to treasure.

Thank you, Louise.

just jane said...

The image of a girl with a swiveling head and skittering heels, carrying a can of beans. It will follow me for days. Thank you for sharing this beautiful poem. Peace.

Elisabeth said...

This is a stunning poem, Ruth. The way you weave through times past and present, the various threads of life, your child self's fear of the man who was not there, the man of the yellow eyes like the owl you do not get to see, held me entranced.

Owls are such symbolic creatures in usually positive ways and yet here you manage to evoke something of the sinister as well, and also to bring alive something of the naturalness of life and death, the owl's pellet, the delicately arranged left overs of his meal.

Lovely work. Thank you Ruth.

erin said...

it was the tweedy which brought me right back to the gaberdine and has me sitting wondering of the connections. a magnificent write, strange and wonderful connections.

really? a can of beans? how clever.


ellen abbott said...

I've seen a small owl once or twice in the city at night and I've heard them out here at the country house. at my sister's (also out here in the country) we were enjoying an evening walk around the yard and a big owl swooped low right in front of us. it was very cool.

Dave King said...

I like the way you've used the experience and not been constrained by it. Brilliantly done.

Oliag said...

As I scrolled your post... those eyes!

We hear owls here often...but never see them. How you captured that in your poem Ruth! I just love your connections. The portrait at the top of the stairs and the great grey owl...I bet their eyes had that same gaze.

Although only three, my granddaughter has a love for and knowledge of owls and she can identify them correctly when she sees a photo...I will be showing her this photo! She actually will be interested in the scat photo too:)

ds said...

Yes, those very real childhood fears. How well you've woven the material of this--owl, eyes, grandfather, gabardine, bone, tweed. I would like someday to see an owl in the wild. Until then, this will do. Magnificently.
Thank you.

Susan said...

I've seen owls twice. Once beside our barn in the late afternoon, sitting high up in a tree. I just happened to look up and there it was, looking back at me, trying to decide whether to stay or fly. I gave first and moved quietly back to give it space. I haven't seen it there since, but we hear them (barred owls) in the woods all the time, calling "who cooks for you?", and trilling to each other.

The other time was at my sister's in Florida. I was returning at dusk from visiting our other sister who was ill, but we didn't know it at the time. As I drove into the lane toward her house, the owl silently glided in front of my car for a little ways. The wingspan was tremendous. I was startled, but not afraid. I didn't know it at the time, but the sight of an owl can be a portent of death. We found out a few months later that our sister was indeed very sick and passed away almost a year later.

And remember last fall, when I rescued the young barred owl by the roadside and took it to the wildlife center? Unfortunately, it didn't make it, even though they tried everything they could. I was sad that it died.

I think I have an affinity with owls.

The poem is beautiful and suspenseful. I can picture Little Ruthie skittering up the basement stairs just ahead of the yellow and black eyes. That made me smile. So similar to my sister's experiences with the ghost in our basement.

Susan said...

Well, I can't count. That would be three times I've seen owls in the wild. :)

Margaret said...

You have wrapped this poem in your words and heart. This is what poetry is all about - memories, nature, fears and wonderment. Wow. You've done it again, Ruth. I know you have stated in the past you aren't focused on publication, but you should look into a Lulu book. (self publishing) I would love to purchase a book of your poetry and photos.

Maureen said...

Owls, like the ravens at the Tower of London, are magnificent birds.

You've crafted a beautiful poem, Ruth.

rosaria said...

Wow! You caught so much here, the beauty, the fears, the past, unfinished portraits of possibilities.

Brendan said...

Between those two awesome and awful pix -- such predatorial majesty in both -- is so rich a poem about what's staring in those eyes, and who they belong to. Eyes we rarely see, eyes meant for penetrating our every dark. Can they see that far into us, as well into the shades of night? I think of the dancing sorcerer painted in the far depths of Trois Freres, that Paleolithic cave in France where figures had been painted for some 30,000 years. That sorceror - perhaps a shaman - had huge owlish eyes, seeing the vast painted tableaus painted there without need of light. What the speaker sees and doesn't are somehow reflected in the great grey owl whose eyes you didn't see but still look through from the insides of a life which knows that death is as perfect as life. We have lots of snowy white owls in our neighborhood, big 'uns, with five-foot wingspans suddenly lifting from a tree across the street. I listen to them hoot in the predawn darkness almost every day I write. - Brendan

shoreacres said...

I've never seen an owl, although I've heard them, and long after the sight of one in the wild.

It's always seemed strange to me that they're used as symbols of fright in the Halloween season. They seem protective to me, murmuring through the night as if to say, "Don't worry. Someone's here."

Perhaps that what caught me most about your wonderful poem - the difference between the protective "someone" and the threatening "no one".

And by the way - it was in 7th grade that I spent a year flying up the stairs from the basement, certain that if I didn't flee, I'd be captured.

The Solitary Walker said...

A poem 'beautifully and purposefully woven', Ruth. Very lovely indeed. You seem to be in a very creatively prolific phase at the moment.

*jean* said...

lovely owl ode, ruth...what a lucky sighting...we were lucky enough to have 4 of them cross our path when were going up to our camper during the winter they came to MN...there were also several in the raptor center that year...there was a vole shortage and they had come down to MN & WI to hunt...i saw a barred owl last summer...

Grandmother said...

I love the of the specificity of the description of the pellets, "small torsos,,,wrapped, woven in wool, napped and cowlicked…suited." the sound repetitions are just right.

freefalling said...

Ruth - the last stanza (is it a stanza?) is deeply touching.
Who would have thought "not poo" could be so beautiful.

Miss Jane said...

and purposefully wrapped, woven in wool, napped
and cowlicked, tweedy, suited for the earth,
elegantly prepared for burial.

Wonderful weave of threads from your past to the sighting of the owl. Loved the connection of "suited for the earth" and the imagining of your grandfather's gabardine.

jen revved said...

This poem breaks past the heart's futile barriers for me. It is most lyrical here for me:

What the owl could eat, he ate, then gratefully,
even compassionately it seemed,
delivered them up — whole, like small torsos
without need for arms or feet, beautifully
and purposefully wrapped, woven in wool, napped
and cowlicked, tweedy, suited for the earth,
elegantly prepared for burial.

But throughout, the sense of a presence then absence. I know of this well. xxxJ

Ruth said...

Jane, I guess you have listened with your heart as you posted yesterday, and connected with my poem. Thank you for that, and for peace.

Ruth said...

Elisabeth, thank you for reading, for listening, for reflecting as you have here. I suppose this owl connection surprised me too, as memories floated up, quite unpleasant ones, not unlike yours of your father and smoking cigarettes. Truly, what we do with these memories is to create new worlds, though maybe they are eternal worlds that we only discover as we dive in.

Ruth said...

Erin, really, a can of beans. My dad bought them by the case on sale and kept them in the basement. "Ruthie, would you go get a can of beans" and little did they know my terror.

Even I am surprised by the connections in this memory-poem. There is a helluva lot for me to explore in the fear that enveloped me most of my life. How it was partly evoked by that portrait of Reuben. How wonderful he was as it turned out, and what a lesson there is in that.

Ruth said...

Ellen, to see an owl swoop, what power, electrifying! I can't wait. For now I will imagine it through your experience. It was so unusual for Don to see this one in the daytime. Don tells me he thinks the great gray might be the largest owl in North America, or one of them, maybe along with the Eurasian eagle owls.

Ruth said...

Hi, Dave! How I like your comment, given my thoughts this week on constraint without limitation. Thank you.

Montag said...

Are you saying that owls leave no "fewmets"?

Shari Sunday said...

Interesting where our imaginations lead us. Interesting glimpse of Ruth as a child. I didn't get by to comment yesterday, but I was struck by the beautiful owl photograph since my daughter-in-law had just posted an owl picture on facebook. Check out for her owl picture.

Loring Wirbel said...

This approaches prose poetry in its structure, which automatically means I like it very much. And your ability to observe closely to a scene with a lot of portent is quite amazing.

And the new logo - thumbs up. Me likey minimalism.

Jeanie said...

I've never seen an owl in the wild either, though while on an excursions with a raptor-seeker, we did see a nest. I really am enjoying your April poetry, Ruth.

Ruth said...

Oliag, maybe one day you and your granddaughter can dissect an owl pellet. You can actually order them online, which Don has done for his third grade class so they could open them up and see what kinds of remains they could fine. You pay more for the bigger ones. There are sometimes three or four skulls in them! Thank you, my friend.

Ruth said...

Thank you, DS. I could tell you how awful my fears were, and they went long, long after childhood, unfortunately. I only lost them a few years ago. And that's another story. Maybe I'll keep exploring in poetry.

Ruth said...

Susie, is that what they say, "Who cooks for you?" You really must not feel responsible for their meals too, you know. :-)

I am finally learning to smile at my long-lived fears. It was pretty bad. I can tell you about it next time we B&B.

I'm sorry about your rescued barred owl. You did what you could, much more than many or most would have.

When my friend Frank Fitzgerald died, an owl visited us. I feel he was saying good-bye. In Native American stories, those who have passed on sometimes visit to say good-bye through an owl spirit.

Ruth said...

Margaret, you are very generous. Thank you for your vote of confidence! That means an awful lot to me. I am actually working on a manuscript for a Blurb book, software similar to Lulu I think. I would be happy to have something for family and friends who are interested. I'll keep you posted when I ever get it finished, which I am hoping for by the end of the year.

Ruth said...

Maureen, I went to the Tower long ago (not as a prisoner, thankfully), but I did not know about the ravens. They sound Gothically evocative, quite fitting for this post. Thank you for your kind words.

Ruth said...

Thanks, Rosaria. There is much more work to be done on some of these memories and unfinished portraits.

Ruth said...

Brendan, I am drawn to those stories told before the printing press, when myth explained the seasons, and animals represented something metaphysical. How can you see eyes like this and not imagine worlds invisible and imagined? I have heard owls here, two at a time, one distant and one close, call to one another. They sound like a cell phone on vibrate.

I don't think I am ever more excited to write than when I am prompted and inspired by something in the wild right here at the farm, or at the lake, or anywhere animals make their shy and yet powerful appearance. So for you, owl hoots are another sound of sunrise.

Dutchbaby said...

Thank you for taking me along on you wondrous travels through the pines, up the stairs, and through time.

I'm an expert at hearing and seeing birds and not capturing them on camera. I just returned from a long weekend on Widbey Island, just north of Seattle. I perched on the window bench of my hosts' home and watched bald eagles soar back and forth for hours as we reminisced about our old college days. The next day we took a brief walk through the forest and heard the Great Horned Owl hoot in the distance.

We love owls in my family since my husband is a Rice University owl. The only two owls I was ever able to photograph in the wild were in Africa. I uploaded one on Flickr. Even after major cosmetic procedures in Photoshop, this is all it yielded:

I will share the other one with you after I've loaded it into Flickr. Maybe it will nudge me to complete my Africa posts, which have clearly fallen below the watermark level of my pool of intended posts.

This Great Gray Owl is a stunner!

Ruth said...

Linda, I guess those eerie eyes capture the imagination of the fear mongers. :-) We know that witches were not evil before Christians got a hold of them. I literally lost all my fears when I left the Church and the tales of "occult" meant to keep us good. And that is another story, for another time, and maybe not on the blog.

I wish my fears had lasted a short time like yours. They lasted into my forties, and thank god fled. They returned briefly after one owl visitation.

Ruth said...

Robert, thank you for your good words. Yeah, I've been writing a lot of poems. I figure I'll keep rolling with it as long as they are availing themselves. :-)

cathyswatercolors said...

Hi Ruth, you know i hate to admit this but i think i gave my kids owl pellets for christmas,nicely wrapped of course:)

Terresa said...

"He had flown."

and "tweedy, suited for earth" and the burial ending, well done, Ruth! And the accompanying pictures are fascinating.

Ruth said...

Thank you, Jean. Four owls crossing your path. What a wonder. All large birds cause me to pause in appreciation at the almost silent flight of their soft feathered wings.

Ruth said...

Mary, thank you, I'm glad the sounds worked together there for you. I was so touched by the intricacy of the pellet coverings.

Ruth said...

Letty, it's sort of a stanza. Like Loring says, this looks sort of prosy on the page. I like the last stanza best too. Originally I had the poem ending rather dark and morose. Don said it needed some cheer. And he was right. Thank you, sweet Letty.

Ruth said...

Jane, thank you. I am sure you have noticed in your writing (oh such writing you do) how poems write themselves. I could not have imagined these connections when I began writing this one. But there they were, lurking.

Ruth said...

Jen, I'm gratified that this speaks to you, the stanza that speaks to me most too. In your beautiful writing I feel such an ache and majesty of love, and yes, I see what you mean about presence then absence. Many thanks.

Ruth said...

Montag, they do have fewmets (I had to look the word up, mister). The food they use goes into urine (white) and poo (fewmets). The stuff they can't digest for their body's use like bones, feathers, hair, and teeth goes into the pellets. Tidy little compost bags the size of their gizzard.

Ruth said...

Shari, I sort of felt like this was not imagination as much as something buried that wanted to be regurgitated. :-)

Stephanie's owl is beautiful! How crazy to see one like that in the daytime, like the great gray. The eyes! Eerie and gorgeous.

Ruth said...

Loring! I've been thinking about you, missing you. I'm glad you posted poems, I'm about to read and savor. Thanks for reading and liking this one. I don't know if I ever told you about the owl visitation after Frank Fitzgerald died? The morning we heard about his death, there were two owls calling. Some Native Americans (and maybe other cultures) believe those who pass on call from the other side through owls.

Glad you like the new header. I needed minimalism big time.

Ruth said...

Jeanie, thank you for reading my poems. We looked for a nest Sunday but didn't find one. We'll keep an eye out. It was great to catch up at your blog this morning, I've been too long away. I hope you are feeling much better.

Ruth said...

Dutchbaby, what an image of you with your friends on Widbey Island watching bald eagles while you talked. Your Pearl-spotted owlet is also quite an image in that bare tree, the same dun color. Please do share the rest of Africa — I didn't know there was more to be shared, and all I can say is gimme gimme. Thanks for your attentions to my poem and post. Yes, this owl photo I found for free desktop wallpaper is really something. Maybe one of these days you and I will be successful photographing an owl on this continent.

Ruth said...

Cathy, good mom. :-)

Ruth said...

Thanks, Terresa. That owl pellet is so awful it's beautiful, I think. :-)

George said...

A fascinating and beautiful poem, Ruth, showing that your interest in the world, to your credit, is limitless. To use the words I found from you on the Rilke site this morning, I have been sidelined for several weeks by the "crush and chaos" of daily responsibilities. I am in the process of returning, however, and will be catching up on all of your posts that I missed. Hopefully, I will get back in to the swing of things in the coming weeks. It's great to see your creativity in full blossom with the rest of spring.

Babs-beetle said...

I loved that poem!

*the invisible one who came behind
my skittering heels* Oh how I remember that feeling!

What a beautiful creature the owl is? Those eyes.

OceanoAzul.Sonhos said...

Owls are mystical animals, I like them. Your poem it's very beautiful.

Loring said...

Frank and owls - it's all synchronous!

Jane Lancaster said...

this is great Ruth. love this poem.

I love the photo of the owl pellet too and the way you keep saying, 'it's not poo!' funny.

Ginnie said...

I would love to think your day will come, dear sister. You, too, will look into his eyes and not be afraid.

Vagabonde said...

Beautiful poem Ruth. I saw an owl in the yard last year and could not stop looking for as long as he stayed there. I have not seen him since.