Friday, August 12, 2011

Poem: Ode to a Turkey Vulture


Ode to a Turkey Vulture

“The other world is to be found, as usual,
inside this one.” ~ Susan Sontag

O companion of my heart,
I am kneeling at the long
window, hushed with you,
gargoyle grotesque
on the cathedral barn.

In this, the attentiveness
of longing, you wait
in your placid eye,
onyx bead embedded
in the corrugated heart
of your featherless head.
You hunger, like me, taciturn
in a violent world. You lift

off into the blue
without sound, to travel
like John in the wilderness.
O calm and golden remiges,
soft oars stippled with sun,
my love, my inspiration,
my ferryman to the flowing sky,

your peaceful floating
a surrender to what rises,
the kitely sails of your wings
tilting, lilting on tides of heat
that carry fragrance
of decay. In this air,
what is death is your joy.

All the suffering in these little
ones who bring you sustenance
you did not wield with talon
or tooth. The pink and gray
fleshes gurgle over the gullet
stones of your hearted throat, all
their silenced cries,
their chests opened, every
disappointed beat and falling
enveloped in your beak,
lifted up, a mercy
in this fractured air.

And long
in the shadow of the tree
you clean yourself. Through you
all is purified. Tonight the moon shines cool
in a black No Man's Land, and we sleep.

Listen to a podcast of this poem here.


gargoyle - originally gargouille in French means throat or gullet;
the downspout for rain at the outer edges of roofs of churches
and other buildings; grotesques were gargoyles of fantastical
creatures that were not waterspouts but were meant to scare off
harmful spirits
remiges (pronounced ree-meks) - the flight feather of a bird’s wing,
its origin from the Latin for oarsman

Read my prose poem about a turkey vulture in a previous post here.

The Turkey Vulture's cousin - King Vulture porcelain

This King Vulture porcelain is in the collection at the Art Institute of Chicago. This is the AIC's booklet writeup about the piece: Around 1728 Augustus II, the Elector of Saxony and King of Poland, conceived of replicating the animal and bird kingdoms in porcelain. By 1733 more than 30 different models of birds and almost 40 animals had been made, many by the sculptor Johann Joachim Kändler. Kändler modeled this King Vulture from life, which allowed him to animate the creature’s quintessential spirit. Such porcelain animals remain the most vivid expression of Augustus’s wish to possess and rule over the natural world.

See scanned turkey vulture (and other bird) feathers like the ones below at The Feather Atlas of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 



who said...

love the poem Ruth, as well as the peculiar quote in the beginning of your post, even though it almost frustrates me as it is like an impossible to solve metaphoric Riddle.

annell said...

I am so glad you created this beautiful poem to this beautiful bird. He soars as high as an eagle, as powerful as a hawk. I have often heard, "Oh, it's only a vulture." Have even said it myself. But I am consciously mindful he is a magnificent bird. Thanks you.

Maureen said...

Wonderful poem, Ruth. We have to know how to look to be able to see. Your poem shows how beautifully you observe.

I saw these creatures up close while in South Africa, when I visited a cheetah conservation center. Lots of interesting information about them. They're fascinating.

Brendan said...

Fine, fine paean to Death's mop-up guys, Nature's cleaners. To see the grace and beauty in these scruffy pallbearers is a gift, and here it's rapturously accomplished. We have 'em all over our town. Its something to see 50 or so spiralling high in the sky in a thermal on a hot day like today. That yearning infinitude between earth and heaven. Fine work, friend.

missing moments said...

Such a fine ode to a bird who does not get his due!

California Girl said...

Never thought I'd be entranced by a poem about a turkey vulture. missing moments is correct. they do "not get" their "due". Most of us, including me, will not think of any vulture as beautiful. But they serve their purpose and it's an important one.

hedgewitch said...

To find beauty in all things, the true inner sight often hard to open, but farseeing and clear here. Form is function, and function fulfilled is grace. I esp liked the second stanza, and the lines;
a surrender to what rises,
the kitely sails of your wings
tilting, lilting on tides of heat

I've watched them many times circle in a mandala in the distance. Beautiful, Ruth. Thanks for the other links and pics as well--all fascinating.

George said...

Here I am in London, Ruth, reading your amazing poetry on my tiny IPhone. How astounded I am that you can relate to the turkey vulture in such a personal way. Your boundaries have fallen, my friend, and you are becoming inseparable from all that is and ever has been.

Headed north tomorrow to begin my walk on Sunday. Robert -- not strictly solitary as it turns out -- will join me on Wednesday.

Nelson said...

As a child living in a small community of hardscrabble farmers, I never could have imagined that through a buzzard (as we knew them)"all is purified." No one that I knew imagined such a thing, at least with respect to how I heard them talk about what seemed to me a life form barely above the carrion on which they fed.

You bring wonder to my understanding of things, Ruth. Thank you.

Pat said...

I'm always amazed at what you can write a poem about! Although the vulture a.k.a. buzzard is so ugly, in flight it is beautiful as it glides on the wind currents. Wonderful poem!

erin said...

what we choose to revile and what we choose to embrace, all let down their feathers in the end.

yes, ruth, yes. wonderful study.

once i saw ASTOUNDINGLY off to the side of the road a dead tree flanked with at least sixteen turkey vultures, all blackened against a bright morning sky. the day was stone still. wtf? i couldn't help but crane my neck as i passed. and then i saw, there on the tracks beneath, one turkey vulture with his wings spanned outward and his neck lengthened. not a movement. there was no fucking way the other fifteen were going to have his claim. nothing moved - but me.

whoa. what a morning.

everything has something to teach us, doesn't it?

oh, and just today i was lost in your neck of the woods. 1-75 spontaneously closed off going North (i just dropped the children off with their father) and there i was going west on...what? 2? and there a beach. what waves! i was pleased to be lost.


amy@ Souldipper said...

Here you are, Ruth, giving your attention to a Turkey Vulture in such a way that I may have to have a little more respect for these creatures of clean-up.

I doubt the Turkey Vultures have any idea how honoured they are to have you as an advocate! :)

Ruth said...

Thanks, Dusti. I know what you mean about the Sontag quote, sorry about that. :-) It is from her book on photography in a passage about Diane Arbus. Arbus looked for the freakish and unusual in all people and situations. That was the world within a world she was talking about. I sort of co-opted it.

Ruth said...

Thanks, Annell. I'm glad you see the beauty of vultures. I have read that when they soar together in the sky, sometimes they're just playing together, not necessarily looking for food. They also help lift each other in the air with the flight, like drafting. Isn't that wonderful?

Ruth said...

Thank you, Maureen. I have a lot of work to do toward seeing better. Slowing down. Imagine if we looked closely at everything. Your South African turkey vultures, now they had some big carrion to feed on, not like our raccoons and possums.

Ruth said...

Thanks so much, Brendan. Sincerely, I gasp whenever I see one fly close. They are so large, and quiet. Seeing them high in the sky together like that is beautiful, mesmerizing. Sometimes it's almost like they're showing off. The color of their wing feathers — is there anything more beautiful?

Ruth said...

Thanks, Reena. What they do to clean up the environment is something to be very grateful for.

Ruth said...

Thanks, California Girl. Their heads are hideous compared to, say, their eagle cousins, who are so handsome and revered. But in flight they are just as majestic, and their important purpose and cycle of digestion amazes me. As Hedgewitch says, 'function fulfilled is grace.'

Ruth said...

Thanks, Hedge. To see them, poetically, as a mandala when they're soaring together contributes to what I've read about them, that sometimes they are playing up there. A mandala in motion, what a dance! Thanks for visiting the other links as well. I was pretty geeked to find that feather atlas, and the porcelain.

Ruth said...

George, to think, you are part-way around the globe, so large, on that little iPhone, and we connect. I am thankful for these modern technologies.

And I am thankful for the ancient structures, as you are too. Picturing you there in Northumberland these next few days walking Hadrian's Wall is giving me great pleasure. I first came to Transit Notes when you had returned from your C2C trek and fell in love with your photography and sensibilities. If you read this before you see him, greet Robert for me please. Strength to your legs and joy to your spirit!

Ruth said...

Dear Nelson, there is something bittersweet to me about the fact that these creatures are often maligned, yet they do so much for our environment, while the eagle, much more handsome, has come to represent a sort of power in the American way. I love this humble cousin, partly because he is so ugly, and still expresses such beauty through his function and flying form.

These birds preen constantly, and usually for about 30 minutes after eating. Their pellets and poo have no disease or bacteria. Their digestive systems truly purify what goes in by the time it comes out. How could anyone see such a creature as anything but marvelous?

Thank you.

Ruth said...

Thanks for reading, Pat. If it weren't for these birds, the road kill on our country road would be more unbearable. I so appreciate them.

Ruth said...

erin, I've read that turkey vultures tend to roost together in the same tree night after night, year after year, decade after decade. Some roosts are even 100 years old! And they often roost on the SAME BRANCH. Imagine. Poppy Seed vulture roosting on the same branch as Grandma vulture. Your vision that morning was well observed, and I wonder what work it is doing in you.

I don't know route 2, but it sounds nice that you discovered it, mysteriously, and got lost in the waves. Beautiful serendipity. Thanks so much, my friend.

Ruth said...

Amy, thanks for reading. I guess it's tough to extricate oneself from the association of you are what you eat. ;) They are remarkable. Apparently their claws are too small for killing.

Stratoz said...

once when hiking I looked up to see a full tree of turkey vultures. It was quite a sight to see them up close. Thanks for the memory.

Susan said...

A farm on the road where we walk always hosts a flock of turkey vultures in the summer. One of my favorite sights is when, after a dewy or rainy night, they line up, one by one, on the fence posts and spread their wings to dry. It is eerily beautiful, especially if it's a little foggy. I've yet to capture it on camera, mainly because I would need a much bigger telephoto lens.

You must include this poem in the book. It is perfection.

Louise Gallagher said...

I think turkey vultures are like dandelions -- they get vilified constantly and yet, they serve such a beautiful purpose and hold such beauty.

Fabulous poem. There's something majestic and sweeping about it -- like the bird in flight -- and I had never heard that word - remiges.


ds said...

Turkey vultures are no longer the same to me after this. You are brilliant at portraying their majesty,and dignity, They are indeed the "ferrymen" to another world and we need them; that world is always present in this, as Sontag said.

I'm with Susan: put this in the book!

Marcie said...

You have actually rendered these vultures as elegant and graceful. So beautifully said!!!

Ginnie said...

It is true, Ruth, that you have paid a truly glorious tribute to what we typically see as an ignoble bird. Thank you for the...realignment in thinking.

Jeanie said...

Did a raptor watching tour a few years ago -- I loved how one could easily spot the turkey vulture in flight by the feathers. This and the other post -- very nice.

Montag said...

You do honor for the vulture. I would have merely descended to stereotypes and nastiness:

"Vulture, wild John red dye in the carrion gazpacho of the road!"

Montag said...

I'm sorry. I think I just ruined the word "gazpacho".

Oliag said...

I remember very well your prose poem about the turkey vulture...It opened my eyes and mind to a different way of thinking about a bird that I would never have associated myself with before...You are wise and the turkey vulture is a wonder. This poem touches me as much as the previous one...Book worthy indeed!...Both side by side!