A brace of red-eyed vireos light
on a wild cherry tree dying
outside my attic window, lending
their various greens to the limbs whose only leaves
are now blight-withered, ash-hued,
a promise that what’s vital might perish almost overnight
and signal the end,
but maybe they’re just seeking
another thread of spider silk
to soften the nest, or merely warning cowbirds
to respect their district,
which might be deemed a kind of prayer.
Camouflaged in moss-green, viridian, olive,
they shiver and blister the air but deserve
a better weapon than music
if their testimony’s essential,
as I contend it is.
I wish on mornings like this
to take their nickname to heart and believe
they render sermons about something sheer as spirit
and surely fleeting as their invisible songs.
Designed for migration—body heat, diet, wingbeat,
water retention and vision—they’ll be gone
with first frost, but right now and only
ten feet distant, they let me, as still as I’ve ever
been, see without optic assistance the red ring
about each eye’s iris, a wreath of fire
testifying to the sheer heat of existence.
Chanting, they celebrate the deciduous, though knowing
the final homily must be this,
however impossible: seize the day, savor every hour,
listen, mimic and remember,
aim to summon each leaf and flower
implicit in the sleeping sap.
Not everything that’s going’s coming back.
Meaters though they were, the Corps devoured
the sweet fish Chief Coboway of the Clatsop
offered them by the rushing Columbia
from whose waters his kinsmen skimmed
the swimmers into nets of the wisest contrivance.
Better even than steelhead, sockeye or blueback
salmon, delicious smoked or roasted on a spit,
but now they often go by “candlefish,”
as Captain Lewis was the first white citizen
(unless the Spanish knew but never penned
their secret) to learn the trick of threading
a wick from vent to lips, then drying the creature
till it was full stiff and perhaps dipping it
in beeswax, the artifact ready, its string end
then touched with a campfire stick’s cherry tip
that the smelt’s oil might fuel the glinting ember.
It might provide from moonrise to -set a taper
to find one’s path to safety or peruse a map.
“They show a bluish dusky back,” he wrote
with a trimmed quill and berried ink, “spotless,
going to silver underneath, the purple of the eye
is black, the iris of a silver white, few teeth,
a lower jaw protuberant as if in pouting.”
Staying awake till nearly dawn and giving
his find the courtesy with which he rendered
Shoshone, bison, stars—but not his own heart,
which was ever tainted with melancholy—
he was saved by his resolute scrutiny toward
all wonders and humdrums he discovered,
and this one night he worked scrupulously,
sated on beer, the smoky taste of the day’s
catch, inspired by the steady flame rising
like a voice from the mouth of a wondrous
but locally ubiquitous and freely given fish.
R. T. Smith is Writer-in-Residence at Washington and Lee University, where he edits Shenandoah. His books have twice received the Library of Virginia Book of the Year Award, and in 2013 he received the Carole Weinstein Prize in Poetry from the Library of Virginia, and this summer his In the Night Orchard: New and Selected Poems was published.