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.