Flock Like a Nuisance
In the gloam,
mirror on mirror,
shot glass memories.
Wild turkey, you’re a dinosaur.
Subtle grouse, you’re the heart.
New bird, I’ll never know you.
Sixty-six million years ago—
How long ago was that
In technology years? In robot seconds?
In the exhaust of footsteps
Thudding like clickbait
Into the online brilliance
Of original flight?
Long live the crow,
Who abstains from all of us,
Who flocks like a nuisance
Until none of us is around
To scorn him.
A single bract
With a nutlet at its base
A flowering branch
A beech with its smooth gray bark
“It was more or less darkly mottled.”
Every vein ended in a tooth
It sent up suckers, so you see
Large trees were often surrounded
By little ones
Deer tiptoed at the margins
Browsing on coppice growth
Deer, most evenings
At the forest edge
In old department stores. Or
on the ground floor
of the office building downtown
where my pediatrician practiced
upstairs, that sterile waiting room,
booster shots, dropping my pants
so I could pass the physical but then
lunch with my mom in the bustling
café downstairs, like something
from the fifties, the glamor of my
own personal history, a café that
must be decades gone, its existence
now inexplicable, part of the long
beach of time that will somehow
also include the rest of this, my
Don’t Forget the
Don’t forget the mountains. Nor the glow on them
as a desert’s winter sunset unfolds in the west,
the mountains in the north latching on to all that light.
Warm, fibrous, resinous—cactuslight.
Altitudinous, the light of late bird activity,
of irrigation drip lines; light that skims golf course greens,
pools, and patios; light by which the bobcat
begins her night of scratch and claw;
light that seems to brake the turn of the Earth
before ceding to the dark once more,
letting loose squadrons of javelina, bands of coyote,
wily packrats, and scores of Sonoran moths and bats.
But this is light that will return, soon enough,
to climb the tall saguaro of morning.
Author’s Note–Seasoned Words
When I’m hard up for new material, I go back to the old stuff. I like to work with writing that has a little bit of age on it. It works the same way with firewood, one of my other passions. I could go out and fell a tree, saw it into rounds, then split those rounds into a pile of what would look a lot like firewood. But it wouldn’t be ready to burn. It would be too wet yet. It would be green. It would smoke when placed on the fire.
Give those split pieces of wood six months to season—or even better, a year—and now I’ve got something I can work with. When my voice for the page grows stagnant, I take older notebooks down off of the shelf and I begin to go through them again. Sometimes I start at the beginning, sometimes at the end; sometimes I open to pages at random. I’m looking for whatever strikes me.
I like notebooks that I filled up and set aside a year or two years prior. Sometimes, I’ve already gone through the notebook once, at least partially. I might have harvested raw material from it on the first pass, but there’s almost always something I’ve missed. I think of it like spelunking or prospecting. The notebooks contain raw material. The useful writing is ore. It’s up to me to do the final processing.
Sometimes I return to an old notebook to find a whole poem written legibly and coherently but, for reasons I can’t understand, abandoned entirely—orphaned. In other cases, I find a paragraph or two of competent, lyrical language written out as prose that I realize, in hindsight, could make a perfectly good poem, if I were to cut it up into lines and stanzas.
Case in point my poem “Don’t Forget the.” I wrote some paragraphs just before leaving Tucson, Arizona early last January. At the time, I was writing with a functional, journal-entry sort of mindset. I really was telling myself not to forget the mountains, the light, the bobcat, the bats, the saguaros. For most of the rest of the year, I was focused on writing nonfiction essays. I wasn’t reading much poetry so I wasn’t writing much poetry. I probably passed over this particular page in my notebook thinking the paragraph was just an undeveloped blurb. Too short even for flash.
Then late last year, I entered a phase of reading a bit more poetry, and trying to write some new lines. I had gotten the craving for something new to send out, something good. I opened an old notebook, flipping through in search of pages that were unmarked—meaning, I had not previously gone over them already. I found some attractive language about the desert landscape of Tucson. I rewrote it by hand into a “current” notebook; then I rewrote it again into another. I typed up a draft in the word processor; slept on it; woke up the next morning, worked it up some more, and voila. I had a version I was ready to send out. Lo and behold, Parhelion accepted it for publication.
Sometimes I return to old notebooks to find a poem that needs only a little bit more work before it is finished. In some instances, the final fix is as simple as replacing a bad title. This was the case with “Flock Like a Nuisance.” I had this poem written out, looking very similar to how it looks now, in a notebook I had filled up in 2019. For whatever reason, I could not get excited enough about the poem to type it up and send it out for consideration. This past fall I read the poem again for the first time in a year and it spoke to me in a way it had not done before.
I was hard up for new material, but it was more than that. The poem had aged well. I see wild turkeys strutting across cow pastures in rural Missouri on a regular basis. Among all living birds, they are considered the nearest relatives of the dinosaurs. They fascinate me, and they always will.
Same for the crows. When there aren’t any flashy, uncommon birds to warrant my attention, crows make for an acceptable alternative. They can be a nuisance when they congregate in large flocks, but that doesn’t make them a bad bird. I like the notion that other forms of life on Earth are just biding their time until us humans wipe out most or all of our population by war and/or our insistence on doomed, unsustainable living practices. A poem considering that future is as timely as ever.
To finish the poem, I needed a new title. Reading the poem again, I seized upon the phrase “Flock Like a Nuisance.” It struck me as lively and idiosyncratic. I ran a search for the phrase on a popular search site. When the search returned zero results I had my title.
Another experience I have when exploring old notebooks is one of curious delight when I stumble across a poetic fragment or a short bit of prose that I have absolutely no recollection of having written. This is something like the manna from heaven moment. It’s like having a poem written for you—by your former self—for free. Gold.
When I go back through old notebooks to process raw writing, I take a pen with a very different color of ink to make edits; to make a garish checkmark on the top of a page to signify the page has been “processed”; or, to make a note that the piece of writing has been re-drafted and transferred somewhere else, either into a different notebook or into the computer. The pages that stand out in notebooks I’ve already partially mined are the pages that aren’t marked up in this way.
On occasion there are pages in notebooks that I’ve written something on when I was filling the notebook, and then, somehow, I’ve just missed them in the months or years since.
This was the case with the raw material that became “Time’s Beach.” I had originally written a little fragment about a café that used to sit on the ground floor of the building in downtown Belleville, Illinois where my pediatrician’s office was located. For whatever reason—the mind’s randomness and vagary—I wrote out some lines about this café, about how my mom and I would have lunch there after I saw the doctor. I remember going to the doctor’s office for booster shots and for physicals that I needed to pass so I could play youth sports.
Thinking back, that building seems to have existed in a completely different lifetime. In my memory, the building was something built in the thirties or forties, with an art deco vibe. The whole aura and strangeness of the place makes me nostalgic for it. If the building is still standing, there’s no way the café is still there. Those places are a thing of the past, like the lunch room of what was then Famous-Barr in the mall that was nearest to our house. But I can remember these things in my poetry—the magical moments of childhood.
The other type of work I like to grind out of old notebooks is a found poem. In the example of “Beckon Brush,” I had a page in a large notebook where I had jotted down on the top half of the page some loosely connected phrases that caught my ear whilst I was reading through field guides for plant identification. On the bottom half of the same page, was some stream-of-consciousness diaristic-style writing I did while looking out the window of a rental house my wife and I were staying in during the first summer of the pandemic.
When I first wrote the words on the page, I wasn’t thinking that the parts might go together. But looking back through the journal fifteen months later, I realized that the two pieces could be a match. In this case, I didn’t try to do too much else with the language. It’s a minimalist bit of poetry, in the vein of the late great Franz Wright. I look at some of his poems, especially his later writing, and it is so sparse. At times it appears he has just glued together two or three random thoughts in what are shockingly short poems. But somehow, they work. I like to go to his writing when I’m struggling with confidence; when I am making things more difficult than they need to be.
Or I think about Richard Hugo’s advice about the poet being the sole person in charge of his poem. He said something like, “It’s your poem. You get to say what works. What sounds right to you controls how the poem is written.”
With “Beckon Brush,” I looked at what I had cobbled together, and I had some doubts about it. Is it really even a poem? Is enough happening here? What’s the point? I guess those are all fair questions to ask. But then I’d reach the end of the poem, with the deer appearing in sunset light to browse coppice growth at the forest edge, and I’d feel something good and warm inside. Isn’t that the kind of thing I should want to share?
The worst act I ever committed as a writer was the destruction of some of my oldest notebooks. Notebooks I had not gone through thoroughly; not diligently. I was in an early, bad stretch of my writing life; getting rejections and failing to come up with anything new or better. I took out my frustration on those notebooks. I tore them up and threw them away. When what I should have been doing was getting back into them, to find the treasure I realize now was buried there.
John Randall is a writer living in Missouri. He sometimes writes about the natural world and finds that travel sparks a desire to put pen to paper. His interests include camping, ad hoc property maintenance, birds, firewood, First Amendment law, and an eclectic array of podcasts. His work has appeared in Atlanta Review, MetroLines, Temenos, and is forthcoming from Martin Lake Journal. He can also be found at johnbrandall.com.