NEA Literature Fellowships

Nicky Beer

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(2007 - Poetry)

"Cardinal Virtue"

At first, I can't name the bird falling deliberately
from the tree's high crooks: a grey flash, tipped with carmine.
Lit on a fencepost, its wings smolder. 
It must smell of ginger.
Bird, your life would terrify me.
Bones full of air, belly full of hunger,
the underbrush dense with murders.   
Death is a twist, a pinfeather lost,
a stumble over a slowing pebble.  This is not a life
of flight, but flight from.  Perhaps you don't suppose
that there's any other way, which is itself
a kind of mercy.  Perhaps you don't suppose.

Your heart's the size of a small clod and,
so I've heard, egg-shaped.  I learned
to measure my own by the scale of my fist,
and my height from the distance
between the forefingers at the ends of my spread arms.
Physical logic is contrast,
ratio, degree.  We know desire
by the scarcest shades on our skin:
brief flushes, bitten lips. 
How could we sort anything at all
without rarity? There are acres more night
than moon, hours more sleep than dream.

Bird, when you are half-alive
in the jaws of our cats, a yellow ribbon
of innard dragging on the dirt,
remember that we dreamed our radiant dead
would become more like you,
as though the progeny of some impossible
lust between one of ours and one of yours. 
Incomprehensible thing, drenched in the color
of something we call joy,
stuffed with something that we call song,
you are always first

Nicky Beer is from the Long Island town of Northport, NY. She received her BA from Yale University and her MFA from the University of Houston. She will soon receive her English/Creative Writing PhD from the University of Missouri-Columbia. She is the recipient of a 2006 Discovery/The Nation Award, a Discovered Voices Award from Iron Horse Literary Review, and her poems have been published in Kenyon Review, The Nation, Notre Dame Review, Crazyhorse, Indiana Review, Bellingham Review, and elsewhere. 

Photo courtesy of the author

Author's Statement

Elizabeth Bishop writes that icebergs and souls alike are "both...self-made from elements least visible." It occurs to me that all of my poems are little icebergs of time; every hour I spend writing one is really the product of three or four hours of doing something else entirely. The words are simply the only readily visible part of the larger, submerged experience, which might be bird watching, chopping garlic, hiking, reading, listening to Tom Waits CDs, standing in front of a 17th century Dutch still-life painting, eavesdropping, or simply dillydallying. In fact, what I love about writing poetry is how well the whole endeavor resists efficiency, pragmatism, and anything that falls under the heading "proactive." I am profoundly grateful to the judges for honoring my work with an NEA grant. In doing so, they have given me the much needed time and space to follow the meandering, surprising, joyful, and sometimes difficult paths that lead to new poems.