Monday, October 5, 2015

Mark Abley: Into Thin Air

Into Thin Air


Dr. William L. Rhein of Harrisburg, deserting his Heartbreak
Hotel-era patients to explore an ancient vestige of
roadless forest high in the western Sierra Madre,
was aboard a mule when a single Imperial
Woodpecker clambered up a dead pine in plain view

and he filmed her foraging the scaly trunk,
chipping the bark, her black lizard-like crest
twitching before she heaved into flight,
her pointed tail disappearing
   beyond his ability   
to deploy a handheld
 camera further:

the only day
her kind was


Chastened, wrinkled, reclusive, he likened the creature to “a great
big turkey flying in front of me,” his hands quivering: now
a few clicks of my index finger revive on a screen 
the ghost of a younger, butterball man in a hat
who drilled cavities to buy his Mexican trip

and reveal an almost heart-shaped whiteness in  
the woodpecker’s folded wings: how she’d leap
off a tree before briskly flapping
away: if the sound equipment
hadn’t weighed so much, we might
still understand just what
Rhein meant by “cackling”

and “the usual
toy trumpet
sounds” she


When biologists, half a century later, found a way back,
they discovered the loggers had left almost nothing uncut:
opium poppies grew where the opulent pines had stood:
 in the minds of oldtimers the largest woodpeckers
ever to roam this planet persisted as half-

forgotten medicine, half-remembered meat
and the trusting dupes of a sawmill boss:
he paid his men to smear the doomed trees
so the birds, using their long pale
beaks to drill for larval grubs,  
would ingest poison and
at a loss for breath

could prevail on
wings no

Mark Abley is a Montreal-based poet, journalist, editor and non-fiction writer. His most recent poetry collection is The Tongues of Earth: New and Selected Poems (Coteau Books, 2015).  ... about Mark Abley  ...  about  The Tongues of Earth

1 comment:

  1. Deluxe poem, powerful and very perceptive. Love the blend of history, research and description, with surprises in language, mostly concerning this Imperial Woodpecker: "her black lizard-like crest/twitching", 'Chastened", "almost heart-shaped whiteness", "toy trumpet sounds", "opulent pines", "sumptuous wings". His (Dr. Rhein's) complex life story is empathetic and we are provided with very brief, lucid glimpses.