Poem of the Week: The way of the Dodo

How happy did it make me that Al Gore won the Nobel Prize? (Rhetorical question.)

In his honor, I thought of a poem by Judith Skillman, from the latest edition of the online journal Tattoo Highway, edited by Sara MacAulay. (Yes, I loaned them my painting for the cover).

The poem is about the quintessential poster-bird of idiocy, the ridiculous Dodo, literally beaten into extinction by environmentally oblivious humans. Like a mini-cabinet of curiosity, Skillman’s gathered source material models a very human response to the natural world: bafflement, and the odd pain of having lost not something we needed, but rather something we never had the opportunity to comprehend. That’s what extinction is. Yet the poem sidesteps obvious blame and reprisal, aiming for an ambiguity closer to the truth: we won’t always understand what we are fighting to preserve, nor can we deny the parts of our own nature that drive us to destroy it.

Judith Skillman
“The Dodo Bird”
with lines from Holderlin

I found it land-bound, small wings tucked
against its sides. The head naked,
almost human in its appraisal.
I remember hearing about you, I said
and it replied For the gods grow indignant…

It was not repulsive, rather oily, a few black strands
like leftover feathers sprouting from its head.
I thought you were a figment I said,
and it replied if a man not gather himself to save His soul…

I said I was a woman, that I would have preferred
to lose the ostrich, but would not starve my children.
If there had been a famine and the opportunity arose
I also would have beaten the Dodo to death
with whatever was at hand—
club, baseball bat, plank of wood,
but I wouldn’t have laughed.

Women are tame.
We don’t kill unless threatened.
Did you not perceive the Dutchmen as a threat?
Yet he has no choice…
the bird replied, foraging, head down,
diamond eyes shrunken to slits
as it pried grubs from mud.

Why have you grown so large—
three feet tall, walking about
as if you owned the ground
between clouds of idealism and germs of reality.
You had your heyday.
We have your beak in the British Museum
for proof: DNA, some writings and renderings.

It went about the business of the omnivorous—
scavenging, turning its arse this way and that,
always the silly walk of it
and the precious non-birdness of its serious demeanor,
unshaken by extinction: like-
wise; mourning is in error…

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4 Responses to Poem of the Week: The way of the Dodo

  1. Nice one. I liked the poem.
    Oddly reminded me of some of the Crow poems of Ted Hughes.

  2. peacay says:

    Have you met Bibi’s dodo blog?

  3. cicada says:

    Peacay, you are full of surprises. There is a whole dodo blog, and I missed it? Sigh. . .

    Sunil, haven’t read much Ted Hughes – I’ll have to check those out. Glad you enjoyed it.

  4. Kosmo says:

    A beautiful poem. The line, “But I wouldn’t have laughed.” really caught me.

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