Recently, after a friend, Sarah (who has an amazing blog @ A Wine Dark Sea), experienced an attack on her flock of hens by several stray dogs, I promised her I would post my chook poems here.
The chook poems were written a long time ago. Many of them appeared in my first published collection (with Michael Heald and Roland Leach) Shorelines: three poets Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1995 (now out of print). Before Shorelines "Mangiare alfresco" (1992), "The Thursday Fox" (1993), and "On finding white feathers" (1994) were published in the Weekend Australian back in the days when Barry Oakley was the Literary Editor there. Barry gave me one of the nicest compliments I have ever received when he said: "I just can't resist your chook poems."
The chook poems worked their way into my life at a time when my family and I lived in the Perth hills. My writing desk was located in front of a huge window that looked out onto our backyard, a bush block, with our flock of free-range hens (and the occasional wet rooster) parading by. During that period of time we nurtured several households of chooks, loving them, and grieving for them when sickness, old-age, or fox/dog-attack decimated our flock. Valuable lessons were learned. Along with the large doses of humor that arise from sharing your life with a hoard of feathered individuals, the simple, cruel tragedies of the backyard crept into those being enacted by the larger world around us. For example, in "The Thursday Fox", the story of Bobbie Cullen, a student at Curtin University and a victim of domestic violence who died when I was pursuing studies in creative writing there, seeps into a poem about a fox attack I've never forgotten: the dark, tortured night when I, with my son, Clifton – who was only about 10 years-old at the time and very, very brave – ran blindly around in the bush trying to save our hens ahead of the fox coven committed to beheading them a step ahead of us.
Woman at Desk with Writing Space
Her writing space is in her head, sleeping,hiding between its cotton sheets, it goessnug in the place behind her ears and eyes.Sometimes it’s there when she’s away: sittingon a bench at the lake, in a clearingin the woods, on logs in the chicken run –
once – amidst a herd of cows. Would it run?It wouldn’t jump-start! She suspects sleepingwas on its mind. More commonly, clearingits throat loudly, it is in her car. Goesskidding around corners, sighing, sittingfrozen at stop signs. Blue lights in her eyes.
It fires over dirty dishes, its eyesrunning with onion’s scent, but daily runsleave it puffed in the driveway or sittingexhausted in her chair. When she’s sleeping,hand in hand with dreams - no spare room - it goesabout dusting cobwebs, firebreak clearing,
washing the floors for visitors, clearingfog from the bathroom mirror. To its eyes,her desk is a mess but it likes it. Goescursing to the landlord: its stockings runcatching on splinters from her page - sleepingcat on cushion. Her writing space, sitting,
jumps when the phone rings, hides away, sittingon the edge of the curtain rail, clearingits line of sight to catch the deep-sleepingtrailer with its overflowing cat’s-eyes,beer cans, bike tyres, junk, time for a dump runwith leaves. The rake that broke yesterday goes,
says her writing space. And as the sun goesdown, its rays highlight the paper sittingon her desk with coffee rings. A dry runto the chook yard with scraps, her mind clearingashtrays, dust from the keyboard. Her space eyesthe livestock’s feathers, ruffled from sleeping.
Out the window it goes, to the clearing,hens sitting, scratching, blinking lidded eyes -–writing space on the run: writer sleeping.
The boy in the paddockdown the roadhas frost on his eyelashes.
His hen was paralysed, dying.He’d placed her in the nesting boxnear the morning’s eggs,and closed her eyesagainst the sunlight.He cried on his way back through the trees –‘Spider webs in my eyes.’
The boy is watching the henhouse –breath, making mist, trailsthrough the railings of the gate.
He’s a featherbrain,a feather duster. He’s been caughtfeathering his own nest.
He’s a rooster stalking upand down the chicken run.Shut-in bird bedraggled by rain.
He’s stalking up and downthe fence. Black and white.Not soft. Wet. Stringy.Water bonds feathers to bone.
At the corner of the yard, he turns,tail feathers, like bridal trainsbehind him, duck and follow.
A parson’s nose. He’s a parson’snose in a baking dishbubbling in his juices.Crisp. Brown. Salty on the servingdish. On the counter.The parson’s nose. First to go.Next, drumstick.
His huge legs stalking featherbed.Feet, up and down in the mud, march.Disappear. Appear. Turn.His voice an angry buck, buck. No crow.No breeze. Christmas kitchen dish.
The roast, the hot, hungrytrace of basting Buff Orpington.
He stalks, walks like a Sergeant Major,round and round the chopping block,around the axe.
On Finding White Feathers
In the corner of the shed,my favourite: a small, white Silky hen -found in a nest of wings and straw -quite dead.
She was a good breeder.I relied on herto increase the flock,now she’s decreased it - by one.She’s the fourth this week.
I’ve lost an English Game Cock,a Bantam and a Plymouth Rockcrossed with something else.Some days there is a body,sometimes none.
A hole under the fenceof the chicken yardcan mean one more in my garden,I am making compost with feathers.
I’ve closed their door for the night,a log, new-felled, pressed firmly against it.I stack rocks around the wirejamming my hand between them,lose skin, bleed.
Loss pierces my swelling thumb –it is sharp as the swift yellow beakof a small, white hen hoarding eggs.
The Thursday Foxfor Bobbie Cullen
The rubbish truck’s late again. It’s Thursday.A fox has breakfasted on the hens. Eggsand laying pellets combined, a kind ofhybrid omelette on the floor of the coop.And the garbage bags, Glad, on the road vergeare full of headless chickens, and I hate
the way the fence collects loose feathers, hatehens for losing their heads on a Thursday.Midday, and I wash dishes on the vergeof tears. Outside: cat, striped yolk-yellow egg-white, with magpie carnivals from tree. Coop’sso empty. Their shadows blend, a kind of
melting: the bird, the cat, the wire, and ofsteam, dishwater, window rivulets. Hatethe way soapsuds dry my skin, my flesh coopedup, this body-house. Rubbish, next Thursday,will be dull compared to this – fertile eggsand guillotined bodies wait on the verge,
and will I know what’s missing next Thursday?Will I wake, alone, sense the absence ofrooster crow, my body between sheets – eggsabsent from pantry, and summon up hatefor fox? Whose hands held the axe on the verge?Not mine, they’re dry, no evidence. The coop?
Lock up? Convert to vegetable patch? Coopwith cucumber, marigolds on the verge,pumpkins like perfect golden suns. Thursday-time: a battery-driven clock which speaks ofbed-making rituals, detergent, fox-hatecongealed on towels. No slow breakfast, no eggs
for cakes or child-delight. No scrambled eggson toast, no Sunday brunch, no walks to coopwith scraps – no clustering, dumb birds. I hatethe way soap-suds dry my skin - but vergesand cats crouch over their slack bundles offeathers. It’s a white, black and white, Thursday.
No hens hoarding eggs. Silence verges onthe grasstrees, vacant coop. The silence ofthe graveyard now, after the Thursday fox.
A Letter to my Chooks
Please don’t poop on the doormat.When you wake at 4am –and the moon floatson a luminous cloud –please don’t practise the lyricsof your favourite songs.
My aspidistra was placed outsidefor sunshine – not for you.Your menu consists of laying pellets,kitchen scraps and wheat.
The seat, my seat, situated outsidethe front door, catches the firstof the morning’s rays. I enjoycoffee and newspaper in that chair.Please inform the rooster, the cocky onewith the crooked spur, not to perch there –evidence is difficult to discover in the dark.
Yours faithfully seems a token gesturewhen my fine new boots, and Levi’s , are wetand pegged on the clothes linein the moonlight.
I’ll mail this letter in the morning –nail it, in fact – with recipes for à la Kingand cacciatore, to the handle of the blunted,rusted axe leaning against the woodshed door.