A PRAYER TO TALK TO ANIMALS
Lord, I ain’t asking to be the Beastmaster
gym-ripped in a jungle loincloth
or a Doctor Dolittle or even the expensive vet
down the street, that stethoscoped redhead,
her diamond ring big as a Cracker Jack toy.
All I want is for you to help me flip
off this lightbox and its scroll of dread, to rip
a tiny tear between this world and that, a slit
in the veil, Lord, one of those old-fashioned peeping
keyholes through which I can press my dumb
lips and speak. If you will, Lord, make me the teeth
hot in the mouth of a raccoon scraping
the junk I scraped from last night’s plates,
make me the blue eye of that young crow cocked to
me—too selfish to even look up from the flash
of my damn phone. Oh, forgive me, Lord,
how human I’ve become, busy clicking
what I like, busy pushing
my cuticles back and back to expose
all ten pale, useless moons. Would you let me
tell your creatures how sorry
I am, let them know exactly
what we’ve done? Am I not an animal
too? If so, Lord, make me one again.
Give me back my dirty claws and blood-warm
horns, braid back those long-
frayed strands of every nerve tingling
with all I thought I had to do today.
Fork my tongue, Lord. There is a sorrow on the air
I taste but cannot name. I want to open
my mouth and know the exact
flavor of what’s to come, I want to open
my mouth and sound a language
that calls all language home.
—for Mary Oliver
Ain’t no foxes here, Mary. Ain’t no grasshoppers resting
in my picnic palm. Ain’t too many creatures worth a poem
like yours, just mewling strays tucked into the dangerous warmth
beneath a pick-up’s hood, just poodles with painted nails clicking
pink—so few animals left to this strip-mall sprawl,
this clocked-in, bottled, florescent-lit existence, even our air
conditioned, vents pointing down with a force fierce enough to keep
a bouquet of daisies in full bloom for months.
No, no marsh hawks or wild geese neither. Maybe a pet-shop
cockatiel with her dried green sprinkle on carpet of no consequential
color, maybe a street robin bopping its dingy breast on the fragile
segments of her legs, maybe a sparrow, like the one who kept pecking
my window last spring, fighting who knows what, probably his own
reflection, and because we believe in wives’ tales around here, mama said,
Be careful now, death’s trying to get in our home.
But then again, once, I did see a moth—he was big, big
as a burger, big as a side of fries, so big he covered the yellow letter P
in a home-made sign spray-painted on the asphalt
of the manager’s spot, not No Parking but kept simple: No Park.
I was walking—no, Mary, not through the woods
or along any shore—but across the lot of the discount store.
But the moth, Mary, the moth—half-dead, electric
green, was unlike anything I’d ever seen. A luna, I was later told,
but back then I thought him a myth knocked out of the sky,
a neon messenger sent to tell me that things were once different, once
Noah had plenty to gather before the storm, but now, here it was,
plain as day, spelled out for all to see: No ark.
As in, ain’t no use, not now, not anymore.
Let it rain and rain and rain. Ain’t nothing left to save.
And because I’m not you—no, Mary, I couldn’t be if I tried—
he scared the shit out of me—four drowsy eyes eyeing from tattered
wings, feathered antenna tasting my hair-sprayed artifice, his limp
thistle legs that stuck to my hands when I carried him to a safer place—
well, not safe, exactly, but at least a place where he would be taken
by beak or tooth and not smashed by tires or stomped by some brat’s shoes.
But what I want to say to you is this: I was frightened, but I once tried
to save a thing about to die, tried to ease what was to come.
And the bag girl, mentally handicapped and happy
just to have her first job, followed me with her rattling train
of carts and her bright mouth with not enough teeth
held by too much gum. And when I set the winged thing in the grass
behind the dumpster, the girl, she threw that red mouth of hers
wide, laughing and laughing into that long line of empty
carts. I tell you, she knew. And I never knew empty carts to be so
damn empty. Never knew how much each resembles a cage.
THE SCAT OF IT
The shit of it, the slick of it, the beetle’s tumbling joy,
the bear’s berry slush of it, the coyote’s ghost white
dry of it—undigested fur, nothing more, hot-pressed into a
turd—that nothing-wasted prayer. The shame
of it, even the dog shy, peering from behind a bush,
spine curved into the not-in-my-yard-sign; the teasing too,
me laughing about the anal express, the poor cat hissing
at the vet’s gloved hand. The dump and log
slop of it, a sad jaundiced yellow or something rich, a deposit
of iron, green nearly black, the color of a forest
never once cut, miraculously untouched.
Then too there’s the zoo—regular factories
of it: the chimp’s sling of it against his bars, and not too far
from him, swaying ceaselessly from side to side—the elephant—
how hers is shoveled up, scraped from the concrete floor
then hosed down, the rest of the heft hauled away. Down the road
it’s sweet meat for the pumpkin patch and hungry rows
of corn. And further on, in the dark of the barn, the halo of it
glows white around a chicken’s diddle warming next to her eggs.
The hen broods in, pays no mind to the much more tidy loo
kept by those few lucky pigs allowed to stand
and walk away from their bed to defecate outside, so different
from the lift-your-tail-and-go-where-you-stand kind—
that of the goat and sheep and rabbit—each pellet perfectly round,
a pile of dinky moons eclipsed, a mess of shining beads, a black rosary
undone, the prey animal take on it—look both ways and shit
quick, no dallying around.
The rice-sized mouse of it in the kitchen drawer, even smaller
is that of the roach, the cabinet scrubbed raw because mama says
such leavings are degrading, meant for the dirty and poor. In the water,
an ocean frolics with it, the seahorse trails it from a hole close to where
his babies burst from his chest—watch it frolic like a yellow streamer
before it breaks loose and floats. And up the river
the salmon rid themselves of what’s left of it, and with their load
lightened, eat no more. The satisfaction of it—the full-belly, the I-did-my-job-
now-let-go, as in what the earth has given my cells have loved
to death and now give back what’s left, a cramp of thank you,
here is my offering, a stench maybe for us but for everything else
a bouquet of gratitude, a scattering that if you look close you can
track, at least until it’s finally buried again, whipping with
worms, churned in, folded back. There is no shame
in it, and if we are disgusted, we have not yet
learned—blessed is that from what we came, blessed
to what we return.
-from To Those Who Were Our First Gods (Rattle, 2018), selected by Fall 2022 Guest Editor, Michael Walsh
Nickole Brown received her MFA from the Vermont College, studied literature at Oxford University, and was the editorial assistant for the late Hunter S. Thompson. She worked at Sarabande Books for ten years. Her first collection, Sister, a novel-in-poems, was published in 2007 with a new edition reissued in 2018. Her second book, a biography-in-poems about her grandmother called Fanny Says, came out from BOA Editions in 2015 and won the Weatherford Award for Appalachian Poetry. The audio book of that collection came out in 2017. She has received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Kentucky Foundation for Women, and the Kentucky Arts Council. She was an Assistant Professor at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock for four years and was the co-editor of the Marie Alexander Poetry Series for ten. Currently, she teaches periodically at a number of places, including the Sewanee School of Letters MFA Program, the Great Smokies Writing Program at UNCA, and the Hindman Settlement School. She lives with her wife, poet Jessica Jacobs, in Asheville where she periodically volunteers at a three different animal sanctuaries. Since 2016, she’s been writing about these animals, resisting the kind of pastorals that made her (and many of the working-class folks from the Kentucky that raised her) feel shut out of nature and the writing about it. Her work speaks in a Southern-trash-talking way about nature beautiful, damaged, dangerous, and in desperate need of saving. To Those Who Were Our First Gods, a chapbook of these first nine poems, won the 2018 Rattle Prize, and her essay-in-poems, The Donkey Elegies, was published by Sibling Rivalry Press in 2020. In 2021, Spruce Books of Penguin Random House published Write It! 100 Poetry Prompts to Inspire, a book she co-authored with her wife Jessica Jacobs, and they regularly teach generative writing sessions together as part of their SunJune Literary Collaborative. A list of Brown's upcoming readings and teaching engagements can be found here: https://nickolebrown.com/calendar.