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Not one of them ever said your name.
Stop putting words in the mouths of the birds.
It’s seeds they want.

What are they going to do with words,
tearful drops of theophanic honey,
metaphysical spit, sacrificial blood, endogenous
balsam, camphor, and myrrh, words?

Such an evanescent diet would only leave them
wondering why they’re born
and why they die.

A regimen that sweet, salty, and bitter,
that liminal, and next thing you know
they’ll be raising airy shrines
and vaulted altars near the sun. Next thing
you know, they’ll forget all about sleep
and begin writing histories of their tribes,
chronicling the conquests and the defeats,
the building of their first cities,
the years they were strangers in their own country,
the years they were strangers in a strange land,
the winged expulsions, and the flying returns.
Next thing, they’ll be preaching
the chief end of wings and the reign of love.

All because you put words in their mouths.
Stop putting ideas in their heads.
It’s you who wants to know the origin of numbers, not them.
It’s you who can’t find your way home, not them.

It’s you who forgets more and more of your first language
each day, you who let the unspoken grow
between you and your mother each year.
It’s you who lost the first songs she taught you.
Not the birds.

They might spend most of their days in the sky,
but every evening they remember
to come back to earth.
Not a single one of them ever got lost up high.
It’s you who followed your dead there.
And when they remained above, it was you
made it back only three quarters of the way.

And now you can’t make sense of living in time,
or of being in a lightless body of murmurs and humming,
earth packed with fire and shot through with longing.
It’s you. It’s not the birds.
It was never about the birds.

 


“All About the Birds” reprinted from The Undressing by Li-Young Lee. Copyright © 2018 by Li-Young Lee. Used with permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

Li-Young Lee was born in 1957 in Jakarta, Indonesia. His verse has earned numerous honors, including a Lannan Literary Award, a Paterson Poetry Prize, and an American Book Award. Lee lives in Chicago with his wife and two sons.

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