"Of the Parrat and other birds that can speake"

The penultimate poem in our celebration of National Poetry Month is from Nick Lantz’s book, We Don’t Know We Don’t Know, published by Graywolf Press.

“Of the Parrat and other birds that can speake”

           “It is for certain knowne that they have died

           for very anger and griefe that they could not

           learn to pronounce some hard words.”

                                            —Pliny the Elder

When you buy the bird for your mother

you hope it will talk to her. But weeks pass

before it does anything except pluck the bars

with its beak. Then one day it says, “infect.”

Your mother tells you this on the phone,

and you drive over, find the frozen meals

you bought for her last week sweating

on the countertop. “In fact,” she says

in answer to your question, “I have been

eating,” and it’s as you point to the empty

trash can, the spotless dishes, that you

realize the bird is only saying, “in fact,”

that this is now the preamble to all

of your mother’s lies. “In fact,” she says,

“I have been paying the bills,” and you

believe her until you find a cache

of unopened envelopes in the freezer.

More things are showing up where

they shouldn’t. Looking out the back

window one evening you see craters

in her yard. While she’s watching TV,

you go out with a trowel and excavate

picture frames, flatware that looks like

the silver bones of some exquisite

animal. You worry when you arrive

one day and see the open, empty cage

that you will find the bird dead, stuffed

in an oven mitt and left in a drawer,

but you find it sitting on her shoulder

in the kitchen. “In fact,” she says,

“he learned to open the cage himself.”

The bird learns new words. You learn

which lies you can ignore. The stroke

that kills her gives no warning, not—

the doctor assures you—that anyone

can predict such things. When you

drive home that night with the cage

belted into the passenger seat, the bird

makes a sound that is not a word

but that you immediately recognize

as the sound of your mother’s phone

ringing, and you know it is the sound

of you calling her again and again,

the sound of her not answering.

Nick Lantz, “Of the Parrat and other birds that can speake” from We Don’t Know We Don’t Know. Copyright © 2010 by Nick Lantz. Reprinted with the permission of Graywolf Press, Minneapolis, Minnesota. www.graywolfpress.org