When We Were Birds

When We Were Birds

by Joe Wilkins




Finalist, 2016 Miller Williams Poetry Prize, edited by Billy Collins

In When We Were Birds, Joe Wilkins wrests his attention away from the griefs, deprivations, and high prairies of his Montana childhood and turns toward “the bean-rusted fields & gutted factories of the Midwest,” toward ordinary injustice and everyday sadness, toward the imminent birth of his son and his own confusions in taking up the mantle of fatherhood, toward faith and grace, legacy and luck.

A panoply of voices are at play—the escaped convict, the late-night convenience store clerk, and the drowned child all have their say—and as this motley chorus rises and crests, we begin to understand something of what binds us and makes us human: while the world invariably breaks all our hearts, Wilkins insists that is the very “place / hope lives, in the breaking.”

Within a notable range of form, concern, and voice, the poems here never fail to sing. Whether praiseful or interrogating, When We Were Birds is a book of flight, light, and song. “When we were birds,” Wilkins begins, “we veered & wheeled, we flapped & looped— / it’s true, we flew.”

Winner, 2017 Stafford/Hall Award for Poetry, Oregon Book Awards

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781557286970
Publisher: University of Arkansas Press
Publication date: 03/01/2016
Series: Miller Williams Poetry Prize Series
Edition description: 1
Pages: 94
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

Joe Wilkins is the author of the memoir The Mountain and the Fathers and the poetry collections Notes from the Journey Westward and Killing the Murnion Dogs. A Pushcart Prize winner and National Magazine Award finalist, he lives in western Oregon and teaches writing at Linfield College.

Table of Contents

My Son Asks for the Story about When We Were Birds 3


Eat Stone and Go On 9

Note to My Unborn Son concerning Quickening 11

Ragged Point Road 12

An Ode for Leaving the Place You Call Home 14

Leviadian 18

The Day We Finish Painting the Bedroom, My Wife's Father E-mails Us His Suicide Note 20

Note to My Unborn Son concerning Our First Birthing Class 22

Complaint with the Turning of the Season & Shined Shoes 24

Drought 25

The Gospel according to Kelly, Night Shift Manager, Forest City Fuel & Food 26


Note to My Unborn Son concerning Manufacturing Economics and Courage 31

J&W Redemption, Highway 9, North Iowa 32

With the Kisses of Many 35

Today, the Neighbor Girl Wore a Blue Dress, and Her Doll Was Naughty Tea 36

Note to My Unborn Son concerning the Fundamental Project of Democracy 37

Fishcutter 39

Me & Mississippi 40

Littlelight 42

Prairie Race Relations, Lodge Grass, One Sunday Afternoon 43

Like Bread the Light 45


Notes to My Unborn Son concerning Winter, Grief, & Spring 49

Poem thinning out into prayer 53

Anyone who has eyes for seeing should see 54

The Can Picker, 1st & Cowls 55

Note to My Unborn Son concerning the Peculiarities of Faith 57

Caddo River Elegy 58

Encomium, Driving Highway 49 South 61

Note to My Unborn Son concerning the Second Law of Thermodynamics 63

Absence 64

Note to My Unborn Son concerning Time, Fear, and Impending Fatherhood 65

The Garage Sale Daze Meditations 66

Note to My Unborn Son concerning Canadian Folk Music 71


Six Days' Lament 75

Each Word Holds the World 77

Complaint with Exhaustion & Amateur Theology 79

Colic 81

Missouri River 83

A Story We Might Follow 85

Complaint with Parking Lot Vegetable Stand & Child's Cry 87

Complaint with Drought and Economic Downturn 89

Arguing with James Baldwin the Day after the Reelection of Barack Obama 90

The Spirit Entering as Midnight Wind 94

Wish 96

Ragged Point Road 98

"Where Was I before I Was Born?" 108


Eight Letters of Explanation, Acknowledgment, & Apology on the Occasion of My Son's First Birthday 113

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