Before; Piper Kerr, a Member of the Scottish National Antarctic Expedition, Plays the Bagpipes for an Indifferent Penguin, March 1904
Before we were born
we found ways not to exist…
—D. Nurske, “The Body” (The New Yorker, January 6, 2020)
It’s above my pay grade, picturing what we were before.
But I want to vote for who you are prior to the thousand
and one discontents transformed you into You as a being
who's unrecognizable to a child knocking around in you—
at least one Before had to be something to see: those first
rather unintended, helical goings-on of Want coalescing
for the gazillionth time into you truly clueless as to how
anything works. Or why it does so, works, twice or never.
Just maybe there are black holes of starlight-as-spacetime
determining they can, but won’t, be made to burn again.
That some incarnations of Nothingness are pretty cool.
In other words, if we have any say in whether we return,
bodied by feeling out of place and hungry, not just ready
to eat, I’d wish myself the New Yorker poem I read aloud
to a more-than-ardent lover on a lanai on the North Shore
of Oahu. The absence of disquiet can subpoena Presence,
that and the kindnesses of strangers themselves unrescued
by kindness. All of it as unmerited as breath or before that.
Piper Kerr, a Member of the Scottish National Antarctic Expedition,
Plays the Bagpipes for an Indifferent Penguin, March 1904
Like bagpipes and a kilt weren’t enough, an editor
has labeled, using marginalia and arrows to indicate
which is the man and which unenthusiastic penguin.
All right, sure—what self-respecting explorer wants
branded adorable? The beloved-prisoner has one leg
tied to a kitchen pot, given a nearly universal animal
revulsion for the company of men and being shackled.
Maybe it was curious, to a point, as with any predator
and fell for the old follow-the-treats-to-captivity ruse.
You say you never imagined any penguin would stand
for bagpipe tunes. It could be the tuxedoed foot soldier,
its look a brief history of fierce aquatic winter, is pissed.
Just as likely, the animal is fantasizing of worthy mates.
Oceans of fat, leaping fish and solid footing on ice floes.
I’m hopeful he was returned to cathedral songs of water,
cries and whispers of welcoming unthroated. Answered.
Roy Bentley, a finalist for the Miller Williams prize for Walking with Eve in the Loved City, is the author of eight books; including American Loneliness from Lost Horse Press, who is bringing out a new & selected in 2021. He is the recipient of a Creative Writing Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts and fellowships from the Florida Division of Cultural Affairs and the Ohio Arts Council. Poems have appeared in The Southern Review, Crazyhorse, Shenandoah, and Prairie Schooner among others. Hillbilly Guilt, his latest, won the 2019 Hidden River Arts / Willow Run Poetry Book Award.