The Head Collector; Ode to a dying love
By: Cortney Esco
The Head Collector
I once had a young neighbor
who collected the heads of birds,
cleaving a blade through the thin
neck bones of whatever thrush, jay
and warbler he could catch
in the woods behind his house
and tucking them in his pocket.
I heard that he kept them
in a drawer by his bedside
and his parents only found them
after his sister complained
of the smell of the rancid meat,
the decaying beads of eyes
and withered flower petal tongues.
I imagine what it must’ve been like
opening the drawer, and wonder
whether it was still a pile of bloody wet
flesh when the family saw them or if
most were already broken down
into neat stacks of bones and beaks
and a few, thin blood-flecked feathers.
What I can’t imagine is the boy
opening the drawer at night
to run his fingers over the heads,
and whether the cold flesh felt
like dolls with blank expressions
to whisper to, or sticky charms
to worry with his fingers in the dark.
Ode to a dying love
You say pass the salt, and I say
I don’t love you anymore.
To your credit you don’t ask why.
Still I want to say it.
I say that our love is like a star,
Not in brightness or heat or necessity
But that as it dies, it collapses in on itself
Quietly suspended in indifferent darkness.
It’s the never letting go you say,
It lets things pile up until
We are buried underneath them,
And I think you’re right.
I say I don’t know if I ever loved you
Or if I wanted to fix you
Or sometimes just hold you
Or be fixed myself.
You say it doesn’t matter
And I touch your dimpled cheek.
I know that you are right,
But I say nothing.
The thing about dying stars
Is that they don’t change the sky.
So many come and go blinking, then not—
Most never notice that they’re gone.
That’s the beauty of it you say,
The fire and the pressure building,
The slow implosion that quietly wrecks
And ruins mighty things.
We fall to silence beside each other
At the raised oak restaurant table,
And the people walking by the window,
Sometimes they stop and look up at us.
Cortney Esco’s work has appeared in the Agnes Scott College Writers’ Festival Magazine and in the Corn Creek Review, where it has won first place in 2017 and 2018. She earned her BA in Creative Writing from Young Harris College and is currently an MFA candidate in fiction at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and works at the Greensboro Review.
The Head Collector:
I remember clearly hearing about what inspired this poem and thinking immediately, now that would make an interesting poem. I feel that weird snapshots of human nature are always worth exploring. The point of view of this poem was important to me because I wasn’t there, but I did experience learning about it, so I could give that experience in an honest way. The aspect of imagining I think provides an interesting lens, maybe even adding more than being there would have, as the unsettlingly dramatized speculation and possibility would be lost.
Ode to a Dying Love:
With this poem, I wanted to try an ode that subverted expectation a little. I didn’t want to just ironically praise or make a parody of an ode. I meant to sincerely appreciate the poignant beauty in the way love dies. The imagined dialogue rang emotionally true for me as a way of giving voice to what goes unsaid, or what maybe can’t be articulated in a moment but is felt. To me, though it is inherently heavy and dark, this poem is funny too. When I wrote this poem the first few lines especially were my sense of humor: dark, dry, and sad, but at the core also kind of funny. Even knowing what’s behind the poem, I can still laugh a little now at parts of it. It’s an ode to living, to not loving, to the pain and regret and loss that shape us. It tries to suspend in time forever the moment of knowing the truth that is all at once important and not important at all.