Cathexis Northwest Press

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The Head Collector; Ode to a dying love
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.

00:00 / 01:08
00:00 / 01:35

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."