"One Good Tern Deserves Another"
and "Goodness Gracious"
On the beach where we had been idly
telling the shell coins
cat's paw, cross-barred Venus, china cockle,
we both saw at once
the sea bird fall to the sand
and flap grotesquely.
He had taken a great barbed hook
out through the cheek and fixed
in the big wing.
He was pinned to himself to die,
a royal tern with a black crest blown back
as if he flew in his own private wind.
He felt good in my hands, not fragile
but muscular and glossy and strong,
the beak that could have split my hand
opening only to cry as we yanked on the barbs.
We borrowed a clippers, cut and drew out the hook.
Then the royal tern took off, wavering,
then acrobat returned to his element, dipped,
zoomed, and sailed out to dive for a fish.
Virtue: what a sunrise in the belly.
Why is there nothing I have ever done with anybody
that seems to me so obviously right?
One Good Tern Deserves Another
"Gracious Goodness" arose simply enough, in the events described straightforwardly in the poem. If you collect shells, you'll recognize that the beach in the poem is a southern Atlantic beach. In fact, the events told about in the poem occurred in North Miami Beach on a cool, choppy day when nobody was in the water, but there were fishermen casting from the sand.
Oftentimes we try to help a friend or a stranger, and sometimes we succeed, but at other times either our help is rejected or what we think of as help turns out to be hindrance. At times we're wrong in what we think is needed, or what is the right thing for the other person to do, and so we meant well, but we ended up in a worse mess than when we began.
This is a case where the help needed was clear enough to call forth the correct response. My friend and I found the wounded bird, were able to borrow the right tool from one of the fishermen, and we could remove the hook and the fishing line that had crippled the tern. The tern cooperated. In fact had he fought us, he could have injured us, but he seemed to understand that we were trying to be useful. I've often found that when I handle wild animals (or tame ones) if I remain calm and project that sense of helpfulness and desire to ease pain or heal, that the animal will trust me.
Any bird guide will show you a picture of a royal tern, which is a large tern (as terns go -- they are usually smaller than gulls) and a handsome one. But you can observe terns at many beaches. They are not as common as gulls, because they do not thrive on garbage and they nest on the beaches where their eggs or young can be easily destroyed by off road vehicles. They are slenderer of body, faster and more acrobatic than gulls.
That something happened once a particular way is no reason why in writing a poem (or a story) you should be stuck with that series of events, but sometimes what happens is peculiarily satisfying -- just right. That's the source of this poem, and it's also what the poem is about, a simple and honorable act that did some obvious good and therefore makes you as doer feel good about yourself.
The imagery in the poem is simple and direct. I had no reason to dress up what had, after all, pleased me by its simple and direct nature. The poem is more rhythmic, however, than may appear to you if you are just taking it in through your eye.
Poems are arrangements of sounds and silences, and all you have on the page is black marks surrounded by white space. If you've ever wondered why poems are set off as they are, in lines, rather than just written along until the writer reaches the end of the line, as prose is set up on the page, one of the strong reasons for poems being in lines is to tell you how to say a poem and how to hear it in your head. A poet is using that space to indicate pauses, like rests in music, if you've ever read music. The line breaks indicate little pauses when you are reading the poem aloud, and I urge you to read it aloud.
A poem like this one is designed to be said and heard, and the more you overcome any fear you have of making a fool of yourself and experiment with saying poems -- chanting them, reciting them, shouting them, crooning them, the more you will hear of how each is put together and therefore the more enjoyment you'll get out of a poem. A poem speaks to you with its sounds and its rhythms as much as it speaks to you in the meaning of its words.
I end with a question rather than a statement, because I really want to invite you into the experience, which was a good one for me, so much so that I wrote the poem to share it with you.
Visit Marge Piercy's Web site: http://www.capecod.net/~tmpiercy/