Blackbird Bye Bye by April Bernard

A poem, titled “Blackbird Bye Bye,” by April Bernard.

BOMB 28 Summer 1989
028 Summer 1989
Barry Le Va, Sculptured Activities, 1988–89, ink and spray paint, cut and glued to ink on paper, 66 × 60 inches. Courtesy of Sonnabend and David Nolan Galleries, New York.

Barry Le Va, Sculptured Activities, 1988–89, ink and spray paint, cut and glued to ink on paper, 66 × 60 inches. Courtesy of Sonnabend and David Nolan Galleries, New York.

When the boy in the soldier’s cap and thick boots
drinking from a gin bottle and leaning on the brick wall
saw them, he ran
Down murky streets, into the school building
armed like a fort, with faint lightbulb artillery,
the green fluorescence of the tyrants—
And muffled steps on the cardboard flooring,
the disinfectant that rises to choke the voice back, to sway the nose
downward, the chin downward, suffused in light
that squints back at you

Where was the sunlight across the lake,
the clear harsh air that blows and blows away?
The boy in the street ran away to his jail.
There is little reason to think you have a different choice,
you who have come prepared with green glasses and a visor.

Then there’s the girl who kicks the wild dogs away from her lunch.
And her friend, the girl who touches her breasts for a dime.
You who have come swaddled in ribbed wool and French lace,
armed with those teeth and that deodorant,
are urged to ponder your defenses.

We who tremble before that disease, so
that every day without that disease is a waiting for that disease,
every day is a celebration of that disease, because that disease
exacts its worship in fear.

And tell me if you find much difference
in this stumbling adoration, this trembling expectation of arrival,
that cleaning up of the house, annotation for biography,
redrafting of scenarios—and anything to ward off the chill—

Tell me if you can find much difference
from the sticky pages of the monthly glam-rags,
their ooze of advertisements into your lobes.
Sterility was only the beginning;
homogenization simply a metaphor.

Trapped, by this absence, into the contemplation of presence:
a graceful manoeuver to click the exits shut.
Useless to blame the devices themselves, the moving images,
the ditties, guttural moanin’ low rising into the symphonic
hallelujah of the candybar. Useless, too, to speak
with the tongues of angels
when they do that for money on Friday nights.

Hammered by longing, swaddled and fucked by longing—
and silently, blankly, with retinas crisped by the daze of longing.

* * *

When they sand the roads at Christmastime,
the texture is tapestry:
sleek, squeaking, hard-packed snow smoothed like paper
stacked cold to the center of the earth—
and the pebbly dirt cracklings on top—oh, like a confection.
How the smell from tailpipes passing slips away into the air.
How the whisper of hemlock and cold red alder branches
tries, so hard, to speak clearly to you.

Once we had time for these things, we did.
Now it seems that this place, too, must be gathered
into the muddy bosom of decay.
The cold white road that slops into March,
the rock smashed open by lichens.
Why this profligacy of endings?
While we moan and sing the eulogies we intend
be placed like wreaths on our own slabs, of course.
Face down in the snow like it was some sort of prize we won
for consciousness.
Like it was some sort of valedictory against action,
some sort of gentle caress of time
decreeing infinite solitude.
Don’t the markers show it, one by one by one,
there, poking up through the snow?

Meanwhile, inventory:
muddy hand upon muddy shirt, the red of tulips
three days old and frozen, selling for a buck.
The long, lumpy, black-streaked fingers
fishing something out from the trash.
Impossible to see him in his face.
Somewhere else: hundreds of thousands
in the favelas, with the sweet coconut cakes and pig grease
melting in their mouths like heaven,
when nothing else is.
And also: the fat raw feet in half slippers,
the hellfire choir whose voices rise
like a pestilence from the sand,
the last thing left in them to give away.
Even now, we are in a hurry:
the women sitting by the road, holding onto the land with their feet
and eating rice paste from a paper cup.
We don’t need a guidebook here:
some one so cold and wet in the tin shack, dreaming of beer,
some one shitting on the low cement wall,
some one not glad, someone never glad,
some one purged of desire but no better for that.
Especially now, we are in a big hurry.

But only, but only, but only think of it.
There are no aphorisms left.
Individuation, that dream of the dying, is false as well.
Angelworms, brilliant orange cutworms, earthworms, rubbery nightcrawlers come to call. There are always extra guests.

And still you hide your faces
in the warm sleeves of death.

Suffer me no more the lamentations of those
who do not merit sneeze.
No more sentiment for those
throbbing and sputtering in the calm of Idle.

 * * *

Moving fast across the wide water, low in the water,
without fear, a needle-nosed speedboat skimming, skimming.
The birds that tumble down to the edge of the water
and then snap back like whips into the air,
kestrels, she called them,
stitching sea to sky.
The moving water black, but white the light turned back from the sky.

Somewhere just below,
tubular fishes are standing on end,
sucking the surface.
Something on the edge of element
hints, like the day of the surprise party,
that something’s going on.
Eagerly, with the hair slicking back in the wind
and the wet eyes filling like a water glass,
hoping that something will give away
what time the surprise will be and who did it exactly …

And these are not moments of urgency, though the blood beats high.
Somehow the body suspends
in the flap of sail or the hail of a black-back gull,
and then the water is so wide and so flat
and the sky is so white and so full
And somehow atop the water, the way that only babies and angels
are supposed to sleep, you too sleep.

There are other occasions that confound.
Medievally, most often
when the heart lies level to the feet.
Some accidental levitations.

Once, face-down on the Kentucky blue lawn,
my nose squashed into a bee and a dandelion,
bare fingers and toes digging into the grass,
the conviction of eternity
came upon me so strong I nearly died on the spot.

But then I plead: Why then, when I hold you,
do I know everything but that?
It is not something to share,
like a bunch of red grapes, a glass of water,
a flat fried fish and then wine.

No; it’s the secret that moves within,
                                                               like water,
filling and storing up to the top,
up to the surface where it turns into something else again.
Confounding physics: How anything that large
can hide, like a jinn, in the curly woodland of the brain—
or on the soul’s capacious dunes …

Yet without consulting a glowing ball,
or rushing sans telescope into the ghastly blackness of the stars,
dragging lines between them and claiming them as kin …
Without holding a damp finger into the air and inquiring whereto?—
No, not that either: calling the cows home in the rain,
biting a frostbite off at the tip,
no, nor ever asking that these endless days … .

When the bird lays her egg upon the flat water,
rocking and bobbing there …

It is not necessary to ask. It is sweet, and it is
closed to conversation.


* * *


On a spin. Flat up against the marble,
the granite, whatever comes along—faux marble,
limestone, old wooden shoes.
Degenerating into the oh-so-wide embrace.
A hiss and a twist up from the kettle,
tinge of sage, chicken skin, broken bones:
assembling at last into a phalanx of smell.

The priest, after lengthy hummin’ on the vine,
raises his vestments into cruciform
to bless: the several koalas, a chimp,
anteater, ant, giraffe, domestic shorthairs, slug,
coon, possum, and hound-dog.
Some howling ensues, some soft-sole wrangling,
some futile searching for a roof in the rain.
Suffer the tiger to stick his face in your ear.

Furthest from kind: over at Spencers’,
the long fat lap of the willow,
its horizontal fuzzed with moss, the body flat against the trunk,
staining green and yellow and grey.
And the chunks of grass tucked into the bole,
safe from the call home.

Early training—
to appease the gravitational pull, to anticipate—
to give not take, bend not break. Always
keep your name out of the papers;
never smoke in the street.
To squeeze your breast till it’s pouring out all over the place,
giving until it chokes them, until they want no more.

Hence some perfectly nice girl
running around in a pink shortie screaming, “Cunt, cunt, cunt!”
Hence the shaking of the heads of the dearly beloved.
Spare us the therapeutic realignment
into the personal. Softly padding,
all the neighborhood cats follow the girl with the bottles.

Somewhere on the Rio Pisco an ill-tempered itch.
Lips lock on the same puerile
“send me photographs and souvenirs.”
Mister Christian lends a hand
to those on the mudbank, then slides into the dark water
where pink dolphins on this occasion breach.

You, old bat, beating the air that closes around me like a halo,
seek the forgiveness of the hungry,
which I must grant.

* * *


Failing to fulfill economic theory,
familial architecture collapses.
I am the tears my father cried
into my mother, who wept me into the world,
where still I fall

The hustlers heading out to way-stations in the bush.
Great hunters of going, Hunters of having got there,
because you can stuff it and put it on the wall.

X knew someone, and I also knew someone.
If X visits me at home, X will probably not
take up the cleaver from the kitchen shelf
where it sits, hidden—but not hidden enough, apparently!—
next to the jar of currants and the loose cardamom.
As I say, X will probably not slice me limb from limb
and mix the juice into a tomato cocktail and sit there
cackling and using my television set
until the body begins to smell.

Not much of a common ground, nevertheless:
high skin tone, straight teeth, regular wart removal.

Those who like to stand apart,
then leap from a rock outcropping,
swoop down like wolves upon the fold,
what’s for dinner?, probably you.

But maybe even that is better
than the sickly-sweet darjeeling lifting
into the nostrils, the half-tones of anxiety,
barely masking the need to get away.
You who have replaced a casserole with a telephone,
a blanket with a greeting card,
you who have settled for a kind word,
you who have not bothered even with that.

You with your homely virtues intact,
you who would never rock a boat bigger than a kayak,
you who fall wham over backwards
into the arms of an ersatz twin.

Now that you walk with fear beside you like a baby brother,
urgent yet patient in your solicitude.
Now that you drag your father’s ghost from the wickiup,
now that you carry him off to the mountains in the snow.

You have chewed through the sinews,
you have insisted
on the sacred path of solitude.
You have broken their hearts, and you have laughed.
Now you cry, and their hearts break no more.


* * *


A small flame licks up from the ground,
blue its eye and yellow tipped,
burning in the dirt. It has been burning for a long time.
The ends of the fingers shoot fire
and the whole body flickers over the ground.
A hot storm circles inside the head and then tumbles
across the fields, cleaning the earth behind, scouring
the spit from your mouth.

This, yes this, foretold by the prophets—not the promise of hell
but hell itself, here, taken up in your bones while the marrow burns.
Not something you wait for, you
in your collar and your brooch, ankles primly touching
so the heels of your shiny shoes click.

Not a comely suitor bearing down with Biedermeier bouquet,
and the easy telepathic smile.

I saw his eyes, small and round and brown, cornered.
And that was not enough for me. Then I saw her hand melted back like
a candle,
their faces wrinkling like prunes, their tears drunk
by someone else’s rage. That was enough for anyone.

That none of this is accident, or even testament.
That it has happened, and does happen, that here
there is no time now for the privilege of foresight.

For yet they whistle us into the streets,
where we bow to law and land
and sham democracy, that give and take with the same fat hand.

And so we hide our eyes in 380 square inches of color, or else
go blind just glancing at the sun.
Smell of wet blacktop, and the nightcrawlers, after a thunderstorm.
White fur of a small white throat, ends of fingers, of woodsmoke,
candlewax, of burning dirt …

What if there is nothing left to do
but wander the barren earth and pick the hard obsidian from the dirt
and tuck it into our breasts where our hearts used to be?

Answer the question!
Posed by one scold pulling on a gin bottle
and muttering wet words against the side of buildings:

Oh, you who say nothing and remember everything …
You who have stood through fire and snow and taken this beating …
Speak back, say something else
of these bad times to me.

This is the title poem of Blackbird Bye Bye, April Bernard’s first collection, which won the 1988 Walt Whitman Award of the Academy of American Poets and is being published this spring by Random House (hardcover) and Vintage (paperback). Bernard is completing a novel, Pirate Jenny, and in June will be relocating to the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean to write a book about hurricanes.

Four Poems by April Bernard
Bomb 15 Blair 001 Body
Create a Radical and Memorable Equivalent: Mary Jo Bang Interviewed by Sylvia Sukop

A new translation with contemporary allusions that reflect the boldness of the original.

Everything Communicates: Alice Notley Interviewed by Jeff Alessandrelli
Runes And Chords4

A new book of poem-drawings.

Materializing Craft: Rosanna Bruno Interviewed by Zach Davidson
Trojan Women by Anne Carson and Rosanna Bruno

A conversation about creative process, told through art objects.

Originally published in

BOMB 28, Summer 1989

Featuring interviews with Patrick McGrath, Craig Lucas, Mary Ellen Mark, Isabel Toledo, Guy Gallo, Gary Indiana, David Kapp, Bobbie Ann Mason, Roland Legiardi-Laura, John Ford Noonan, Roni Horn, and Richard Edson.

Read the issue
028 Summer 1989