passenger pigeons


Passenger Pigeons

Robinson Jeffers

Slowly the passenger pigeons increased, then suddenly their numbers
Became enormous, they would flatten ten miles of forest
When they flew down to roost, and the cloud of their rising
Eclipsed the dawns. They became too many, they are all dead
Not one remains.
And the American bison: their hordes
Would hide a prairie from horizon to horizon, great heads and storm-cloud shoulders, a torrent of life –
How many are left? For a time, for a few years, their bones
Turned the dark prairies white.
You, Death, you watch for these things.
These explosions of life: they are your food.
They make your feasts.
But turn your great rolling eyes
away from humanity
Those grossly craving black eyes. It is true we increase.
A man from Britain landing in Gaul when Rome
had fallen
He journeyed fourteen days inland through that beautiful
Rich land, the orchards and rivers and the looted villas: he reports he saw
No living man. But now we fill the gaps.
In spite of wars, famines and pestilences we are quite suddenly
Three billion people: our bones, ours too, would make
Wide prairies white, a beautiful snow of unburied bones:
Bones that have twitched and quivered in the nights of love,
Bones that have shaken with laughter and hung slack
in sorrow, coward bones
Worn out with trembling, strong bones broken on the rack,
bones broken in battle,
Broad bones gnarled with hard labor, and the little bones
of sweet young children, and the white empty skulls,
Little carved ivory wine-jugs that used to contain
Passion and thought and love and insane delirium, where now
Not even worms live
Respect humanity, Death, these
shameless black eyes of yours,
It is not necessary to take all at once – besides that,
you cannot do it, we are too powerful,
We are men, not pigeons; you may take the old, the useless
and helpless, the cancer-bitten and the tender young,
But the human race has still history to make. For look – look now
At our achievements: we have bridled the cloud-leaper lightning,
a lion whipped by a man, to carry our messages
And work our will, we have snatched the thunderbolt
Out of God’s hands. Ha? That was little and last year –
for now we have taken
The primal powers, creation and annihilation; we make
new elements, such as God never saw,
We can explode atoms and annul the fragments, nothing left
but pure energy, we shall use it
In peace and war – “Very clever,” he answered in his thin piping voice,
Cruel and a eunuch.
Roll those idiot black eyes of yours
On the field-beasts, not on intelligent man,
We are not in your order. You watched the dinosaurs
Grow into horror: they had been little elves in the ditches
and presently became enormous with leaping flanks
And tearing teeth, plated with armor, nothing could
stand against them, nothing but you,
Death, and they died. You watched the sabre-tooth tigers
Develop those huge fangs, unnecessary as our sciences,
and presently they died. You have their bones
In the oil-pits and layer rock, you will not have ours.
With pain and wonder and labor we have bought intelligence.
We have minds like the tusks of those forgotten tigers,
. hypertrophied and terrible,
We have counted the stars and half-understood them,
we have watched the farther galaxies fleeing away
from us, wild herds
Of panic horses – or a trick of distance deceived by the prism –
we outfly falcons and eagles and meteors,
Faster than sound, higher than the nourishing air;
we have enormous privilege, we do not fear you,
We have invented the jet-plane and the death-bomb
and the cross of Christ – “Oh,” he said, “surely
You’ll live forever” – grinning like a skull, covering his mouth
with his hand – “What could exterminate you?”

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