Colin Cheney

Decline of the North American Songbird

Not cantata—sonata.

Whatever they were, the first birds

of spring, the doctor

kneaded your breast

counterclockwise. Discovering

the mass, he needled

a bit of blood & core, asked me

to push Print

                           a sonogram

I could imagine Beethoven,

maddened by syphilis or lead,

transcribing from reverie’s

phrasing & lull
into the language he could no longer hear

but heard.

                   Ist es nicht schön?—

the salt acres’ echo image
the narwhal sees as the whaler’s bone-saw

migraines through his tusk—the song
mathematics & snowcrash

static, dissonance that can’t resolve,

gristle filming the halcyon sea.

Wrap the algaed tooth in a blanket
& carry it to town.

Cure for dropsy, melancholy,

strengthening the heart—

say you found the unicorn dying

in the sunlit field.

                                Nick the skin,

& a needle to plumb the mass
of cell & tissue. If sound
casts a shadow, the suburbs
sound like overcast sky, corpses
& the absence of corpses:
yellow throated vireo, hooded warbler
hepatic tanager, ovenbird.


To score their vanishing,
I listen to what Beethoven

hears in his teeth, the clenched
rod conducting the piano’s thrum

of C minor—chaos?

anguish?—from the soundboard
into bone, his inner ear,

a sort of dark matter
camera he’d concocted to feel
the storm of diminished
singing he heard

                              but would never hear,
& I transpose his sonata into the key

of the ultrasound scrolling
from the printer, the gland & wrecked
bundle of cells an image
of either the black-throated

blue warbler on the wing or the rowdy

of the meadows we can hardly

even picture—either terror

or its absence.

                          Is it not beautiful?

The sonata? No, I was wrong—

this is scored for human

voices, my father’s naked hands

sloshing fixer in his darkroom,

the image slowly coriolised into sight.


“Decline of the North American Songbird” is from Here Be Monsters (University of Georgia Press, 2010).