Nicky Beer

Cardinal Virtue

At first, I can’t name the bird falling deliberately

from the tree’s high crooks: a grey flash, tipped with carmine.

Lit on a fencepost, its wings smolder. 

It must smell of ginger.

Bird, your life would terrify me.

Bones full of air, belly full of hunger,

the underbrush dense with murders.   

Death is a twist, a pinfeather lost,

a stumble over a slowing pebble.  This is not a life

of flight, but flight from.  Perhaps you don’t suppose

that there’s any other way, which is itself

a kind of mercy.  Perhaps you don’t suppose.


Your heart’s the size of a small clod and,

so I’ve heard, egg-shaped.  I learned

to measure my own by the scale of my fist,

and my height from the distance

between the forefingers at the ends of my spread arms.

Physical logic is contrast,

ratio, degree.  We know desire

by the scarcest shades on our skin:

brief flushes, bitten lips. 

How could we sort anything at all

without rarity? There are acres more night

than moon, hours more sleep than dream.


Bird, when you are half-alive

in the jaws of our cats, a yellow ribbon

of innard dragging on the dirt,

remember that we dreamed our radiant dead

would become more like you,

as though the progeny of some impossible

lust between one of ours and one of yours. 

Incomprehensible thing, drenched in the color

of something we call joy,

stuffed with something that we call song,

you are always first




“Cardinal Virtue” is from The Diminishing House (Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2010).