One morning with a 12 gauge my brother shot what he said was a linnet. He did this at close range where it sang on a flowering almond branch. Anyone could have done the same and shrugged it off, but my brother joked about it for days, describing how nothing remained of it, how he watched for feathers and counted only two gold ones which he slipped behind his ear. He grew uneasy and careless; nothing remained. He wore loud ties and two-tone shoes. He sold shoes, he sold soap. Nothing remained. He drove on the roads with a little hole in the air behind him.
But in the high court of linnets he does not get off so easily. He is judged and sentenced to pull me on a rough cart through town. He is further punished since each feather of the dead bird falls around me, not him, and each falls as a separate linnet, and each feather lost from one of these becomes a linnet. While he is condemned to feel nothing ever settle on his shoulders, which are hunched over and still, linnets gather around me. In their singing, they cleanse my ears of all language but that of linnets. My gaze takes on the terrible gaze of song birds. And I find that I too am condemned, and must stitch together, out of glue, loose feathers, droppings, weeds and garbage I find along the street, the original linnet, or, if I fail, be condemned to be pulled in a cart by my brother forever. We are tired of each other, tired of being brothers like this. The backside of his head, close cropped, is what I notice when I look up from work. To fashion the eyes, the gaze, the tongue and trance of a linnet is impossible. The eyelids are impossibly delicate and thin. I am dragged through the striped zoo of the town. One day I throw down the first stillborn linnet, then another, then more. Then one of them begins singing.
As my brother walks through an intersection the noise from hundreds of thin wings, linnet wings, becomes his silence. He shouts in his loud clothes all day. God grows balder.
Whales dry up on beaches by themselves.
The large bones in their heads, their silence,
is a way of turning inward.
Elephants die in exile.
Their tusks begin curling, begin growing
into their skulls.
My father once stopped a stray dog
with a 12 gauge, a blast in the spine.
But you see them on the roads, trotting through the rain.
Cattle are slaughtered routinely.
But pigs are intelligent and vicious to the end.
Their squeals burn circles.
Mice are running over the freezing snow.
Wolverines will destroy kitchens for pleasure.
Wolverines are so terrible you must give in.
The waist of a weasel is also lovely. It slips away.
The skies under the turtle’s shells are birdless.
These shadows become carp rising slowly. The black
trees are green again. The creeks are full
and the wooden bridge trembles.
The suicides slip beneath you, shining.
You think if you watched them long enough
you would become fluent in their ten foreign tongues
of light and drummed fingers and inbreedings.
Snakes swallow birds, mice, anything warm.
Beaten to death with a length of pipe,
a snake will move for hours afterward, digesting.
In fact their death takes too long.
In their stillness it may be they outlast death.
They are like stones the moment after
a wind passes over.
The tough skin around a snake’s eyes
is ignorant and eternal.
They are made into belts and wallets.
Their delicate meat can be eaten.
But you can’t be sure.
In the morning another snake lies curled
on the branch just over your head.
Under the saint’s heel in the painting,
a gopher snake sleeps.
The saint’s eyes are syphilitic with vision.
He looks the Lord in the face.
He is like the bridge the laborers shrug at
as they wade across the water at night.
When LaBonna Stivers brought a 4 foot bullsnake
to High Mass, she stroked its lifted throat;
she smiled: ‘Snakes don’t have no minds.’
You can’t be sure. Your whole family
may be wiped out by cholera. As the plums
blossom, you may hang yourself.
Or you may love a woman whose low laugh
makes her belly shake softly.
She wants you to stay, and you should have.
Or like your brother, you may go
into the almond orchard to kill
whatever moves. You may want to go
against the little psalms and clear gazings
of birds, against yourself, a 12 gauge
crooked negligently over your shoulder.
You’re tired of summer.
You want to stop all the singing.
And everything is singing.
At close range you blow a linnet
into nothing at all, into the silence
of stumps, where everyone sits and whittles.
Your brother grows into a stranger.
He walks into town in the rain.
Two gold feathers behind his ear.
He is too indifferent to wave.
He buys all the rain ahead of him,
and sells all the silence behind him.
7. Linnet Taxidermy
I thought when finished
it would break into flight, its beak
a Chinese trumpet over the deepest lakes.
But with each feather it grows colder to the touch.
I attach wings which wait for the glacier
to slide under them. The viewpoint of ice
is birdless. I close my eyes,
I give up.
I meet my brother in Los Angeles.
I offer him rain
but he clears his throat.
He offers me
the freeway and the sullen huts;
the ring fingers stiffening;
the bitten words.
There are no birds he remembers.
He does not remember owning a gun.
He remembers nothing of the past.
He is whistling ‘Kansas City’
on Hollywood Boulevard, a bird
with half its skull eaten away
in the shoebox tucked under his arm.
When the matinee ends, the lights come on
and we blink slowly
and we walk out. It is the hour
when the bald usher
falls in love.
When we are the night and the rain,
the leper on his crutch will spit once,
and go on singing.
Your family stands over your bed
like Auks of estrangement.
You ask them to look you in the eye,
in the flaming aviary.
But they float over in dirigibles:
in one of them
a girl is undressing; in another
you are waking your father.
Your wife lies hurt on the roadside
and you must find her.
You drive slowly, looking.
They lift higher and higher
over the snow on the Great Plains.
Goodbye, tender blimps.
At the end of winter
the hogs are eating abandoned cars.
We must choose between Jesus and the seconal
as we walk under the big, casual spiders whitening
in ice, in treetops. These great elms rooted in hell
hum so calmly.
My brother marching through Prussia
wears a chrome tie and sings.
Girls smoothing their dresses
become mothers. Trees grow more deeply
into the still farms.
The war ends.
A widow cradles her husband’s
the flame turns blue,
a sparrow flies out of the bare elm
and it begins again.
I’m no one’s father.
I whittle a linnet out of wood until
the bus goes completely dark around me.
The farms in their white patients’ smocks join hands.
Only the blind can smell water,
the streams moving a little,
freezing and thawing.
In Illinois one bridge is made entirely
of dead linnets. When the river sings under them,
their ruffled feathers turn large and black.
10. At the High Meadow
It’s March; the arthritic horses
stand in the same place
A piebald mare flicks her ears back.
Ants have already taken over
the eyes of the house finch
on the sill.
So you think someone
someone already passing the burned mill,
someone with news of a city
built on snow.
But over the bare table
in the morning
a glass of water goes blind
from staring upward.
it’s not so easy.
You begin the long witnessing:
Table. Glass of water. Lone crow
You witness the rain for weeks
and there are only two of you.
You divide yourself in two and witness yourself,
and it makes no difference.
You think of God dying of anthrax
in a little shed, of a matinee
in which three people sit
with their hands folded and a fourth
coughs. You come down the mountain.
Until one day in a diner in Oakland
you begin dying.
It is peacetime.
You have no brother.
You never had a brother.
In the matinees no one sat next to you.
This brother for whom
you have been repairing linnets all your life,
unthankful stuffed little corpses,
hoping they’d perch behind glass in museums
that have been leveled, this brother
who slept under the fig tree
turning its dark glove inside out at noon, is no one;
the strong back you rode while
the quail sang perfect triangles, was no one’s.
Your shy father extinct in a single footprint,
your mother a stone growing a cuticle.
It is being suggested that you were never born, that
it never happened in linnet feathers
clinging to the storm fence along the freeway;
in the Sierra Nevadas,
in the long azure of your wife’s glance,
in the roads and the standing water,
in the trembling of a spiderweb gone suddenly still,
it never happened.
This is a good page.
It is blank,
and getting blanker.
My mother and father
are falling asleep over it.
My brother is finishing a cigarette;
he looks at the blank moon.
My sisters walk gravely in circles.
My wife sees through it, through blankness.
My friends stop laughing, they listen
to the wind in a room in Fresno, to the wind
of this page, which is theirs,
which is blank.
They are tired of reading,
they want to go home,
they won’t be waving goodbye.
When they are gone,
the page will be crumpled,
thrown into the street.
Around it, sparrows will be feeding
on bits of garbage.
The linnet will be singing.
A man will awaken on his deathbed,
not yet cured.
I will not have written these words,
I will be that silence slipping around the bend
in the river, where it curves out of sight among weeds,
the silence in which a car backfires and drives away,
and the father of that silence.
“Linnets” from The Selected Levis, by Larry Levis, selected by David St. John, © 2000. All rights are controlled by the University of Pittsburgh, PA 15260. Used by permission of the University of Pittsburgh Press.