Susan Wood

The Lord God Returns

The day my friend died the ivory-billed woodpecker was seen again
in Arkansas, a bird long thought extinct. Some say
it’s an image of loss returned as an image of hope, but I don’t know.
I’m not saying there was any correspondence,
just an interesting coincidence I noticed when loss seemed everywhere.
That was the same day a woman rescued a pair of red-billed ducks
and their fifteen ducklings from six lanes of Main Street
and herded them into a pond behind the Faculty Club.
Such odd birds who mate for life, the male and female
looking exactly alike. All that afternoon I watched them
in the pond, the father perched on the concrete edge
flapping his wings as if to warn us away and the babies
circling and circling behind their mother in perfect formation,
always avoiding one small dead bird face down in the water.
There is grandeur in this view of life, Darwin wrote.
She was only forty. I don’t think she believed in that
High Church Episcopal God her parents buried her by,
but I don’t know what she believed exactly.
I believe the Lord God has returned to Arkansas, a bird
that got its name because our ancestors shouted “Lord God!”
whenever they saw it, a bird the size of a small child,
its jackhammer beak, a wingspan long as a tall man’s arm.
In 1837, when John James Audubon came here to Houston,
he saw ivory bills nesting up and down the banks of Buffalo Bayou.
Now it’s all sludge and skyscrapers. In his famous painting,
the only place anyone has seen the bird for sixty years,
the male cocks his red head, seems to cast his beady, yellow eye
toward the painter as if to say, “Don’t count me out!”
Of course, the birds were dead when Audubon painted them.
Later, all over the South, they flew out of the nineteenth century and disappeared
in time. But I like to think of my great-great-grandmother and her daughter
fleeing over the Ozarks, how they might have stopped
to rest their horse and heard an ivory bill BAM-bamming
in a tupelo tree, kent-kenting like a tin horn, and shouted “Lord God!”
when they looked up and saw it. Maybe they thought it was a sign
they were bound for better things when all they were bound for
was Texas, the poverty of a small town, its sharp gasps
and held breaths. Still, they were alive, the big house burned
behind them, the land burned, their husband and father,
the Welshman Cawthron, dead somewhere with the First Missouri—
Pea Ridge, Vicksburg, Nashville—gold plates and silver bridles
in the sacks of the carpetbaggers. Or that other ancestor,
my Cherokee great-great-great-grandmother who wandered off the Trail of Tears
and onto a sharecropper’s farm, her only possession a Cherokee Bible
she couldn’t read. Maybe she stood in the dirt of that dirt-poor farm
and exclaimed “Lord God!” when her tow-headed husband
pointed to the woodpecker in the loblolly pine.
Did it remind her of the home she’d left behind, this bird
whose beak her tribe fashioned into coronets to crown its princesses?
Or maybe it was just a distraction in her rag-tag life, the worry
of babies dying before they were two, of cotton crops gone up in drought.
She couldn’t see me down the trail of years writing this poem
and maybe she wouldn’t have cared if she could.
But I’m here, though, aren’t I? At least for now. Don’t count me out.
There is grandeur in this view of life.
Funny how we hunker down in our little canoes
in the middle of the scummy green swamp and wait and wait
for hope to appear, for ghosts to die and come back as bodies.