American Life in Poetry: Column 086

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE

Linda Pastan, who lives in Maryland, is a master of the kind of water-clear writing that enables us to see into the depths. This is a poem about migrating birds, but also about how it feels to witness the passing of another year.

The Birds

are heading south, pulled
by a compass in the genes.
They are not fooled
by this odd November summer,
though we stand in our doorways
wearing cotton dresses.
We are watching them

as they swoop and gather—
the shadow of wings
falls over the heart.
When they rustle among
the empty branches, the trees
must think their lost leaves
have come back.

The birds are heading south,
instinct is the oldest story.
They fly over their doubles,
the mute weathervanes,
teaching all of us
with their tailfeathers
the true north.


We do not accept unsolicited submissions. American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Reprinted from The Imperfect Paradise, by Linda Pastan. Copyright © 1988 by Linda Pastan. With permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. Ms. Pastan’s most recent book is “Queen of a Rainy Country,” W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2006. Introduction copyright © 2016 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006.