American Life in Poetry: Column 588


There's an old joke about a truck with a five-ton license and ten tons of canaries on board. The driver had to keep getting out and banging his fist on the side to keep half the canaries flying. Here Jane Mead, who lives in northern California, gives us another truck full of birds. This keenly observed poem appeared in The Autumn House Anthology of Contemporary American Poetry, 2015. Mead's most recent book is Money Money Money/ Water Water Water (Alice James Books, 2013).

Passing a Truck Full of Chickens at Night on Highway Eighty

What struck me first was their panic.

Some were pulled by the wind from moving
to the ends of the stacked cages,
some had their heads blown through the bars—

and could not get them in again.
Some hung there like that—dead—
their own feathers blowing, clotting

in their faces. Then
I saw the one that made me slow some—
I lingered there beside her for five miles.

She had pushed her head through the space
between bars—to get a better view.
She had the look of a dog in the back

of a pickup, that eager look of a dog
who knows she's being taken along.
She craned her neck.

She looked around, watched me, then
strained to see over the car—strained
to see what happened beyond.

That is the chicken I want to be.

We do not accept unsolicited submissions. American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2015 by Autumn House Press, “Passing a Truck Full of Chickens/at Night on Highway Eighty,” (Autumn House Anthology of Contemporary American Poetry, 2015). Poem reprinted by permission of Jane Mead and the publisher. Introduction copyright © 2019 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.