To the Chief Musician

The world puts forth its crying,
                    hurled into the future’s morning after.
          A cold wind flays the trees.

                    Leaves whirl with the crows,
their dark sayings shining
          to any ear inclined. I hear

the shards of voices, hearken
                    unto a void that words believe
          yet cannot know. A notion

                    of wind and leaves and crows
sutures the mind against the dimmest
          glimmer of laughter lining each day—

a token of hope
                    that the flayed can turn
          a cold wind golden.

The Understanding

Each morning the scrub jay proclaims
          something I’ve forgotten      something
sacred      something wholly

Not in his tongue does the fallacy exist
          only in my translation of it?

Perched at my desk I watch him
                      outside on a live oak branch.                
and then he drops to the lawn to eat a grub
            or grab an acorn which he stores
always out of sight.      
                                  I’ve read that he can recall
up to two hundred caches          the type of food in each and
            its rate of decay.          
                                  Such facts       
                        refracted by symbolic action  are all I have
             to know birds by.  
In his sermon St. Francis accused some birds
          (“ye neither sow nor reap”)
                                but they      in gratitude      expressed their joy
          by motion and by sounds—
                   those sweet ones
we call song—              unlike the screech
                                 of the scrub jay on his branch
tilting his head as he watches me
                     with one dark eye      as if to say      Why
                                do you not understand my speech?
And if I could bring myself to answer:

                              Because I cannot hear your word      you
          whose lineage is land      whose element is air
foundry of your voice     
                                molding all sound
to its likeness     both wondrous and strange.
         If all that I can understand were all there is . . .
but no      the jay is otherwise    
                       a something      I cannot translate or touch.        
        What won’t suffice
Must      and that fact draws me to my desk
                 each morning    
where distracted by the racket outside
                                             my understanding
         within the limit of this language
I rejoice in its failing     
                             in the mind’s grateful
graceful sense of boundary—    
                      the faith
that I am favored with
                                such bounty.


whoso it thought
         its burst and bother

     consider some mother's came side-born
this world brought other victims
     & they would be least words to us

to many & of me 
enter now leafborn     consider

     how worshiped was the serpent in the hole
the wolf  bad as he they declared
     or it consider      or born they consider

he name forth as a such
            until the strangeness is
     invisible little wave catch what is fell 
& least to touch      & half polluted
     point to those as yet by lettered forgetting

own the one unlikely
thought across the notes

     gone beyond flowers O purpleward  horizon
where we wait to call it language
     exhaust into yolk the beautiful beast of it

with ear to hear earth-
          breath will wren thee
     sung in unknowing
myself a traveler passed like rain
     a song here hoping up somewhere

the is once returned to it
into a lost

     the lair lips the birth     peace in the limbs
of the horse in the scale of the snake
     forever savage the meaning
& whoso would it enter         
         enter it

     be as thou & bid come
creatures themselves
     & betwixt pains dwell surely

be they hid as oft as thou
before it were such     lord

Joshua McKinney is the author of three books of poetry. His work has appeared in Boulevard, Denver Quarterly, Kenyon Review, New American Writing, Poetry International, Volt and many other journals.