Pushcart 2014: Roger Reeves, “The Field Museum” (Poetry) from The Cincinnati Review, Winter 2013

Photo by Cary Seipp

Photo by Cary Seipp

It is customary to hold the dead in your mouth
Next to the other dead and their failing trophies:
Quetzal, star-throat, nightjar, grebe and artic loon:
This ash for my daughter’s tongue, I give without
Sackcloth or sugar: the museum closing
And the whale falling from heaven due
Upon our heads at any time:…

The museum as mausoleum? The imagery of death runs through this poem, and yes, of course, that’s what natural history museums are: exhibitions of dead animals.

A note on the University of Illinois at Chicago (where Reeves is an assistant professor) website indicates this poem was inspired by a trip to the Field Museum in Chicago, where, indeed, a giant whale skeleton named Tu Hononga, and a collection of rare and extinct birds, were featured in exhibits.

The imagery here is great: “our haloes already/flat as plates and broken about our ankles” and the anthropomorphised river that speaks – cries out, perhaps – “as the pedal-less red/bicycles half-buried in its bank”, the daughter “cutting/Her ankles on cans that resemble her mother’s tongue.”

There’s no flinching here; the speaker takes on the human responsibility for what we’ve done to our home, our planet. Yet I feel there’s more here, a level I’m not aware of. I’m sorry I haven’t given the quetzal, or Tu Honoga, or Roger Reeves, the justice they all deserve; I can’t do much for the quetzal, but I highly recommend hearing more of Reeves’ work via this video of a reading he did for Cave Canem at The New School.

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