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.