In Colin Cheney’s  “Ars Poetic with Vulture” we see at work a different kind of struggle for balance—between life and death, witness and trusting the word of another, the hard facts of environmental degradation in tension with the beauty still in the world.  The poem looks at difficult balance of relationships and how we make connections between so many complex forces. This is a rich poem, beautifully dense, as is necessary to honor subject with skill and intelligence.  

Colin Cheney is the author of Here Be Monsters, a National Poetry Series selection published by University of Georgia Press.  He is creator and co-host of the podcast Poet in Bangkok, and co-founder and editor of Tongue: A Journal of Writing & Art. He teaches at the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies at the Maine College of Art.

Betsy Sholl, MAJ Poetry Editor


Ars Poetica with Vulture


Diclofenac, prescribed for gout or arthritis,

wends into the poem to explain the thousands

of vultures–long- & slender-billed, oriental


white-backed & griffin–& owls

who carrion-clean what the vultures

of northern Indian skies leave


on skinned cattle shot full of the drug,

& I find myself speaking another poem’s tongue,

saying something about rosemary


& salt butter, how my friend dressing haddock,

or how her break-up–they’re back together

now, or might have broken up again,


we haven’t spoken in months–is like witnessing

a sky burial, Parsi, not American Indian,

but Zoroastrian, which is endangered,


the ceremony that is, because the vultures

migrate from the plains into the mountains–

at least I imagine they do, I haven’t


looked it up–to become the burial

& they are almost extinct, the birds.

Here’s how it works: juniper is burned


& body-breakers come, laughing as they labor,

hewing the body no longer precious

to its parts, smashing flesh & bone


together with tea & butter & barley

into a pulp, then calling the vultures down.

Here are ways I can make you believe things


are in relation: this is like, so,

which reminds me of, because. Sometimes

I wish I didn’t need to explain it to you


like this. But you weren’t there

to remember the snapshot of thin blue sky,

& her pointing, Those are the birds, there,


to remember how it felt to not be able

to see them & still believe her.

Remember when the birds in my poem


ate all the birds in yours, as the peregrine

culled my childhood swallows as they swarmed

from empty panes of the barn windows


as their kin emptied from the church in Krakow

that evening you returned from Birkenau

where you found a birdhouse above the barracks


& the lioness poet told you swallows migrate

up from Africa & she’d never hear the word

ringdove the same after its coo shuddered


across the ruins of the ovens, deciduous

leaves. Because birds in your poems are always

found dead–a songbird by plate-glass window,


neck broken, a picture on your phone

of a crow splayed on the grass–

maybe you’ll understand why I need


the vultures to stay in the mountains

eating the offered meat of human beings,

to leave the rotting corpses of the drugged


cattle for the dogs of the skin merchants

of Mumbai. But you weren’t there with us

eating brie & sprigs of dill as she


pan-seared the fish, so you can’t possibly

see how this is connected: the birds

circling above us, years before the poem


where they will fall out of love, me

thumbing through the Sibley guide

to name them–barn swallow, peregrine,


Barbary dove–the birds found dead

on the suburban curb of your poems,

& my calling the vultures down,


coaxing them, terrified, into cages the Parsi

have prepared, because they don’t see

the hunger–carrion, holy–with the horror


that we do, because there aren’t nearly enough

birds to keep up with the rate of the dead.

Image at top of page: The Towers of Silence in the Indian city of Bombay, now known as Mumbai, around 1890. The first tower was consecrated in 1670. Photograph, Alinari Archives, Getty Images