Back to Issue Forty-Three

The Sparrow Campaign of 1958



I once chased a turkey to the water’s edge.
The day was beautiful and cool.
The turkey stammered back and forth
like a pea on a platter

its tiny head kept afloat
by half a foot of neck.
Then wingbeats blurred
wings into an approximation.

Ai Weiwei’s most famous photo
depicts an urn falling just once.
Its shards curve like dead wings
though dead birds’ wings

are often reined in in death.
My mother was born three years after
it rained sparrows. They rained
because people under trees

banged pots shouted clapped hands
raw, and those sounds could be said
to have lifted the sparrows
like confused plastic bags

hoping to land but frightened
into flight over and over,
until it looked like land itself
was throwing birds into air

the way it throws the sky’s panes
into a cheerful blue dome
and then plastic bags into it
like so many confused birds

hoping for an expressway of wind
to escape the earth’s confusion,
but wind returns everything,
even plastic bags blown off course,

to the ground. Come down,
raindrop creature, sunshower,
color of sweetened iodine,

crop-hungerer. I imagine
your lungs burning
like any mammal’s

and, because your lungs
extend air sacs into bone—
cervical, clavicular, caudal—

that the burning slid into bone.
What did we do with your bodies?
Piled up for bonfires, or left them,

feathers flickering candle-like,
for the hungry reliable pigs?
I try to remember the sounds

the turkey made as it flew, what
frightened call it called but only see
wings and any accompanying sound

blinded. Only each of four or five black-
lobed feathers like cartoon fingers stayed.
Nature is supposed to abhor a vacuum:

if the silence after sparrows, looping
and auroral, was a kind of vacuum,
its quick fill was all that clicked-

open chitinous wings, swarms.
But sound does not enter a vacuum
and requires throats to go from throat

to throat to trespassing any material,
appraising, with its two fingers
like Plato’s mind rubbing the real,

only density, which is how much thing
there is and how much room clothes
that thing, is corralled by the thing

and programmed to volume, the way
we corralled sparrows into massacre
and let in clouds of locusts and famine

and silver print on gelatin—the urn
in its three-part flight—as our property.
The print’s gelatin is from pig’s hide.

Sparrow bodies, with cartilage in feet
and throat, can also make gelatin,
but animal feed is the preferred

use of poultry byproducts. Long ago,
we used certain birds for music
because their bones were hollow

from air sacs; these were early flutes.
Their bodies had to be a certain size.
A wild turkey, for instance, would do.

I neglected the fact that there was not
one turkey I chased to the water’s edge
and into the air, but three. Come down,

come here once you are tired of the sky.
Let me hear the silence in your bone.
The day is beautiful and cool.


Angelo Mao is a scientist and a writer. He holds a PhD in bioengineering from Harvard University. His first book of poems is Abattoir (Burnside Review Press, 2021), and his poetry and reviews have appeared in Poetry Magazine, The Georgia Review, Lana Turner, Los Angeles Review, and elsewhere. He is also a poetry editor at DIALOGIST.

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