Everything is in the Shape of a Bird, a Fish or a Woman


Everything is in the Shape of a Bird, a Fish or a Woman

Look how they frown in the old photograph:
my grandmother, her sister,
her two daughters and her granddaughter.   
All of the women are very stern.
Grandma looks out of her element,
her eyes shielded against the sun.

In the yellowing photo,
“Taken at homestead” written on the back,
They stand, stark house behind them.
From the porch overhang, a sparse vine hangs,
but on the hidden tendril of the vine,
in the dead tan prairie that surrounds the scene,
in the summer grass bent low, I imagine birds.

It is a drying photo—brittle, cracked,
of three generations of prairie women.
Although none there knew it,
a waterhole is in their near future,
and in this stock pond that my dad would someday dig,
would swim perch and crappies,
sunfish, northern pike.

And although none there will ever see it,
in my house, everything is in the shape of a bird, a fish or a woman.
On the wall hangs an earthy goddess–
stolid and substantial. 
Birds perch on her shoulder, arm and knee.
On the hearth, a crow formed out of chicken wire.

A soapstone fish swims the window ledge
beside that aging photograph
and on another window ledge
 are two ancient terra cotta figurines.
The small one kneels in her kimono, playing pipes.
The large one stands wide-hipped
with arms narrowing to points
above the elbow.

In my studio,
a still-damp terra cotta figure
holds a fat plum.
On drying canvasses,
Women recline in their vulnerable states–
layers of wet flesh tones, yellows, purplish reds.

The house in the photograph
has been long-felled by rot and fire and rust.
All of the people except the youngest are dead.
Yet still in the grass, the meadowlark.
and in the muddy pond the minnow.

In the glass of the photo frame, I see my own reflection–
thinning lips pulled into one straight line.
around me is their house, their sky, their prairie grass.
In the glass, my face
turns into the face of my grandmother.
I flinch but do not falter.
I look deeper.
Reflected in one eye, a perched bird.
in the other eye, a swimming fish.

for dVerse Poets Open Links

(To enlarge all photos, click on first photo and arrows.)


28 thoughts on “Everything is in the Shape of a Bird, a Fish or a Woman

  1. lifelessons Post author

    This is a rewrite of a piece from maybe 25 years ago. Since then, I’ve moved to Mexico and when I started looking around, it astonished me how many other images I’ve acquired of birds and fish and women. This was not a conscious act, but just images I tend to be attracted to and to use over and over in my own art. Many of the pieces described in the poem are depicted in the photos, as are new pieces I’ve acquired since then.


    1. lifelessons Post author

      Seems like it, doesn’t it? For Bob and I, the fish was a symbol of following one’s intuition which worked well for us both. He had a poem named “Letting the Fish Guide the Way” that I loved. Birds have always fascinated me.. No squirrels in the tiny town where I grew up, so birds and insects were pretty much it in terms of things to watch.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Helen Dehner

    Your poem touched me deeply … at age 78 I find myself thinking of generations lost, looking at old sepia photographs, remembering. I also have friends who live in Ajijic. Cheers.


    1. lifelessons Post author

      Helen, I’ve been doing the same.. very aware of the parts of my Grandmother, Mother and Father that live in me. Wishing they could share some of my experiences I know they’d enjoy. Then I realize part of them is experiencing it. I don’t have children of my own but I’m very aware that I am the part of my grandparents and parents that survived to go foreward into the future.


  3. peterfrankiswrites

    a lovely piece transcending the literal of time(s) and place(s). So glad I read this. I particularly liked ‘Women recline in their vulnerable states–…’ i read both ‘vulnerable’ and ‘venerable’ Great stuff.


  4. Beverly Crawford

    I was enchanted by your photo and accompanying thoughts. It reminded me of a quote from Shirley Abbott that reads thus: “We all grow up with the weight of history on us. Our ancestors dwell in the attic of our brains as they do in the spiraling chains of knowledge hidden in every cell of our bodies”. Your description of the articles in your home reminded me a bit of a favorite poem by Don Blanding called “Vagabond House”. Thanks for taking me down those roads!


    1. lifelessons Post author

      I don’t think I know that poem but I will look it up. I love that quote by Shirley Abbott. Exactly my thoughts every time I look at photos of past generations. They are here within me. Look for them and overcome some things, exult in others. I especially feel my mother in me whereas in the past it was my father I identified with.



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