“The Poem Is a Love Story and Also a Lover and Takes its Last Line Straight from the Wikipedia Entry on Cardinals” by Christina Olson

So one day you’re in the yard,
and this poem pulls up at the curb.
This poem wants to do you in the backseat
of the first car you ever owned,
which it just happens to be driving.
This poem will stick its tongue in your ear,
call you baby. In its backseat, you’ll twist
like a white snake, aroused by the sight
of your own pale calves, when did they get
that muscle tone, you’ve still got it, oh yes
you do. Later, you smoke a cigarette
while the poem names all the North
American ducks it can.

Or you’re on the front porch
of your house, your fingers sucked dry
by cotton and tobacco, and here comes
this poem up the red road, holding a cigar box
guitar. It has a treasure map of Greenwood,
a dotted line to Robert Johnson’s real grave
and X marks the spot. Do you wanna come,
asks the poem. (This poem is full of cheap
tricks and gimmicks. You laugh anyway.)
Or here’s another one: This poem is first,
because if you’re not first, you’re last.
This poem knows that real cornbread
is not sweet and a real guitar is a bloody box
that just happens to make sound. Later,
the poem lists constellations as the rain
drums on the metal roof of the trailer
and you fall asleep like falling off a cliff.

But there’s pain in this poem, too:
long after the slip-sliding in the backseat
and summer nights drowsy with heat.
The years are measured in tax returns
and complimentary toothbrushes. The kids
have been put to bed. Friday night is one
cold beer after a day of wrestling schedule Cs.
Now it’s dark on your mortgaged porch
and the poem is sleeping upstairs. Anyway, it
can’t remember any of its old bird calls.
Damn this poem. Damn this life.
You’re at another crossroads, only this one
has nothing to do with music. Everything
is the blues now.

But then there are more years,
and you’re glad the poem came to you
all those decades ago. It’s a nice life,
and anyway, what else were you expecting?
You think too much. It can’t be all
spray-painted overpasses and playing
the penis game in staff meetings. Sometimes,
the poem tells you, people grow up.
Its hands are busy in the sink, cleaning
a mandoline. You get it binoculars
for Christmas, promise that next year
this time, you’ll go birding in Banff.
When the poem kisses you, you feel

But you don’t make it to Canada.
The poem slinks off and finds a forest
to die in, and you’re the only one who cries.
You used to like the woods, but after that,
you think all trees are bullshit. Your children
grow up and move out. You’re back
in the yard but this time nothing’s coming
up the road to save you. Except this.
Somewhere, a cardinal alights on a branch
and opens its throat: cheer, cheer,
cheer.  What, what, what, what.

Christina Olson

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