A Cache of Photos of the Last Ivory-Billed Woodpecker
after J. T. Tanner & Rice Miller
The feet, gladiator tridents, creeping up the sleeve of J.J. Kugh,
who stands implacably still.
Adolescent, fearless, feathers a-bristle, he can afford to be clownish,
ascending the summit of Kugh's
tattered deerstalker. & there he perches, a guffawing Mohawk-ed Buddha,
bill elongate and a-gleam,
a dazzling cigarette boat from the pleasure fleet of William Randolph Hearst,
his only feature suggesting elegance.
Feathers mottled, the red crest lost to Tanner's black & white Brownie,
eyes cartoonishly bulging. Now up Kugh's
left shoulder, now to the back, slow crawl up the chest, where he pauses
to peck the buttons of Kugh's macintosh.
Four thousand miles eastward, Neville Chamberlain sips tea with the Fuhrer,
their treaty & a fountain pen
between them, Earl Grey spilling over to the saucer as it trembles in
the P.M.'s hands. But here,
the auguries of apocalypse are small in scale. Tanner sets the Brownie
& his light meter on a stump
& fumbles as he bands the bird's right leg,just above the starburst claw
& thus the feathered thing
is also christened. He is Sonny Boy. His name is Sonny Boy.
& Sonny Boy lifts off
to be sighted once again by Tanner two years later, a treetop above
a Louisiana swamp. The auguries
of apocalypse. For instance, the Delta & Chicago Blues, their steady
chug & boogie toward extinction.
On a stool on the stage of a club in Edmonton, Alberta, 1964,
sits the aging Rice Miller,
a hulking human bomb, 6'4". Stage name: Sonny Boy Williamson,
harp raised to his lips, fingers quicksilver:
Ain't got but one way out, babe, an' I jus' can't find the door, sweat
& slaver nimbusing the hieratic head.
He sports a derby, purchased in London on his tour with the Yardbirds
& he loves his woman so hard
the lights don't burn bright no more. Later that night, it is bourbon
with Levon Helm & his Hawks,
before Dylan, before their transformation to The Band. I would like
to say they are making music, but instead
Sonny Boy pours another, spitting blood into a second cupó
scarcely a year to live.
Who will know him in a century? In two? Whose pulse will quicken,
hair on the nape of the neck
raised in awe & supplication as he growls of his beloved
bringing eyesight to the blind?
O it's nine below zero an' she done put me down for another man.
The caterwauling harp,
the amplified metallic slink. It paws the ground, baying at the moon.
It flies alone, it has no offspring.
It calls to its mate, who is carcass & hollow picked bone.
Glorious this last transmission,
the flight in mad careening circles, alighting above the muck & ooze
onto a lightning-blasted live oak,
clawing up the mottled bark. & now the fervid spondees
of his cry, of his here-I-am.
Sonny Boy, Sonny Boy, Sonny Boy, Sonny Boy.
For the Scribe
University of Pittsburgh Press