Kathryn Nuernberger

Whatever You Need

-For Alice, who hooted first, talked later.

We had a field once and I walked out into and listened for
the owls, but if I heard them, and of course I heard them,
I didn’t know their sound to hear it. What is a ghost
but what was the unknown sound? If bats are the souls of men,
owls are the souls of women. If girls who die unmarried
are doves, a woman who has been a mother becomes an owl.
Go to the woods and call to the owl for help finding your love.
The woman made of flowers was cursed into an owl.  I lost
them, the owls among the doves as I lost the lace among
the weeds and the hummingbirds too and what was a bat
to me for so many years but just another swallow? The woods
were replete with owls, I did not know. An owl will take
a home’s good luck with it. To avert disaster, if you hear
an owl call in the night, you must return the call. To avert
disaster, if you hear an owl call in the night, get out of bed
and turn over your left shoe. Souls of penitents fly to heaven
guised as owls, men whose deaths lay unavenged pace
the night guised as owls. The owls are beautiful or terrible
depending on the sky overhead and your own personal sky.
They eat your just-clipped fingernails. They eat your newborn
babies. A cow scared by an owl will give bloody milk. The owl
had a skinless fledgling in its beak, the limp sac of belly
was glistening crimson. Gore so small is like a pendant of glass –
I don’t know what kind of sky it is I have that makes it so.
It’s very blue and without owls utterly, drifting over the hay,
which is golden as heaven is the word for no place I can point to.
I went out into it in the night listening for the owls that know
the way. Every tree was a goat crying, not yet weaned out here
in the milkless shadow of the woods. Which of these is
the mist of the owl passing into something else? If you cannot
call back because you are mute with the marvelous
unrepeatable thundered down hunting, take off something,
your shirtsleeve, and put it on inside out. In this way
the owl will not burrow into your chest and dance
bad luck on the graves in your field. In this way it is
a charm to carry the heart and right foot of an owl under
your armpit. In this way it is medicine to drink broth
of owls’ eyes, gelatin of owl meat. In this way it is a binding
to nail an owl to the barn door against lightning strike. You
can frighten owls from the field by walking the land naked
hooting like you’ve ever yet heard them or even if you haven’t.
The owl gave its fire in exchange for feathers. Like lightning,
the owl brightens the night. Like a drum, the owl breaks
the silence. I don’t know how to call them down.

Kathryn Nuernberger is the author of Rag & Bone, which won the Elixir Press Antivenom Prize. She is an assistant professor of poetry at the University of Central Missouri, where she also serves as poetry editor for Pleiades. Recent poems appear in 32 Poems, West Branch, Willow Springs, and on Versedaily.com.