We trudge through last year’s corn stubble in a wayward, straggling line,
drunken with the hour and the cold. It’s April, 4 AM, the air metallic in our noses.
We stoop low, clamber awkwardly into plywood boxes slouching in slush,
six strangers crammed together on a rough grainy bench.
We sit in silence, slurping coffee or inhaling its steam,
ears straining. There’s a guy who doesn’t get it two blinds over,
nattering on in the face of shushing. To block him from my mind,
I try to remember poems I memorized in fourth grade, one each week.
The roads in a yellow wood, the fog with cat feet, the wild geese told to go.
But I stop when I get to the one about the prairie. You know, clover and a bee.
And reverie, broken now by a series of eerie, otherworldly humming whoops.
The talker two doors down shuts up and we gingerly open the viewing hatches.
Dawn has crept out across the winter matted grass and one by one
the prairie chickens we have come to see venture into the open, each male
claiming a little circle of grace to stomp around on, orange air sacks ballooning
beneath his chin, a spiky feather crest rearing up behind his head. They dance alone,
each angling for the best spot, booming their bizarre, buzzing love call endlessly.
We all wait for the girl who never comes, not this morning at any rate.
A harrier swoops over on silent gray wings, breaks the undulating spell of sound,
sends the chickens into the tall grass like scattershot.
We stumble out of our blinds and back across the field to cold cars.
I warm my fingers, numb from gripping binoculars, against the heat vent.
I decide that Emily Dickinson didn’t know dickcissel about the prairie.
How could she, cloistered in a white Amherst saltbox where arching chestnuts and elms
framed her world? Here in the sand counties there is no frame,
Just a bending ocean of grass under a skim milk sky.