Two Poems

by Sarah Giragosian Issue: Spring/Summer 2020

Field Guide for the “White” Naturalist 
or: The Trees Speak a History I Did Not Know

Instructions with a Disclaimer: If you bring this guide into the field, keep in mind that it is best read with a wariness of white spaces, identifications, and curations. Carry a pen and a pair of scissors; you may have to fill it in and undercut its whiteness as you read. Do not trust what you think you know.

Lapdog (canis) 
Description: known to runaway slaves as a bloodhound or savage dog; a tracker of skin oils & cells; trained to fight until the death; slaves traveled through muddy water or wore rabbit grease on their feet to throw the dogs off their scent

              what did the dogs know?
                                                                                                      what omissions          

what skins    

                                                                                                  what odor of terror                 & rabbit, 
                                                                                                            what curse
                                 what coercion

Migrating birds (migratus)
Description: a cue for flying north; a summoning 

         what does it mean to take flight 
                                                 your heart                         a bird
                    smacking     
                                              against your rib cage?
    
                                             When from the sky, 
            
                                                                              a sign      
     
    
Oak Tree (quercus)
Description-America’s national tree; wholesome and strong, likes full sun; in the night: a hanging tree
                    
                                                     to set out in the night
                
Ocean (oceanus)
Description-a middle place; a passage; “there was hardly room…some went mad of thirst and tore their flesh/ and sucked the blood…” 

                                                        with such thirst    
                            
Pine (pinus)
Description-a medicine used by slaves; an antiseptic; “Fer de lil’ chilluns and babies [grannies] would take and chew up pine needles and den spit it in lil’ chilluns mouths and make dem swallow”

                                                                         babies     & grannies

Riverbank (ripam fluminis)
Description: a road north; as in salvation 

                                                followed        

                                                                           the river    

Sage (Salvia officinalis)
Description- a medicine used by slaves; a balm for fever and chills; antioxidant; taste: bitter, earthy; from the Latin word “salvare,” meaning to be saved
         
                                                       saved themselves    

Salt (Salis)
       Description: a preserver; a corroder; as in seawater, a body of water

                                                 preserved
                                                                                            their bodies

Stars (Stellae)
Description: an escape map; as in follow the gourd, go underground, seek out the call of the “owl”
                    
                                  sought out 
                        
                                                       a voice         
                                                                    from the dead calm

                                                                                   a hoot
                                                                                                             a beckoning 

            
                                 Can you trust with your life        
                 
                                                                                    a who
                                        
                                                                                                      in a moonless wood?

Note: “Field Guide for the ‘White’ Naturalist:” The identifications are predicated on my readings of Camille Dungy’s Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry, Herbert C. Covey’s African American Slave Medicine: Herbal and Non-Herbal Treatments and Robert Hayden’s “Middle Passage.”

Ornithology 103

We came to study the seagulls.
            When our field trip to the sea 
                        didn’t pan out (budget cuts), we caravanned 

to the dump, fording through oceans 
            of crud to see the gulls in their habitat.
                        Necklaced with binoculars, we monitored 

their behavior, scribbled field notes. 
            It’s true: they’ve learned to slam and shatter 
                        tinned fish like clams against the rocks

and comb through swells of metals, 
            denuded Christmas trees, tables protruding 
                        like pectoral fins, and even drowning mannequins 

for stray crumbs, dabs of meat,
            and—best of all—deshelled crabmeat. 
                        When our professor, spying a herring gull, 
    
wandered off, we ditched our binoculars 
            and played king of the trash heap,
                        rapiering freshmen with umbrellas. Too late 

we turned when the gulls 
            unburied the creature, when it coughed up 
                        bright ribbons of plastics globbed 

with blood; when it shimmied on a belly 
            bloated by improbable hungers towards us; 
                        when it dressed itself with fruit peels,

a hooked fish, a garnish of glass, 
            and even its own intestines, a map 
                        looping back to us. Too late 

I turned when it curled
            eel-slick against me
                        as if I were its father.



Sarah Giragosian

Sarah Giragosian is a poet and critic living in Schenectady, NY. She is the author of the poetry collection Queer Fish, a winner of the American Poetry Journal Book Prize (Dream Horse Press, 2017) and The Death Spiral (Black Lawrence Press, 2020). Her poems and non-fiction have recently appeared in such journals as Tin House, Orion, and The Offing, among others.