Two poems (for the birds) by Mary K O’Melveny

September 5th, 2022



Airwolfhound, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Starling Murmuration - RSPB Minsmere (21446738793)





My friend and I are talking indignant politics
as we head across the Mid-Hudson bridge,
steel sky above, chilly water below,
when a cloud of birds twists, spins above us.

They seek every bare branch, fill them
as if they were summer leaves, then scatter
again like confetti in wind. No one is in charge,
yet balance animates all.

Like scat singers, each vibrating note resounds,
rebounds. Each airborne thrum and trill,
purr and prattle sweeps the skies, harmony
clear, like a drummer’s brush technique.

Their grace is a loose coordination:
Swing. Smooth. Bebop. Hip Hop. Cool.
Aerial musicians in synchrony, each linked
to the next. We discontented humans drive on.


*Murmuration is the name given to flocks of starlings flying together in coordinated, whirling, ever-changing patterns. Hundreds, even thousands, of these iridescent birds often look like shape-shifting clouds as they sweep across the skies. Flocks have no leaders and no pre-set plans for their flights. Scientists believe that each bird communicates with its seven nearest neighbors as they move as a collective whole.

(Previously published in Allegro Poetry Magazine/2017)




How to Write A Woodpecker Poem

In writing your poem, tell the truth as you know it. Tell your truth. Remember that poetry is life distilled…

-Gwendolyn Brooks


I thought Jack DeJohnette had set
up his drum set in my back yard.
A woodpecker the size of a mallard
hammered its beak into an old apple tree.
Its head was red as a ripe Heirloom
tomato. Black and white feathers shone
like sequins against a lava crest
as the bird curved in and out, used its
ivory beak to carve through mottled
bark in search of sap, nuts, beetles.
With each rat tat, rat tat, rat tat call,
each knock, knock, knock, knock, knock
reply, a tree transformed to sound stage.
The more I watched, the more it seemed
as if a Diva drummer had settled in
for a long gig – Nikki Glaspie, Bobbye Hall,
Terri Lynne Carrington. Like a starstruck fan
at a stage door, I ventured closer in hopes of eye
contact, maybe even a selfie. True to her star
stature, she granted me a measure of time
before lifting away from echoes of her performance.
As she sailed off into the pine forest,
I sensed kinship more than spectacle.
Each day I wait for one more crimson splash,
for those percussive beats of our rhyming hearts.


Editorial feedback sucks sometimes.
My editor critiques my ode to a giant
woodpecker that briefly transformed
my Woodstock yard into a drumbeat-rich
concert venue one sparkling summer day.
Her redlined marginal notes say
I am waiting for the poem to be more,
to move beyond describing that woodpecker.

But, I thought, wasn’t that the point?
A morning had begun like any other –
coffee in hand, bad news emblazoned
boldfaced in the not-so-fine print.
I nursed aches, grievances, ticked off lists
of chores, demands, regrets. I sighed
at how time raced by, even when one feels
encased in amber. And then, in one sudden,
swirling, sonorous blaze of red, black,
white, an ordinary day turned to jazz fusion.


I am long, tall, talented. Dressed in my best
onyx and pearl finery. My head’s as red
as Judy Garland’s Oz shoes, which one
might think I’m wearing as I tap, tap,
tap my way across this apple tree.
You could have heard me miles away
if you took time to look past deafening
daily news drumbeats. I beckon you
outside, to join me as I move, sway,
gyrate, groove like Buddy, Max, Art
from branch to branch. Follow my lead.
You’ll hear music everywhere. We’ll pirouette
across this leafy stage to grand applause.
Today, you will believe in reincarnation.








Mary K O’Melveny, a retired labor rights lawyer, lives with her wife in Woodstock NY and Washington DC. She is the author of three books of poetry and co-author of two anthologies; her award-winning poetry has appeared in many print and on-line literary journals and on national blog sites.

Click here to visit her website



Listen to the 1945 recording of Ella Fitzgerald scatting “Flying Home”






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