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The Birds of Elmira Prison

It's early morn and I can see
the soaring of a single bird.
It lights atop a gnarled tree
and mocks me in some unknown word.
Its screeching seems of no concern
to others who will overturn
debris of man for mouse in hole,
while watching guards on day patrol.
We men in gray have no more shame,
we eat the rats to feed the soul.
When will the raven call my name?

The bird has called to others now,
they all sit glaring from a limb.
There high above on leafless bough
they mock and call and fly to him.
A hapless soldier died in sleep,
for here a life is very cheap.
A whippoorwill will never sing
but hawks' and buzzards' talons cling
to bits of flesh that they can claim.
Dead, swollen men will feel no sting.
When will the raven call my name?

The beady eyes of death are near,
they need not scour woods or plain.
We fought with courage, had no fear
but here we live and die with pain.
They pull apart the flesh of men;
these bloated bodies, six then ten.
A prisoner sings with sad lament,
there's one less man, there's one more tent.
The birds will mock the sick, the lame,
their wings flap slowly in descent.
When will the raven call my name?

The night is filled with hooting owl
while phantoms dance across my dreams.
The ravens rip at throat and bowel
and muffle death amid the screams.
I shiver in the driving snow
and think of home, so apropos
where songbirds fill the southern night.
But now it seems there's nothing right,
the birds here wait for sick and maim
and death comes quickly in their flight.
When will the raven call my name?

Still, here within these prison walls
we watch the skies for his return.
Amid the snowstorms and the squalls
the men pray more and often yearn
to see the Lord as he descends.
A preacher points and he pretends
a raven is the morning dove.
He prays for peace and speaks of love.
We all know it's a losing game
yet still we watch the skies above.
When will the raven call my name?

The vulture, raven, bride and groom,
the scavengers of death and doom
have come for bodies to reclaim.
Do hummingbirds still seek the bloom?
When will the raven call my name?

 

Copyright © Linda Lee. Reprinted by permission.