Clade Song 12 left

Clade Song 12


He Taught Me to Say I Didn’t Know

For Charles Rogers,  1888-1977

He always wore a hat outdoors.
Early in his long career (as he explained to us,
his students) he’d learned the hard way
about bird shit.

His empire on the third floor of Guyot Hall
was Princeton’s bird collection in vast roll-out drawers.
He’d treated them with borax, stuffed them with cotton
but had no academic rank. His course carried no credits.

The first drawer, Charadriiformes, gulls and shorebirds.
Twice-monthly lectures, weekend field trips
to Long Beach Island where we froze in winter counting terns’ nests—
holes in the sand—and got dive-bombed by their owners. We wore our hats.

When spring approached his pale blue eyes took us to waterways
to see mergansers, sea-ducks, geese and cormorants. When asked a question
he wasn’t sure about he’d just say I don’t know
and leave it at that. A lesson for me, who wanted to know everything.

His lectures, systematic—orders, species, terminology—
but on trips his wit came out: “I was on Wall Street
but the birds were friendlier.” “I bought a house and named it Bridgarth—
bird-garden in middle English. In Anglo-Saxon it means bride-trap.”

I took my wife to visit him when I was eight years out of school,
saw Bridgarth, met his wife, they brought us coffee.
Robins and warblers in the garden. “Can’t see them as I used to”
in his gravelly voice, “but I can hear them well enough.”

I never knew if it cost him to leave his family’s firm
but he was in my mind when I decided not to join
the pediatric practice my father built
and groomed me for for years.

Clade Song 12 Right

Steve Nickman's poetry collection, To Sleep with Bears is now available from Wordtech (2022). He is a psychiatrist who works mainly with kids, teenagers and young adults. He has a strong interest in the experiences and dilemmas of adoptees and their families, and is working on a book about therapy, The Wound and the Spark. Steve's poetry has recently appeared in Pleiades, Nimrod, Summerset Review, Tar River Review, Tule Review, and JuxtaProse. He lives in Brookline, Massachusetts and is a member of Poemworks: The Workshop for Publishing Poets.




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