The Ostrich

The Ostrich

Daniel Shapiro

—feathers and all


Twin drumsticks
tapering down
to two-toed
feet arched tense
on the ground, this creature’s
legs like an athlete’s thighs
poised to sprint,
or in a different age,
with a little more
meat and confabulation,
Betty Grable’s gams.
A pair of drumsticks
bearing a bundle
of muscle and feathers,
fluffy wings
tucked all around her,
like a new kind of fowl,
some churkendoose—
(chicken, turkey, duck, goose)
But for now, let’s keep
traveling up her body:
out of that messy feather-duster
rises her neck,
long and scrawny,
a stubbly liana
climbing lazily to the sun,
high enough
to give you vertigo,
it arrives at
the little fluffed head
perched up there,
way up there,
it looks so tiny
from our perspective,
gazing up from the ground,
a dreaming head
almost lost in the clouds,
(how does she manage
that double world
above and below?),
a head both
infantile and prehistoric,
and those enormous
liquid eyes,
batting their lashes
as only birds
or silent film-stars
know how to flirt.
Her beak now opening
—an ironic sneer—
but all that comes out
instead of a squawk
is a long, low hummmmmmm.


Not fancy-free,
not in her time, not in this photo—
snapped in sepia
at Cawston’s Ostrich Farm,
South Pasadena, 1922.
Strapped to a harness
binding her breast, about to pull
two ladies in dresses,
belled white, pretty as you please
atop a rudimentary cart.
a boy in a straw hat
sandwiched between them
points and points. Now, Osbert,
we’re about to start,
and the first one raises
a neat birch switch
to flick across the back
of the powerful avian, to make her
flinch and jolt her
into a trot, lead them around
the begonia gardens,
live-oaks and clustered orange-trees
adorning the grounds.
How delightful to be drawn
by a bird instead of a pony,
the second one muses,
adjusts her wrap.
Does she really care
about this creature known for
sprinting across savannahs
in southern Africa,
outrunning cheetahs and hyenas
racing over the grassy veldt?
Who’d land a kick to a lion’s chest
to protect her chicks
scrambling around her.
A soundless fury
builds in her breast.


It happened so quickly
that afternoon, all those years ago,
that plain in Namibia. . . .
like a line of chorus-girls
performing their number,
in feathered garb, long legs
scissoring in unison,
before they were ushered,
as it were, offstage.
And when the great
Mr. Cawston, “grand impresario,”
arrived to inspect them,
oohing and ahhing,
twirling his moustache,
gesturing yes,
(he imagined them
flocking all around him,
feathers and all,
over the spread of land
awaiting them,
miles and miles of virgin grassland
beneath the snow-capped
San Gabriel mountains)
quick as a jiffy
they were hustled into wagons,
the ones who fled
were lassoed and herded,
dumped into the hold
like so much cargo,
bolt thrown down
to cut off their lowing,
like cattle for slaughter,
chaotic mess in a steamer
roiled by storms
as it crossed the equator.
Arrived and docked
in Corpus Christi,
then traveled overland across
Texas, Oklahoma, Arizona,
till they reached
“the Golden Land”—
half of them gone,
their frail necks broken,
fallen in scores during the passage,
then tossed overboard
or along the road,
air swirling with dust.
Their end
was their beginning
(as the poet said),
these flightless creatures
unfairly known for
sticking their
heads in the sand.


So here she is, in Pasadena,
land of settlers
from Indiana, thrill-seekers
slung with oversized
swinging round their necks.
An exotic amusement
fed whole oranges
right before your eyes:
Come and see the wondrous birds,
the barker shouts,
producing the fruit
in a white-gloved hand.
She gobbles it up
like she’s been taught
as the crowd looks on, the bulge
traveling down her gullet
(Cheers and applause).
An exotic creature to be
ridden or plucked, naked gooseflesh
exposed on her rump,
in order to fashion those ladies’
boas, the ones
they wind around their throats,
fluffy fans behind which
they hide, revealing only
gimlet eyes.
The other prospect is frankly this:
Turned into steak
dashed with Worcestershire sauce
for a “gourmet experience”
in Beverly Hills
or the Upper East Side.
Put the bird before the cart
and don’t despair,
I’m telling you this, because
she’ll have the last word,
or nearly will.
She swivels her head
from way up there
(point your glasses and see),
looks at the boy
in the straw hat with ribbons
between the two ladies
still making a scene,
looks him straight in the eye
batting her lashes,
that gaze designed for
the silver screen,
emits no longer that resonant
hummmmm but a sudden
squawk like the laughter of a duck
(distant cousin),
grating like chalk or nails
dragged across a blackboard
as if to teach him,
teach him something
he’ll remember all his days.
The boy’s stubby finger
stops mid-air, stiff and pink,
at a loss for words.



Daniel Shapiro’s most recent publications are the poetry collection Child with a Swan’s Wings and his translation of Roberto Ransom’s Missing Persons, Animals, and Artists. He is currently completing a novel set in 1920s Pasadena. Shapiro serves as Editor of Review: Literature and Arts of the Americas, and as a Distinguished Lecturer, at The City College of New York, CUNY. His Twitter is @danezra1


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Posted: April 27, 2020 at 10:00 pm

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