Have you ever heard the whip-poor-will cry down the twilight? Years since I’ve heard the haunting chant, it still echoes in my mind. A chance glance recently reverberated melody and memories.
As a subscriber to Iowa Outdoors magazine, I receive its lovely DNR calendar each year. Each month features a gorgeous picture showcasing Iowa’s natural beauty. The dates are sprinkled with fascinating facts and timely reminders. May 2 tells us: 1890 Large meteorite strikes 11 miles northwest of Forest City, and Walleye season opens on Iowa’s Great Lakes.
A May 24 notation made my body pause and my mind reel backward: Look for return of whip-poor-wills.
Five years after my husband and I were married, we built our house on a wooded acreage. We would live in the basement and finish the hollow frame bit by bit. Soon after we moved, we discovered one of our location’s treasures: whip-poor-wills nested in the shrubbery along the fence line about fifty feet from our front porch. On summer evenings, we sat on the cement block serving as a temporary step and listened to the onomatopoetic call. (You can hear it at this link.) But we never saw the elusive and well-camouflaged nocturnal bird.
What a thrill to hear that rare call! And what piercing memories my mind associates with it. Little boys leaping to catch fireflies. A young husband’s strong arm cradling my shoulders. Stars sharpening in a darkening sky. Cool air. Warm hearts.
But one year the whip-poor-will was silent. The new neighbors on the other side of the fence had dogs. Whip-poor-wills don’t build nests, laying their eggs directly on the ground. We never again heard the whip-poor-will sing.
Some years ago, I wrote this poem, dedicated to my husband:
When you and I
were in our prime,
we sat on the cool concrete step
with bare feet in dark grass
as dusk deepened.
Boys who had leaped
to snare random spurts of pale light—
squished into glowing rings on fingers—
quieted in beds.
Above our heads,
the Milky Way materialized
in a pointillistic arc
of bright blessing;
while the whippoorwill
© Glenda Mathes, 2006; revised 2010
Standing and staring at the calendar created a melancholy feeling. If only I could look for whip-poor-wills with any expectation of seeing them return!
Thoughts and memories tumbled in my mind for a few days, until I wrote a new poem:
Look for return of whip-poor-wills
The tiny notation
On the calendar
Prepared by the conservation department
Puckers time as keenly as a pleat
Pressed by my mother’s hot iron
A quick stitch
Skips from childhood cotton
Past bridal satin
To parenting denim
And we two sit
On the front stoop
In evening’s cool
As the whip-poor-will
Sings its onomatopoetic song
Low tones bracketing
The melancholy notes soar
From earthy berth
Through honeysuckle blossoms
Past quivering cottonwood leaves
To echo in the deep blue
That turns black as a bruise
While the lonesome chords
Encircle my heart
As I stare at the calendar
Waiting for whip-poor-wills
© Glenda Faye Mathes, May 2016
The poem’s persona is imaginary, but grows more real to me as I age. The whip-poor-will echoes in my mind may haunt me, but whatever losses in my life, I wait for a return far more significant. I look for the return of the King of whip-poor-wills and every other created being.