Looking for whip-poor-wills

whippoorwill
Image found on Illinois Raptor Center website.

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:

Vespers

 

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

sang vespers.

 

© 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

Rising trill

 

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

And constrict

 

As I stare at the calendar

Alone

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.

 

 

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