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Terence Degnan & Denver Butson read from Nobody Birds the Sky

When Terence Degnan’s father died, he wrote to his friend Denver Buston, and Denver Buston wrote back, what became a correspondence, poem letters, epistles about shared grief, the death of a brother, the death of a father, a work they would call Nobody Birds the Sky.

When I listen to Terence and Denver read from Nobody Birds the Sky in the video below, their friendship with its understanding and humor, reminds me that even in the saddest of times there is a lot to laugh about and smile. It is a valuable thing to remember. Enjoy.


Dear Alabama,

Somebody counted all the swingsets in you// There are over 300// I want to take responsibility for the avalanche// By that I mean that on the night my father died// Your brother shot himself, again// And on and on// Notice I didn’t say// Put a bullet in his head// Again, when I look at an Oak// I feel the ballasts of its root system// The distance between rain// Their good arms reaching like nurslings// To the sun// We’ve invented too much death between us// Somebody counted all the grapes// It took// For your brother// To bloom// To the task// To sing from his grave// These are things we keep from our daughters// The thin river of lead// The dense soil//  When my father haunts, I am both older and younger than you// When your brother hits the harmony// Well, you know// The tarot reader said// I am bound to repeat// Until the last of us climbs from life// Boat// Like she was throwing loose raffle tickets// Into a parade being thrown// For anybody// But us// I imagine a boring Alabama// If counting swings and their sets// Passes for honest work


dear T.

sometime in maybe the second decade after my brother died  at the bottom of the stairs  of his newlywed apartment  on Lincoln Avenue  not far from the mousetrap factory  just before Lincoln Avenue ends and another road leading out of town becomes a country road and in less than a minute goes through cornfields and pastures  cows grazing  horses  amish clothes on washlines      swaying cinematically   when my mother was still dying from the same bullet that killed my brother  I started using code words in my poems to tip a hat to him  to nod to his ghost as it went past  one of those words was avalanche some others included dissolve   September   shrapnel   they were like stitches in a garment that identify something only the tailor knows   notches in a tree to say I thought of you when I was walking through these woods   I never used the word swingset as such an acknowledgment  and it seems remiss to me now  because there it is in the backyard  in Pennsylvania  not far from the dirt under the pine tree  piled up high next to the hole which was the entrance to our tunnel to China  not far from the washline under which I first learned that I was allergic to bees after one stung my four-year-old face  the washline where my long-dead brother who was barely a kid yet   brought a hatchet down on  and exploded a spraypaint can  despite my attempts to kick it away   and he and our youngest brother and I ran screaming through the yards  bloody with red spray paint from between our toes to our eyelids  the swingset there  and ended up all in a bathtub  of baby oil our neighbor Polly the nurse scrubbing us with washcloth after washcloth each of them darkening red like crime scene rags  and remarked that we closed our eyes just in time   or else we would have been blinded   there it is  with its two solo swings and one tandem   enough for all four of us to swing at once though I doubt we ever did   there it is  in every photograph of that backyard   including the last one I took the day we moved  to the town where my brother would become briefly a man  briefly a husband  very briefly a father and then one September   forever a ghost   the swings still slightly swaying in a breeze that might have begun back then  there it is always in that backyard  even if the new owners removed it  even if the pine tree crashed down on it  even if it just rusted    its shrapnel avalanching piercing and dissolving into the earth




Dear Arkansas,

One winged rattle plays in the horn// and the mouth of God is brushed off as tinnitus// however// three thousand cicadae// come knocking// on Heaven’s// trap door’n// We start asking around town about Able// We never lived in the sky// but once upon a time we strung a line between towers// and hanging on by a spark// the edisons jumped// and the chickens below// swore// all afternoon// the blue// yonder was// flogging them// with lightbulbs// There was an hour// once I was down// frozen// on one knee tying a stranger’s shoelace// so she could gracefully enter the teacups// I don’t know why I have such an urge to relate this// I am not just// Wicked// When I said flogging// I nearly said pummeled// later on, you’ll be chiding// over the definitions of things// The only animal who sinks her teeth into what things yearn// to be// we// Are enshrined// by distraction// Somewhere along an argument over apostrophes// My father’s rattle was cut out at the root// I swear the sky blinked// The choir in the forest departed// I was left with a name// Would// you try it in your throat// See if it still keys

we never lived in the sky 


dear T.

we never lived in the sky  but we believed we did  we believed we lived in the sky outside the front windows that went from our tiny street out across to where the it must meet the ocean at the end of Brooklyn or the end of Queens   we believed we lived in the sky out the back that went from the Jehovah’s Witness building  over the East River   past the twin towers  across the Hudson to New Jersey  in the sky out the side windows that went through the cables of the Brooklyn Bridge  through the cables of the Manhattan Bridge and almost to where Sonny Rollins played on the bridge that should be named for him   we never lived in that sky  but we believed  we did  and when the former high school gymnast who said he had issues walked on the cables of one of the bridges  swung upside down from those cables   somersaulted down one of those cables  we believed he was walking and swinging and somersaulting in the sky in which we lived  and when the men banking on an eternity of virgins  flew planes into those towers and those towers came down  we believed those men were flying through the sky in which we lived  we believed those towers were falling down out of the sky in which we lived  we never lived in the sky  but we believed we did  and when the sky was rearranged by promises or demons  the sky we believed we lived in was being rearranged by promises and demons   the sky in which we never lived   the sky in which we still believe we had once lived  we never lived in that sky  but we believed we did




Dear Wyoming,

When you said// Nobody//  birds the sky// It reminded me// of the dangers// that arise// whence egoing// the ditch// hear me out// if you tease what identifies// into birds// then birds bird the sky// all the time// no matter how much of a fight the sky// puts up// Some things bird// Nobody arrives// Your brother’s ghost did not toss its wallet// onto the silver scene// just// So//  the cables can be neatly tied// The dead can be coaxed into density// should we choose to survive// Hooks// hung from yonder, bird// They bird!// A wanting of skies// implies// want// It isn’t hard to put yourself in the shoes// of the sky// and know// for certain// the yearning for birds// Nobody// implies// a departure// departing// What once was sky// I have seen one// and can imagine// an above// resolved to be birdless// resolute in its past// Something birds it, Wyoming// Even when something is lost// Even when we counted nothing before// it hatched// When a birded sky is trapped between mirrors// We should know what it’s called// It won’t heal us// But it‘ll promise// Which might buy us Guam// American Samoa// Wyoming starts with a question// Who knows// What oming// will do to the idea of the order of things

yours, T.


dear T.
the order of things
is not necessarily
the order of things
Wyoming is lastly
not last
but last here
if you alphabetize
our dreams
the last dream
is the zoologist dream
you know the one
aardvarks always bat first
and if the animals
are playing the states
Wyoming is always
at the bottom of the order
the order of things
is not necessarily
the order of things
when I said
nobody birds the sky
I did not mean no body
because our bodies
eventually do bird
the sky
I meant nobody
birds it
the sky
but I meant
the intentional
act of birding
are there accidental
birdings of the sky?
like snapshots
when you think
you are putting
your camera away?
accidental snapshots
of the sky
that’s a birding
in a sense
and you
and by you I mean you
but I also mean
everyone else too
have unintentionally
birded the sky
so I guess what
I am saying
is that I was wrong
all along
the order of things
is necessarily
the order of things
Yours finally,



Dear Wisconsin,

You’re over the moon over your plastic pink flamingoes// Go figure// This is where I leave you// One day you’re back from a funeral// your pale mitts shaking in your lap// and Denver —the man, not the state capital— suggests you head out towards the bay// en route, you pass some lonesome birds// who, he explains, are all his missing brother// There are no patron saints for missing brothers, but if I had to choose one it would be the plastic pink flamingo// my father is dead, Denver// every day I hold my hand out in front of my face, wondering// if I can see through it// to see his face emerge// between some vanishing digits// I know he remains where I am not// his laughter swept from the corners// In a month, Shaune will carry// him// via baby urn// to a river a few blocks from our home// baby urn isn’t what you think// I’m too tired to unspool it// the ghost that I am is confused at the breakfast table// The mouths I love make loving noises// I cannot decipher their concerns// a woman I’m sure to have married// suggests some good listeners// I miss him, too she says// all of the sudden// I’m staring out at that same asshole water// my wife// gone with the flamingos// You don’t know this but there’s a jay where I am saying goodbye// sky as can be// its good wing, as faithful as your brother’s pitching arm// its song// sure as your name in his throat// its twisted beak// private as blood harmonics// legacy wit// He can no longer see you through the mirror// but if you align your nose where you imagine his to be// He will speak// you’ll  have to remove all the syllables// he will speak// if you wake at some ungodly hour in a ghost flat he rents// the bed will creak with his living weight// the birds will take off the clothes he died in// can I tell you// my// Dad’s favorite joke


dear T.

he’s never been here  the poet with the dead brother who comes back to him

he’s never been here  the poet with the dead brother who comes back to him as a crow  who comes back to him as an old stringy-muscled man pushing a shopping cart across a parking lot  his one time of almost making a home here  was diverted when the woman he loved moved to a different city and not one here as planned  if he had come here  he likely would have been a ghost as well in Madison  in Eau Claire  in Fond du lac   he would have been a ghost in Winnebago County  finding a place to sit in the sun by the water and opening a book there  things might have been different  perhaps the woman he loved would have found somebody else  a professor perhaps  someone who could be retired by now maybe    perhaps she wouldn’t have gotten pregnant with their baby  who is now in college  and now the woman he loves and he are alone together again  as they had been alone together for so long but not here   if he had come here  if the woman he loved hadn’t pulled him to Richmond Virginia and then to Brooklyn New York would he have knelt in front of her when they first found out she was pregnant  when they first found out that as early as possible the baby in the belly should hear the father’s voice  would he have knelt before the woman he loved if here were here and said his first words to the baby who is now the woman in college  his mouth close to the woman he loved’s belly  and said Stop Me if You Heard This One Before  his single greatest moment as a dad-joke teller  would he have had that moment  if he had come here  and would he now walk along the water in Milwaukee or Oshkosh  a ghost even to himself  and remember that moment  and wonder if now somewhere in her dreams his daughter remembers it  and smirks  and would that laughter he just heard from a fire escape across the Brooklyn backyards   not be that laughter  but the laughter of a bird here   and would his joke finally have landed now after 18 years of not having landed?




Dear Virginia,

Sometime// states ago// one of us// Declared// that the collective noun for ghosts is called a// misfire// Imagine that many mistakes// not collecting in the queue// I’ve written you twice// You’re crumpled near the fire pit// There is a hotel in you// called The Jefferson// where live alligators are kept// A collective of Virginians, in repose// have declared// that their group is forever to be known// as a succession of dead alligators// filled with chicken cutlets// repurposed as cowboy boots// Did you forget these// a cannonball of swans// a fork of heroines// a waist of graves// a lash of nevers// coming true// a fake of fleas// a grove of cobblers// My friend James// states// that the cure for any funeral// is a handful of superballs// We’ll do anything to keep the dead from misfiring// Wait out the wind// to scatter feathers towards the hatchery// Draw violets on lottery ticket kindling// to make a garden blush// I’ve made// every attempt// to carve my father’s name// on that galvanized reservoir// But every time I put a knife’s tip to his early consonants// The weather scoots// It takes a lot of guts// no name anyone// anyhow// To defibrillate the spread// Ask yourself what makes an ancestry so great// it collates// Trembles on the diving board// pours itself another one// on the battery of the tongue// Loss has scrambled me// Virginia// the bellhops are all reptiles now// Cannons pock the clouds// My father// spent// a century// in rehearse// Your brother’s last words// were formative// I’ve got their pigeons crossed// In the end// when you untie me from your foot// An apology for grief will give itself to you// Mirrors// will shake legacies from// the clutch// Which is what the space between any two is called// You and I will spend// an afterlife// Commuting// owls we placed in parliament// sentences of crows//


dear T.

funny that you mention the Jefferson

funny that you mention the Jefferson  because when the poet to whom you write was a younger man  he lived about 10 blocks away from that hotel and on sunday mornings after many Sunday mornings of scouring the city looking for a newspaper from some place that didn’t openly believe that the confederacy didn’t really lose the war and that slavery wasn’t a necessary evil at best or a gateway for darker-skinned people to eventually achieve freedom at a bit worse or more likely as the god-given tool for god’s favorite people to thrive and for its not-quite-people to help them do it  and after finding that paper in a tiny black-owned convenience store in Jackson Ward  which was once a proud and wealthy neighborhood of former slaves and the descendants of former slaves with the first black-owned bank and its own downtown only blocks from the downtown of Richmond itself but was now coming out of decades of crack-piped bombed-out-windowed hollow-eyed blight and after stepping over the junkies and drunks to get into the convenience store  the poet as a much younger man  took his newspaper and walked to the Jefferson  and realizing that nobody would bother him  a white man  though scruffy and long-haired  if he put on a blazer and looked like a wedding guest who hadn’t gone to sleep yet  and walked through its grand gilt-mirrored marble-pillared lobby and found a seat and pulled out his coffee thermos and sat there  an unpaid guest in the Jefferson  Sunday after Sunday  reading an enemy newspaper and getting side-eyed smirks from the khaki-pantsed blue-button-downed descendants of former slave owners  who must have believed he was fallen or more likely never would reach their high place  and making small talk with the black men and women who still served these thin-lipped pale-skinned wannabe masters  while mocking them secretly but hilariously behind their backs right here in this commonwealth  in which the wealth was never common or shared  but the poverty of spirit and the dearth of reconciling with its past permeated everything and everyone 

Yours, (ashamedly and unashamedly) Virginia


I Can Wonder Anything is published by Fininshing Line Press. You can check it out here:



You can check out reading poems from I Can Wonder Anything here:


Terence Degnan reads from I Can Wonder Anything



The Scarecrow Alibis is published by Cloudbank Books. You can check it out here:




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