2018 Frontier OPEN Winner: Migrations by Mark Wagenaar
Mark Wagenaar’s “Migrations”—a thundering, contemplative silence after the final period. Wagenaar has masterfully crafted a vital epic for our times, and the $5000 prize for 1st Place in our 2018 OPEN is well-earned.
Sparrow, I answer, when our two year old
points to the tea towel & asks—already
she’s moved from bird to robin, cardinal,
etc, & now sparrow, already the language
fails us. I say sparrow & mean so much more
than little song—finchlike gleaner, doubled
achene, scrabbler, driveway dust bather,
passerine keener of the near-at-hand, even
Egyptian hieroglyph, even Christ-lesson
once upon a time, two a penny & not one falls
without your Father knowing. Sparrow, nest
in our mailbox the summer of her birth,
four crying beaks, then three, then the haul
of an empty nest: feathers, down, straw, beak
& bones, thin as the hairs upon her head.
I begin to talk about migration, thinking of
swallows, & realize I’ve confused them,
but she’s heard that before—a singing cartoon
stingray defined it as all about going home.
Once, while helping her move, I found
my mother’s bird book, with dates on the pages
of the migratory birds she’d seen at Beamer,
in the woods of the escarpment above Grimsby:
red-tailed & broad-winged hawks, kestrels,
peregrine falcons. Somewhere there are names
on other pages, the ones who crossed
the Mediterranean Sea—hundreds of thousands
the last few years alone—or the Atlantic,
as my grandparents did, who just crossed over
to the other side this year & last: Ontario
is now the place to which we return once
a year to bury our dead, to count the footfalls
from car across the frozen earth to grave
at Mountview Gardens, highway 8, Fruitland—
we count the steps, but not in Frisian, none
of us, first tongue of those we laid down.
Sleeping, the saints would say—even languages
sleep, those without a fluent speaker, another
migration, this one into silence. Nicola,
Wetalh, Lhéchelesem, Pəntl’áč, in B.C. alone,
among the First Peoples. Is there a word
in any tongue for its own imminent demise?
A word for when the burnline of an ancient city
meets the air for the first time in centuries?
Or a word for what borders do to those of us
inside them, the mercy they wall off inside us?
As a child I listened to the flashing red light
of the radio tower at Ridge & Woolverton,
atop Grimsby mountain, & wondered—
maybe it’s casting these words on the wind,
casting them right through our bodies like neutrinos,
through the orchards that were bulldozed years ago,
to the drowned in Lake Ontario. Maybe they
have an answer for how we end up where we do.
I don’t know. I’ve lost count of the rivers
I’ve crossed. Here, children—survivors of school
shootings—ask the world on social media
how long it will take for them to be forgotten.
Like disappeared orchards. Who will count them.
How many sparrows. I don’t know what to say.
It’s easy to say nothing. It’s easy to forget
the Calumet River here in Indiana was redrawn
to whittle the black city of Gary down.
To forget the kids in Ferguson who walk miles
to bus stops that aren’t theirs to go to better
schools. What is that like—to be a migrant
on your own education. On your own life.
Someday I’ll remember to count the steps
from the couch to our daughter’s bed
as I carry her in sleep, as she walks barefoot
through the ghost orchards in the country
of sleep, hearing the faint voices of birds
that have never lived anywhere else calling
across the distances to her kindred heart.
Listen. Half-syllables. Like rain. Like the word
she’ll say to me, somewhere near the end,
my end, holding my hand as I too move on.
Mark Wagenaar is the author of three award-winning poetry collections, including the Saltman Prize-winning “Southern Tongues Leave Us Shining,” just released from Red Hen Press. His fiction and poetry appear widely, including in the New Yorker, Tin House, the Southern Review, Gulf Coast, The Cincinnati Review, 32 Poems, and River Styx, among many others. He is an assistant professor at Valparaiso University, a father of two, and the husband of poet Chelsea Wagenaar.