A Poem: He Will Cover You with His Feathers

He Will Cover You with His Feathers

Rhiannon Conley

I am thinking about two hornbills
I saw in the Milwaukee zoo
the day my sister runs away with her new boyfriend.
She, just nineteen, the whitest
in our family’s flock of black,
submits her confession:
“I am pregnant.”
She will not speak to us again.

The hornbills were two black birds
the size of swans crowded in a cage
just a feather’s length longer than their wings.
Even in this small space they stretch
and flap, the crack of their large wings
echoing through the aviary.
Together, the male and female—his eyes
a bloody red and hers cool white marble—clack.
Clack. Their large orange bills,
both topped with the casque of a rhinoceros,
are so grotesque they are lovely.
With these they chatter,
swishing white and black striped tails
back and forth like the rustling of vestments.

I wonder why a teenage girl
would crowd herself into a cage,
but of course I know the answer.
I know the revelation of new sex,
the necessary piety of young love.
I know what it’s like to feel holy in a boy’s hands,
to feel as though the two of you were chosen,
your body a gift for his.
Together, they must speak in tongues,

For the hornbill female, courtship is crucial;
she is a bird whose life will depend
wholly on her mate when she breeds.
When her body is heavy with soft stones
and something inside her, a ticking, like a clock,
compels her, she and he will mud up the opening
of a hollow tree. She becomes an anchoress
with only a hole large enough for him to feed her through,
for her to carefully defecate outside the nest.
How the bones of her wings
must ache.

This poem appears in North Dakota Quarterly 83.1 (Winter 2016).

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