Birding by Ear

By Susan Cohen

We're mostly couples of that age when people start
	to wonder what they've missed,
		and set out to find it evenings

at Adult School. Our teacher's slim, blonde, single,
	fine at snatching birdsong from air.
		Amazing, really,

not to mention younger, and I notice how men
	gaze at her, intense as Sharp-shinned hawks,
		and consider their life lists.

What's the harm? My husband and I met so many
	birds ago, when he came fresh
		from the Southern California orchard

bearing the exotic names of cherries  
	(Bings, Vans, Jubilees, Lamberts, 
		Tartarians, Black Republicans),

his childhood of droughts and floods
	rich in one way: His father paid him 
		to shoot those birds that ate the crop.  

In their taxonomy, the avian kingdom
	divided neatly into damned Cherry Eaters
		and birds allowed to live.

A Cherry Eater chirped, and he ran to the orchard. 
	He plugged thousands at a nickel apiece,
		bounty hunter, .22 slung

where now he hefts a spotting scope and aims 
	at nothing more than magnification.
		No wonder he impresses her, birding

by ear, until that day when he admits his crimes.
	She begins to list some species, faltering
		when she reaches her favorite — Not

 Western Tanagers?  He nods, my George Washington
	who couldn't tell a lie. My Audubon  
		who slaughtered anything it took 

to paint a more perfect feather. Audubon
	could be forgiven because of the beauty 
		he made visible, 

the way I see beauty in my husband's need 
	to tell a sometimes awkward truth.
		Our teacher, though,

responds with silence, and her eyes dart 
	to her feet, as if someone's dropped 
		a sack of a tiny corpses.
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About Susan Cohen

Susan Cohen’s first full-length book of poems is Throat Singing (WordTech; 2012). Her recent poetry honors include the Rita Dove Poetry Award, an Atlanta Review International Publication Prize, the Anderbo Poetry Prize, and honorable mentions from River Styx and the Beyond Baroque Literary Arts Center. Her poems have appeared in Greensboro Review, Nimrod, Poetry International, Southern Humanities Review, Southern Poetry Review, and many other journals. Formerly a journalism professor at UC Berkeley and a contributing writer to the Washington Post Magazine, she co-authored Normal at Any Cost; Tall Girls, Short Boys, and the Medical Industry’s Quest to Manipulate Height (Tarcher/Penguin; 2009), which won awards from the Fund for Investigative Journalism and the National Association of Science Writers. She lives in Berkeley, and is earning an MFA in poetry from Pacific University in Oregon.


  1. Alan John Campbell
    Posted March 2013 at 9:32 am | Permalink

    This poem dances well between the themes of missed opportunity and death. It intigued me like an aviary set up within a mortuary might. Susan’s ‘Birdsong by Ear’ verses scintillate.

  2. Posted May 2013 at 4:10 pm | Permalink

    That last line and image is wonderful, as is the entire poem. I like its rhythm, partly gliding, partly flitting.

  3. Christine Nichols
    Posted May 2013 at 2:38 pm | Permalink

    Excellent piece. I loved the tension, and the rhythm.

    As well as the juxtaposition of the ages, both the husband and the teacher, and the husband and the younger self.

    Nicely done!

  4. S.D. Lishan
    Posted May 2013 at 10:42 am | Permalink

    Awesome, lovely poem! I definitely want to read more work by Susan Cohen!

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