We're pleased to present selections from the 2001 NEW MICHIGAN PRESS / DIAGRAM Chapbook Competition winner, A Calendar of Crows by Michael Sowder.

This chapbook is available from NMP. Buy it online here.

Selections from




At dawn, they're in the trees
outside my tent, anxious for my departure.
I hike out, and they come down yelling,
landing with wings unfurled behind them,
walking around stiff-kneed and haughty,
lords of the forgotten and discarded.

I spooked one last night
out of a creek-bed at twilight.
It came right at me, pounding
the drums of the air, flying off
through pillars of hemlock and poplar,
screaming its wild hoarse cry.

They say one appeared
at my great aunt's open window
and, drawn to what glitters,
flew off with her wedding ring
and a twist of foil.

On a cliff on Blood Mountain,
I watch one below, oaring the air
over waves of hills,
shouldering its way to a highway,
I imagine, to a gathering at a body,
something headlights froze.

At the sentinel's cry they rise
in a cloud of wings
like pieces of a withered tree
breaking apart, floating upward.

They're always flying off,
peripheral, seeking the tangents,
never nesting at bridges, ledges, eaves.
My father one day walked out
the back door and drove nails
in a post and put clothes on a cross
he set up against their intransigence.

I think of the sky in their bones—
the way a crow never soars, but moves below, black,
across the valley green, like the shadow of a cloud,
or a lost kite, a blind spot moving through the landscape,
a tear in the drapes, a fleck of night
shot straight through the summer day.



"December 16, 1937, twenty-six thousand (26,000) birds were killed in the bombing of a large crow roost near Dempsey, Okla. The Game and Fish Commission bombed another roost at Binger, Okla, on December 6, 1938, killing eighteen thousand (18,000) crows. Frank S. Davis, inspector for the Illinois State Department of Conservation, killed three hundred, twenty-eight thousand (328,000) crows in roosts near Rockford Ill., with the use of festoons of dynamite bombs."

See Life Magazine, March 25, 1940, for photographs.



Now a fanatical crow is hopping around
in front of my neighbor's new Lexus.
He stares at the reflection in the door,
which can offer him little more than fescue,
daffodils, a Tudor house with pines, a cloud-strewn sky.
But with wings like a cape, he swirls
around and gazing into his vision
plunges into the door.
Stunned on the drive, the little devotee
collects himself, recollects, and begins again
the dance.
But the whole approach is banal, atavistic,
in our mirrored world, our finishes
transcending all his codes:

One day,
goldfinch, orioles, indigo buntings,
far out of their zones, fifty or more
lay kaleidoscopically dead
across the sidewalk and street of Atlanta,
as if blown out of some shattered
paradise. The meteorologist said,
They flew right into the sky-
mistaking it for the sky.

How banal it seems, a tap against
your window, the fall
to the ground, exotic signs
that tell us once again: the sky
is falling, the sky
is falling.


Since I was a child, I've been fascinated by the enigmatic crow. I watched them, studied them, read about them until they became a dark, familiar presence at the borders of my imagination, just as they inhabit the borderlands of our world—in our world but not of it. They have long been associated with humans. The crow is sacred to the Hopi and to tribes of the Pacific Northwest. It was sacred to the god of poetry, Apollo. Interestingly, the legendary father of Greek rhetoric too was Corax, perhaps because the noise of crows reminded some witty myth-maker of the noise of rhetoric, or perhaps because a crow can learn to talk if you're willing to split its tongue. Crows followed the Vikings into battle, as the constellation, Corvus, follows Orion across the sky. Jose Cuervo labels our wildest liquor. Crows and ravens are the most intelligent of birds and are social in sophisticated ways. Pet crows will baby-sit human babies in cradles when humans leave the house. (In most states, you can kill crows, but can't own them.) They're said to know when a gun is loaded. They're enamored of shiny objects. Their beautiful, iridescent black drinks in every color. In winter at the University of Michigan, they gather in roosts of tens of thousands in the trees outside Angell Hall. A stunning spectacle.

My poetry explores and tries to discover what the world is trying to say to us, and perhaps, as James Dickey said, to "make the world accessible." The phenomenal world lies everywhere before us in splendor and suffering, and as we study it carefully (as counseled, say, by Pattiann Rogers' "Suppose Your Father Was a Redbird") something else speaks to us through this phenomenal world, perhaps less to our intellect than to our emotional nature. After science and technology and religion have had their say, something yet remains, something that is not, however, inaccessible. To me, poetry seeks that mystery, lives in it, and then attempts to reproduce it with words.

Crows are one of its messengers.