After Winter Storm Uri I considered trimming the mountain laurel, which is a flowering thing somewhere between a bush and a tree. A solid inch of ice, followed by several inches of snow, weighed down a limb to the point of breaking. After the thaw, I saw Mama and Papa Cardinal, building a nest.
I go to the mountain side
of the house to cut saplings,
and clear a view to snow
on the mountain. But when I look up,
saw in hand, I see a nest clutched in
the uppermost branches.
I don’t cut that one.
I don’t cut the others either.
Suddenly, in every tree,
an unseen nest
where a mountain
Gallagher’s poem is one I have loved for a long time, so I was happy to encounter it again in comic book artist Julian Peters’ poetry collection. It’s one of the few in the book by a still-living poet, this one from the great state of Washington.
In Peters’ illustrations, the woman in the poem is older, dressed in a between-season vest, although the trees around her are lush and green. She holds the saw in her hand. I’d never thought about that detail until I saw it pictured, and it made me realize this woman is not passively looking out the window, thinking a thing should be done but is on her way out to do it.
She looks up, “saw in hand.” She considers. And we, the reader, weigh the Choices with her.
Mountains or nests? In this poem, she can’t have both. Which does she choose? We aren’t told her choice, just the gravity of it: “Suddenly, in every tree, / an unseen nest / where a mountain / would be.”
So many of our choices are like this one — not between good and bad or right and wrong but between nests and mountains. Which do we value? On different days we might choose differently. Maybe that sapling was planted by a squirrel in a place we never, ever, ever would have put a tree. Maybe something deep within us needs a room with a view.
As I sat with this poem all month, I noticed that the woman not only wants a view of the mountain but also “a view to snow / on the mountain.” I thought of Never Summer Range in Rocky Mountain National Park, how cool and comforting it is to see snow on Chapin, Chiquita, and Ypsilon, even in August. I know those mountains well — the birds in the nest? If they’re not my cardinals, I don’t know them at all.
If I were to cut down this mountain laurel, there’s no view to be had — only the brick of the house next door — but we are accustomed to enjoying the view of the cardinals’ annual nest from our window. Last year I moved my desk in front of it so I could work and watch. And write cardinal haiku.
Mama Cardinal sits
on her nest in pouring rain
all day just takes it
If I am in Estes Park, Colorado, I choose mountains. If I am in Fredericksburg, Texas, I choose nests.
Our cardinals never laid any eggs in their nest, I suppose because the tree was heavily damaged. One warm afternoon I stood beneath it, not with a saw but with big clippers. I cut one dead branch and then another. The branches closest to the window, where it was ever so slightly warmer, have put out new green. Next year there will be new choices.
Did you memorize “Choices” this month? Join our By Heart community and share your audio or video using the hashtags #ByHeart and #MemoriesWithFriends and tagging us @tspoetry. We also welcome photos of your handwritten copy of the poem.
By Heart for May
For the next By Heart gathering, May 28, we’ll learn “Motherload” by Kate Baer, an Instagram poet for people (especially mothers) who dislike Instagram poets.
She keeps an office in her sternum, the flat
bone in the center of her chest with all its
urgent papers, vast appointments, lists of
minor things. In her vertebrae she holds more
carnal tasks: milk jugs, rotten plants, heavy-
bottomed toddlers in all their mortal rage.
She keeps frustration in her hallux, senseless
chatter, jealous fangs, the spikes of a dinosaur’s
tail. The belly is more complicated—all heartache
and ambition. Fires and tidal waves.
In her pelvis she holds her labors, long and
slippery. In her clavicle, silent things. (Money
and power. Safety and choice. Tiny banquets
In her hands she carries their egos, small and
flimsy. In her mouth she holds their laughter,
gentle currents, a cosmos of everything.
Browse more By Heart
“Megan Willome’s The Joy of Poetry is not a long book, but it took me longer to read than I expected, because I kept stopping to savor poems and passages, to make note of books mentioned, and to compare Willome’s journey into poetry to my own. The book is many things. An unpretentious, funny, and poignant memoir. A defense of poetry, a response to literature that has touched her life, and a manual on how to write poetry. It’s also the story of a daughter who loses her mother to cancer. The author links these things into a narrative much like that of a novel. I loved this book. As soon as I finished, I began reading it again.”
—David Lee Garrison, author of Playing Bach in the D. C. Metro