A Cartography of Birds

Praise for the Book

“This collection, with calm assurance, draws me skillfully and deeply into a series of intensely realized moments. It is a remarkable book.”   —Henry Taylor

“Mysterious, haunting, and exact, J. L. Conrad’s A Cartography of Birds is a cartography of our own fragile existence on—and departures from—‘this fragrant, indivisible / earth’.”   —Jan Heller Levi

“Firmly founded in the imagistic mode, and even surrealist occasionally, these poems constitute an imaginative yet candid way of treating experience, by which the confessional element is draped in fancy, and common things and ordinary people assume unusual individuality. Conrad’s work will strike readers with its range of forms—from loose to visually organized free verse to prose poems—and with its variety of tones and metaphors, inviting titles, and frank reliance on psychological theories.”   —Catharine Savage Brosman

“From first page to last, A Cartography of Birds sustains a voice of quiet, clear-sighted direction as it travels through an indefinable middle ground of change.”   —The Washington Times

Sample Poems

The throat of morning
binds darkness to the land—

as if living could somehow make us

whole. Blue patches next to the sunrise
are bodies—the pulse of the river

catches and falls. Again

I find a tree in the orchard
bold white and laden with bee-sounds.

The season shimmers into being,

hills seared with the flesh of this new
arrival. Water will bring the oleander back

to life—I will place mint at the corners

of the garden, under the sweet
limbs of the sycamore. And if, while bending

down, I find your face capsized

by light, I will plant it deep—
free your seed to the welcoming earth.

Burnished light fells
monumental oaks and maples,
casts branched shadows across
heaves of pasture soil,
and the steel lake of my childhood
reappears, the road curving
around water so deep
they never found the bottom.

One year, men dredged its depths
for a car—in winter, the driver had failed
to heed this oval of snow
marked cleaner than the rest.

And I remember that a man
who lived beside the lake kept deer
in a pen with sides so high
they could not leap its delicate mesh
on wire legs. Like birds
they flitted the enclosure softly,
ears cupped one direction
then the other. When horses passed,
flight overtook them jumping startled
to the opposite side; the horses
always stuttering a few steps
and falling back in line.

Turned out later, horses lifted dust,
stirred up collies with their heels and poured
molten flesh four-hoofed through the gate.
Then pasture-calm, they stood breathing deer-breath
close to wire – large to small, and small
hoofs always shy of such large obedience.

And I wonder if he saw them
like that: snow lightly curtaining their forms,
this wildness fastened and poised
for escape. Maybe the sight froze fingers to wheel—

he simply forgot to turn—sliding,
skidding on ice but in the end
simply too heavy
for his own trajectory.

Today the tree
sounds have changed
and the city—
perhaps it is mine
after all. I take the train
and claim its stops
in the proper order as I once did
only in sleep.

Wind sweeps
the buildings clean—
yellow-eyed grackles
wash the high arches of sky
with their wings.

As much as I try
to hide it,
I am happy.

Water greets me
as layered fog
in the eyes of two men
who climb onto the bus bearing
slung garbage sacks
and in the arms
of a boy careening across
the grassy square.

His mouth opens
wide and he takes it all in—
the storm-colored mourning doves,
milling people in hats
that fold up like Chinese fans.

He drinks the scene
and falls, bends his knees
to grass—his arms
grasping wide
this fragrant, indivisible

The poems above are published in A Cartography of Birds by J. L. Conrad. © 2002 by J. L. Conrad. All rights reserved.

© 2022 J.L. Conrad