Dana Goodyear's "Quail"
What the heart, unsteady and ill,
is supposed to do.
And does: fly in missing-man formation,
resettle too nearby,
then scatter to confuse,
fleeing like one who secretly wants catching.
Hides to die. But doesn't come to nothing:
ends a block of bony, vesselled ice
heaving, frostbit, in the chest.
About the Poem
This poem arose from a coincidence: the phonetic and visual (but not, as far as I can tell, etymological) sameness between the word for a small dun-colored game bird and the verb, often used in reference to the heart, that means to wither or falter or give way to decline. It occurred to me several years ago, when a friend took me hunting in south Texas. Watching the startled coveys take flight—wobbly and anxious and soft-bellied over the dust and sage landscape—I was struck both by their vulnerability and by their natural defense: the awkwardness (you might even say ineptitude) of their flying makes them hard to hit. This, and their habit of landing only a few yards off, in spite of the shot-gun explosions right behind them—their sheer inability to learn from experience no matter how terrifying— seemed like human impulses. There was also something recognizable about the way a wounded bird will scuttle into the brush to die in private.
It was a while before I wrote the poem—three years after the trip to Texas. I was moving out of an apartment in New York and came upon a nest of frozen-solid quail hidden in the back of the icebox, wrapped in white butcher-paper packages. I had never had the nerve to cook them in my tiny, ill-equipped kitchen. I unwrapped one. The look of that icy meat made the convergence between the bird and the heart complete. Still later, after the poem was published, I found, in Robert Alter's translation of Psalm 55, another coincidence: "My heart quails within me/ and death-terrors fall upon me,/ fear and trembling enter me,/ and horror envelops me./ And I say, 'Would I had wings like a dove,/ I would fly off and find rest.' "