vulture-on-a-tree

We have all seen them circling pastures,
have looked up from the mouth of a barn, a pine clearing,  
the fences of our own backyards, and have stood  
amazed by the one slow wing beat, the endless dihedral drift.
But I had never seen so many so close, hundreds,  
every limb of the dead oak feathered black,

and I cut the engine, let the river grab the jon boat  
and pull it toward the tree.
The black leaves shined, the pink fruit blossomed  
red, ugly as a human heart.
Then, as I passed under their dream, I saw for the first time  
its soft countenance, the raw fleshy jowls
wrinkled and generous, like the faces of the very old  
who have grown to empathize with everything.

And I drifted away from them, slow, on the pull of the river,  
reluctant, looking back at their roost,  
calling them what I’d never called them, what they are,
those dwarfed transfiguring angels,
who flock to the side of the poisoned fox, the mud turtle
crushed on the shoulder of the road,
who pray over the leaf-graves of the anonymous lost,
with mercy enough to consume us all and give us wings.

David Bottoms, “Under the Vulture-Tree,” Armored Hearts: Selected and New Poems (Copper Canyon Press, 1995)