Final Exam

by Jim Bishop


remember? you are driving down a country road
and they appear from nowhere no from black
trees by the road   three of them ragged as pines
in silhouette against the heavy november sky
or five: crows in odd numbers

at the last accounting you will be asked to describe
them you may choose the month of their appearance
the particular cast of the sky   you may include the smaller
forms that swoop veer divebomb the less nimble crows
and that moment of contact


the effort here (remember) is to remember
to fledge a moment   time is not a factor

further on other faculties come into play
a section on comprehension   example:

a small bird sits in your palm (hypothesis)
as the lids swim shut and cover the tiny points
of light you are asked to close your own eyes and
tell whether something or nothing is in your hand
this is not a trick question your heart is expected
to find words

you get the sense   it is not so much a test as
an examination you begin to see the distinction

with a single finger   almost compulsively   you
stroke the bird’s feathers you are unable yet to cry
beneath them you make out something like bone like
the smallest bones you are capable of feeling
slowly the bird’s eyes open   peer unblinking
several seconds   straight ahead   then close again
you are given a piece of paper you are asked to draw
what you see a year from now this demands some
knowledge of the law

Verbal:   you are asked to define “sentimentality”
you are given all the time in the world you must
include the word “feather” (singular or plural)
and the word “bone” it strikes you the unspoken
word “eyes” may be the key

just when you think you have it   all of a sudden
this: LIST THE TEN LINES (written or oral)
YOU BEST REMEMBER something the bird
never said the bird in your hand   makes a passing
imprint   writ on air   that was your heart speaking
you have no idea how to spell it

and from a faroff sky the sound CAWCAW
defines momentarily an unbridgeable distance
you are left your self to deal with


the great black birds beyond odd or even rise in the
backward air (“The shepherds must keep the lambs
penned. The crows peck out the eyes of the strays.”)
and I am stopped in my tracks on the donkey path
behind the wheel of nothing

                       an echo

a week? a month? was it he said? (me, my backpack
strapped on, at the head of the stairs) “Don’t be gone
more than . . . ” a child’s notion of the outer edge as if
wishing me godspeed from someplace barely able
to be bounded

define “sentimentality” trace its
roots in the notion of blood

sing the refrain of a lullabye (“and goodnight”)
your mother never sang when instead in the dark
night after night my own voice now I remember it
said “Please God don’t let my mother die” as if she
had been a little bird in my hand and every night
her eyes had been in danger of closing

define “blood” define “father” (mine and the father
of my sons) who leave to go off to a bar or to heaven
or to somewhere else you can scarcely imagine
the plumage the true fledge of

recite and explain the first line
of the Lord’s Prayer

how long were you gone? did you return?
can you say what you mean by gone? did you
let fall from your hands the smallest bones
you were capable of feeling? did you spend
the rest of your days trying to draw them?

mostly I remember the points of life I could recite
their eyes   each one in that moment between words
when there is always a question and I felt myself a
ragged weight   stretching to stay airborne   against
a sharp infliction