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Wake Forest
University Press

Wake Forest University Press

Dedicated to Irish Poetry

Wake: Up to Poetry

"The act of poetry is a rebel act."

Poem of the Week: “The Sick Bird” by John Montague

The holidays, more than any other time of year, draw our cultural attention to family, rituals and the cyclical nature of life. This poem by John Montague appears in a group titled “Prayers for My Daughters” and focuses on generational knowledge. Though small, the moments that connect us to our past are valuable. Like the bird in the final stanza about to take flight, these moments of knowledge or experience are passed down parent to child, carry us forward, and connect us with future generations. 

The Sick Bird 

Cycling along the Clogher road
Master MacGurren found a sick bird.
He brought it to me, sick in bed,
and it lay, in a rag-lined shoe box,
within reach of my caressing hand. 

After a few days, it learnt to respond
to the touch of a warm finger
on its fragile head, bruised feathers.
Its claws were crisp as winter twigs
and its small heart hammered:
minute, intense, terrible. 

One morning I was better, and
so was my little companion, hungry
beak gaping on the pillow beside me.
I cupped it in my palms and,
cradling it to the window, hoisted
and helped it fly away.

II 

Thirty years later, I find a bird
on the road’s edge, outside Ballydehob:
a coal tit, meantán dubh.
I place its delicate body inside
my shirt, as I cycle home,
to show it to my children.

Now it rests on the unlit stove
in a cushioned box, beside where I write,
inspected, every so often, by tiptoeing children.
Its heart still furiously beating;
when will it take flight?

John Montague, from Smashing the Piano (2001)


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