Studies in Extinction

London, Natural History Museum


Pressed in the pages of a King James Bible,
a Queen Alexandra’s Birdwing,
its great green and black wings torn
from buckshot.  Oh new and glorious bird!,
Alfred Meek wrote from the 1907 expedition,
Papua New Guinea (land of savages, bone
jewelry, long pig).  Bathing in a lagoon,
he’d seen the butterfly high above him,
rose from the water, grabbed his pistol
and ran after it, nude, through the forest
like a wild man. When it settled against a tree,
too high to reach, Meek fired, the body
falling as the pellets turned the soft wings to lace.

White-gloved, you can open the frail pages—
the whole book tagged Endangered
see the Birdwing crushed as though
it had fallen from some great height
to land there, dried and nearly forgotten,
a sentimental rose, an afterthought.

When you’re done, touch the bank of drawers,
each one labeled with Victorian script. Pull them open
to reveal the rows of impossible birds, blue
and red and gold, their wings wrapped tight with twine,
their eyes gone or gone white or open and bright.
Marvel! Boxes of specked and empty eggs,
stiff paper cubes filled with nests, jars stacked
with frog paratypes asleep in formaldehyde,
the immense white basin of a sea turtle’s shell,
pocked and dry and tagged:
Giganticus?  Charles Island (extinct).

Friends, we must learn to walk softly.
We do not see what we see for what it is:
Paradise tucked between the pages of Paradise,
Torn iridescent flowers rising in brittle fields.
Wide fin tracks fanned up a too-bright beachhead,
A dark, too-warm tide pulling in.

Amy Tudor holds a doctorate in humanities and a master of fine arts in creative writing. Currently she teaches English and interdisciplinary courses in the Galileo Community at Bellarmine University in Louisville.

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