On the Road to Santiago

My brother had chanted its name for days
until, voilà, it hung
a hundred feet above our astonished faces:
lammergeier, impossible to miss,
the open book of its body so wide
it could be read by the thinnest updrafts,
dark against the clouds —

& us standing by the very rock
that Roland’s sword was said to have split
when he fought the Basques & prepared
a feast for vultures. But this one
with its fully feathered head
& wisp of beard looked nothing like
one of those tonsured carrion-eaters.

We lamented its empty talons,
having fed ourselves on tales
of an expert locksmith
taking the bones one by one up
into the sky & letting them drop
onto some likely rock, there to glean
from the splinters the wine-red
marrow, mother of blood.
We watched it pivot,
rocking in the high wind,
then slide quick as a sword down
that long & boney ridge.


International Vulture Awareness Day

Click on the image to read the other posts in honor of International Vulture Awareness Day and learn why vulture conservation is so vital. Sentence-of-the-day award goes to Charlie at 10,000 Birds:

On the face of it, all this attention for a group of scavenging birds that are fairly universally seen as ugly, quarrelsome, and unkempt, dark reminders of mortality, and definitely not the sort of guests you’d invite to a dinner-party (“We sent the invitations out Mrs Vulture, I know we did — it must just be coincidence that both you and the Hyenas didn’t receive them…”) must seem a little odd (especially to any non-birder who stumbles across IVAD and who had probably assumed that we birders usually celebrate delicacy, beauty or song rather than excrement-coated bags of feathers who spend much of their day with their heads shoved up a rotting corpse).

24 Replies to “On the Road to Santiago”

  1. This is a stunning wonderful poem. My favorite part is this:

    “the open book of its body so wide
    it could be read by the thinnest updrafts,
    dark against the clouds”

    I can FEEL the silence and invisibility of their presence.

    1. Thank you, Deb. The only question here is how accurate my memory of this really is. I’m almost afraid to share it with my brother — he might tell me the lammergeier was nowhere near the Roland stone.

  2. I think this works really well, and I really like the lines that PFA likes.

    I feel I’m being dim, but I don’t understand the locksmith thing: do locksmiths use marrow for something?

    1. Oh, that was just a fancy way of saying they know how to get at something other vultures can’t. Maybe not the best or clearest reference, I agree.

  3. The poem is the place where legends and brothers meet & cleave, perhaps as if in battle : a legendary bird (the old-world bone-breaking lamb vulture, book-like) & a legendary old-world Roland (slaughter recorded in epic song). I enjoy how “chanted” plays against “chanson.” In this poem, you expertly explore sophisticated “possiblities of context.”

    1. I’ll take your word for that. :) Actually, i can tell you that chanted/chanson was either entirely accidental or very subconscious. Thanks as always for the thumbnail analysis. I’m honored.

  4. A marvel. It never ceases to surprise me that vultures live in the same country as I do, albeit in a faraway corner.

    Some very impressive birds are carrion eaters, I think even golden eagles are just as happy to eat it, and then there are condors…

    1. I gather there’s no reason why lammergeiers and other vultures shouldn’t repopulate their former ranges in Europe. Just need to keep people from shooting them. Oh, and don’t cover the mountains with wind turbines. They are hell on big soaring birds.

  5. Lovely poem! I, of course had to look up lammergeiers but should have gotten a clue what they were when reading about their ‘tonsured’ brothers.

    I like ‘wine red marrow, mother of blood’. And ‘quick as a sword’ brings back Roland into the picture.

    Now I get to look up Roland. :)

    1. Sorry, I should’ve added a lammergeier link after the poem. Maybe one to the Song of Roland, too. I have a bad habit of assuming that everyone knows the same stuff I know, cuz I don’t know too much — but everyone has a different not-too-much that they know about, I think.

      Glad you liked the bit about the marrow. I worked hard for that phrase — read all about bone marrow and what it does in the body. A revelation! I had no idea that’s where new blood cells are made.

  6. “I don’t know too much — but everyone has a different not-too-much that they know about, I think.” Ok..That right there is poetic. Mark Twainian and Will Rogers poetic..but definitely quotable. (grin)

    Would that I knew more about the birds of the air and less about stem cells.

  7. What what little I know about birds came from those I see around St. Louis what I might see on PBS Nature series. What I know about bone innards is probably less. People bones are basically hollow in order to allow for the marrow. As far as bird wing bones, according to the following article on how to make a bird call out of a bird’s bones (which seems morbidly unfair) evidently the Turkey ones are both hollow and filled with marrow.


    A Turkey or chicken is as small a bird as I will be examining/eating at this stage of my life. As a kid, I suffered through wild duck, and ate quail, but I don’t think I remember a quail wing. I do remember the joys of biting on buckshot.

    Oh how did I get from your beautiful poem to this carivore stuff? (Grin) At any rate, it’s my job to read and enjoy your poetry and look up any words I don’t understand. Doubles the pleasure.

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