Red hornbill earring

In a dog-eared journal from many years ago, I find
a pencil drawing and notes from a lecture given
by a cultural anthropologist:

red hornbill earring,
beautiful carved badge, sign
that the wearer has taken a human head.

So much of his life
was devoted to the detailed study
of this ritual among a certain tribe—

how the ritual began
when the fire-trees blossomed,
red bunting that bordered narrow

mountain trails with risk as prelude
to desire. My notes read: It is the practice
of Ilongot men to present a severed head

or other body part
to a prospective wife.
I did not know
him then, nor his wife, though they came

to work among us in our campus
village, where we kept our own rituals
as arbitrary and elaborate as any other

brought under a scholar’s scrutiny.
What was it we heard? Fog-wrapped
ravines, his wife’s mis-step

in the treacherous dark—
Every anthropology houses
a poetry of grief. We all spend

lifetimes searching for meanings
that elude our grasp, whose starkness will shine
with a clarity we do not even need to give them.


In response to Via Negativa: Fear of a white planet.

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