The Collectors

by Janet McAdams

Audubon in a Waiting Room

But the birds in the prints are dead, she said.
A dozen birds for the one bird you see.

He raced
against earth
the body toward it.
The end of flight:
owl or heron
feathers dropping
down, flesh sagging
along the wires that hold it
in the picture.

At the doctor’s office she pointed out
glassy eyes in the flat print facing us,
where we thumbed magazines
for shades of lipstick, sex tips, creams
to give our skin a certain youthful glow.

Skin loose on the bones, her hair
a half-gone wisp beneath
the scarf wrapped round
and round like a turban.
At least, I told myself,
my body hasn’t turned on itself,
won’t snuff me out before I’m willing
to lie down and stop kicking.

Dream written down in Wolf Hour

Never a wing’s scales in miniature,
clinging like dust to fingers:
the monarch’s brilliant orange,
a swallowtail’s lapiz blue or butter yellow.

Shells litter the path of uneven walking:
past stuffed owls, trees so rootless,
you could knock them over with a breath of wind.
One snail, grown enormous, stays beside you,
moving along with his muscular foot.


Open it, the bursting door:
elephant’s foot,
shrunken head,
Princess Venus,
Lemon Cockle,
the Lightning Whelk,
the Hawk Wing Conch,
stuffed fox listing the way
an old man might lean when they’ve carved out his organs.

Elephants, they say,
encircle the wounded.
The one injured
by spear or misfired gun.

In the foot’s dead hollow, umbrellas rise
like ugly misspent flowers.
Ugly flowers for the cold
English rain and parasols
to keep your fair skin from turning
the color of a woman who scrubs
yellow stains from the armpits of blouses.
Blouses you wear for tea, for visiting
a god tacked up and wounded.

Telegram to Sleeper

Oh you      who sleep
still sleep
in the room of finite treasure

Instructions for Snail Collectors

On every other Key collectors took a dozen snails
then torched the hammock after them.
The snails more beautiful than jewels
grew rare as emeralds, as secret places.

Remember never to take
more than your fair share. Use
alcohol instead of formalin, which fades
the tree snail’s dark red bands.

Look in hardwood hammocks:
the Pigeon Plum or the Wild Tamarind.
It’s not so hard to find, if you know where
the Liguus nests. Check the blue-flowered
Lignumvitae, the tree so strong that settlers named it
Ironwood and saw their axes turn.


Let your mouth fill with dry wings,
your bed with sharp ends of bone,

a tooth hollowed out
ratlling in the canvas glove you pull on for gardening. Let

your feet find the path of broken shells,
bits of ivory, the fingerbones of Sioux children,

the broken skull of Osceola, stolen for a talisman,
teeth without their gold fillings, bits of skin

flaking from lampshades, the cracked binding of a book
fat with the story of a boy and his dog Jack or Blue.

Oh sweet adventure with pirates and map, a trunk
so stuffed with gold it will blind the one

who cracks it open.


They say the prey of an owl never hears death coming.

in the air behind you
a change less than weather,
a voice not asking: Who?

It’s late today, only
a slant of sun disappearing
into green gone to black in the darkness

Who that voice will never ask.
Late she says, Late, she says, and checks her watch
thinking of a stew she might make for dinner,
whether the milk is too sour for the morning’s porridge.