James Reaney’s The Chough

The Chough

The chough, said a dictionary,
Is a relation of the raven
And a relative of the crow.
It’s nearly extinct,
But lingers yet
In the forests about Oporto.
So read I as a little child
And saw a young Chough in its nest,
Its very yellow beak already tasting
The delicious eyes
Of missionaries and dead soldiers;
Its wicked mind already thinking
Of how it would line its frowsy nest
With the gold fillings of dead men’s teeth.
When I grew older I learned
That the chough, the raven and the crow
That rise like a key signature of black sharps
In the staves and music of a scarlet sunset
Are not to be feared so much
As that carrion bird, within the brain,
Whose name is Devouring Years,
Who gobbles up and rends
All odds and ends
Of memory, good thoughts and recollections
That one has stored up between one’s ears
And whose feet come out round either eye.

James Reaney, 1949

The Yellow-billed or Alpine Chough and the Red-billed Chough of the Corvidae family. Illustration by Johann Friedrich Naumann (1780–1857) courtesy Wikipedia.

“The Chough” is from James Reaney’s first book of poems The Red Heart (1949), and it also appears in The Essential James Reaney (2009), available from The Porcupine’s Quill.