Asylum, by Athena Kildegaard

Between the highway
and the Minnesota River
herons built a rookery
in cottonwoods,
a slough on either side.

Half a century ago
men from the state hospital—
the mad ones, but gentle—
built their shacks
of corrugated and rusting sheets,
warped boards allocated by the superintendent,
washed up styrofoam, cracked shingles, mud.
They kept their distance
from one another.
No electricity, no running water,
nothing but the solitude
of days on days in murky light,
the tang of wild grapes,
of their private pleasures.

The herons—several dozen pairs—
put their slapdash nests
in only a few trees
so close together the young
eyeball one another
to see who will fly first.

The lunatics sometimes
wandered singly into town
along the shoulder,
their bodies covered in gray and brown,
the draft of trucks
lifting their hems and cuffs.
And then back with matches
and kerosene and jars of jam
and girlie calendars.

Then the rules changed.
The last man from the river
died soon after, an exile.

The heron fledglings dropped
from the nests and flew. That
was that. The last adult
lifted her yellow legs, her yellow feet,
the branch swayed a little,
swayed lithe and green
and then returned
to its state of rest.

 

Published in Cider Press Review, Volume 14, Issue 1.

Athena Kildegaard is the author of four books of poems and a fifth is forthcoming from Tinderbox Editions in March 2018. Her poems have been set to song, read by Garrison Keillor, nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and stamped into pottery. She lives and teaches in Morris, MN.

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