Saint Peter and the Goldfinch

During my 38 years in the academic world, I was informed several times that I didn’t belong. My first year I was told that if I wanted to remain in academe I had to stop droppin’ the g at the end of –ing words. I replied that I was from a blue collar family who did that, and I wasn’t up for abandonin’ ’em.

Another charge was that I was sentimental. I have never understood the criticism of sentimentality. After all, its roots are a fusion of central parts of our humanity: sentiment and mentality.

I understand phony, false, deceptive feeling. Good heavens, we experience it every day since 45 began roaming the office. But sentimentality? Hmmmm. Are we suffering a fear of tenderness? Fear of feeling? Fear of empathy?

While teaching the composing of a poem, I found it was the cool student, the objective, the stand-offish, the critically thinking student who seldom composed an authentic poem. I dare say many of those who place critical thinking at the pinnacle of learning — and have no discernment as to when to apply it — may be the ones carrying false feeling.

As for me, to this day I tear up when I hear “Feed the Birds” from Mary Poppins. And now that the birds are migrating, I’m filling our feeders several times a day. The gathering of goldfinches puts me right back on that park bench in London with that dear woman who is, “feeding the birds, tuppence a bag.”

This week’s poem is the title poem from a new collection appearing in 2019.

Saint Peter and the Goldfinch

He’d filled the little-roofed feeders with
sunflower and thistle seeds, hooks hanging
sturdy from the birch’s branches twisting

his own arm’s length above the mulch path,
the day’s first light lapsing along the leaves.
Peter knew the neighbors were talking

about the guy in the frayed cassock
who last week moved in with only
a pick-up’s bed of what seemed to be

belongings—a small table, couple
of ladder back chairs, a sound system
that looked vintage, a lot of books,

three futons, a large canvas bag
maybe filled with pans, pots, dishes,
and three lamps, one that likely dangled

tiny stars from its frayed shade.
He had gone out and brought home
an Adirondack and about fifty flower pots,

and the feeders. Now he took his morning
green tea out to the chair to wait for the birds.
This, he felt cross his mind, is what I have

waited for. He sipped. A house finch came.
A couple cardinals, a downy woodpecker.
The chickadees would take a seed, fly

into the branches of the hemlocks surrounding
the house and batter to get to the meat. Time
and time again they returned. Peter tried

to count then wondered why, stopped
and thought about what to plant
in the pots, where he would place them

within the striped grass that made a nest
for the house to sit within. He liked thinking
he had nested. He liked thinking everything

here could be taken away. He had cosmos,
impatiens–no perennials, not until bloom
and loss became a ritual, sacred. There was

a breeze. There was the tea. And then there was
a goldfinch, just one, at the thistle feeder, its startle
of yellow and black seamless within its feathers.

Peter watched as it took the seed, sat above him.
He watched as the bird flew to the feeder, flew back
to the same branch. St. Peter and the goldfinch

here in the day’s beginning. He could not bow his head.
He knew this was time. He knew what the earth knew.

–Jack Ridl

First published in Colorado Review

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