Poetry Sunday: “Patois,” by Lisa Allen Ortiz


When she spoke, birds came out her mouth,
every word a different species. Thus the civic sorrow
of mass extinction became for her a personal affront—
her vocabulary contracted by 200 feathered words a day.

Her dictionary: A Guide to Birds—glossy plates, antique precision,
aquatints of wings and eyes—all of it so out of date. By then we typed.
In the end, she uttered a few remaining jays and doves.
She stuttered strings of starlings. She cawed a garbage bird

or two, then grew quiet as a tree, sighed a final pair of nesting finches.
She died, her mouth ajar and nestless. We texted our regrets.
We pen-scratched bits on paper and threw them toward her grave.
The air was empty, the grass and branches cheerless ash.

We felt sorry then. We wanted at least a flock of chimney swifts
to empty out her skull, rise mute and furious toward the moon.


From Guide to the Exhibit (Perugia Press 2016). Reprinted with author’s permission.


Lisa Allen Ortiz (translator) is the author of Guide to the Exhibit, winner of the 2016 Perugia Press Prize, which can be ordered here. You can read more about her work at: www.lisaallenortiz.com. Author photo credit: Chloe Ortiz.

Blanca Varela (1926-2009) is a beloved Peruvian poet whose nine books of poetry have received many awards for Latin American literature including the Octavio Paz prize, the Granada Federico García Lorca prize, and the Queen Sophia Prize for Iberoamerican Poetry.


Poet’s Note

As I was drafting this poem, our community was losing a friend, the poet Tilly Shaw. I was so upset by her death, even though her attitude was one of courage and acceptance and kindness.  She died during a heat wave, and heat waves upset me because I am so despondent about climate change and environmental degradation, and the loss of Tilly in the middle of the heat was so terrifying to me. I felt helpless and angry but also buoyed and inspired by Tilly’s courage.  So, the poem became an elegy, for what has been lost and what will be lost.

I might say something here about birds too.  I have a lot of birders in my life.  I joke that I am a birder-er because I love birders the way birders love birds. My dad is a wonderful naturalist and bird artist. My best friend is a neurotic birder. (And I mean neurotic affectionately.)  Anyway, birders are a little bit like writers, I think. They study the world and look for patterns and species. They write in little notebooks. They get up early and wander around. It also happens that bird rhymes with word, and the way poems are made of words, perhaps what’s beautiful and temporal about the world is made of birds. So it happens that this poem is also a bit of an ars poetica. Because she is speaking birds, and when we lose her, her words of birds are gone too.

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