The Sunday Poem: Brian Hendrickson... The Ornithology of Conviction

Teaching in a prison just has to change a person. Here, Brian Hendrickson ruminates, "I used to think I had lived / An incredibly clever life." Well, welcome to the yard. Yet, teaching inside is not the same as living inside and the poet looks for his own kind of meaning.

He also mentions Ted Kooser, whose American Life in Poetry was the actual inspiration for my own weekly column, The Sunday Poem. Kooser, a former insurance adjuster from Lincoln, Nebraska, was U.S. Poet Laureate from 2004-2006.

Brian Hendrickson’s poems are influenced by his career as a teacher as well as the time he’s spent in Florida, Alaska, & North Carolina. His poems have appeared in numerous publications. Recently Brian & his wife moved to Albuquerque where he is working toward his PhD in English. The following poem originally appeared in Pemmican 2010.

The Ornithology of Conviction

This afternoon, the prison yard
Hushed by rain of the house

Sparrows’ chirrups – those earrings
I have worn at my desk by the dogwood-

Shaded window, gone missing. Each morning,
In passing beneath the breezeway rafters,

An explosion of pigeons.
I keep telling my students that

Their fates are not ironic. I walk
The dog in the evening and I listen

To the thrashers flipping dead leaves
Under the wilting azaleas.

I used to think I had lived
An incredibly clever life.

I am a man and it is important
I mean what I say: My students

Are mothers whose children are tucked
Into strange beds by state-

Appointed strangers. So it is very important
To me it is very important.

Luncheons with the warden we are
To bow our heads in the chaplain’s prayer.

Eyes closed, I imagine the red-shouldered hawk
Gigging pigeons in a mid-air tumble of wings

And talons above the perimeter fence,
Or sometimes heaving up out of the aster

And crimson clover a small and broken
Fur-bearing thing.

April: The sparrows, the chickadees, and now
The starlings have come to the annuals

The women have planted in beds
Along the sidewalks, and they pass by

In their monochromatic blue dresses,
Saying, See the beauty God has given us?

And they do not think that a part of them
Explodes toward the sky with the pigeons –

That a part of that part is barreled down,
Neck broken, by the red-shouldered hawk’s

Immutable claws. I do not mean
A house sparrow to be anything but

A house sparrow – although recounting one
Is both a willful act of concentration

And, out from the cobwebbed breezeway
Rafters of the brain, an unpredictable

Unfurling of wings.
Class cancelled, I read

The latest Kooser. Hicok.
I will not share with my students,

But it matters. To the women,
The annuals matter.

The annuals matter to the guards
And to the birds.

And to the women planting them,
The dirt beneath their fingernails

Matters. The first lesson: Everything
Matters. I tell them. They tell me.

Birdless, this afternoon is a gift
Wrapped tightly in rain.

--Brian Hendrickson

Submissions to The Sunday Poem are always welcome. Email

Views: 179

Comment by Margaret Randall on September 26, 2010 at 8:12am
I love this poem, Brian, and welcome to the Albuquerque poetry scene, so brilliantly enhanced by the Ditchrider's Sunday morning offering. You capture teaching in prisons movingly. Some of my best poetry experiences have been teaching in prisons--in Havana, Cuba and in Pennsylvania. Prisoners have a lot to teach us. And prison poetry has its own deep level of truth.
Comment by Dee Cohen on September 26, 2010 at 9:24am
I love the comparison of the prison women to the birds; both have the possibility and impossibility of transcendence.
Yes, the annuals matter. Yes, the women matter. Yes, poetry matters too.
Welcome to ABQ from another new resident. Dee
Comment by Don McIver on September 26, 2010 at 9:49am
Nice poem Brian. I like that you work the imagery of the birds, the flowers, the sound of the language in your very precise naming. When reading, I can't help but think of the Angelou's, "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" and feel like you are playing with that phrase all through the poem.
Comment by AriesSweet on September 26, 2010 at 10:43am
This is great. I love the way it flows.. I am an amateur poet and always am reading poetry for guidance and more inspiration. I hope one day to share some of my poetry with others, but for now, I am still trying to discover in my writing what I think is good. THIS, is good!!!
Comment by bg on September 26, 2010 at 10:58am
Birds fly and eat in the rain, I've been noticing.
Flocking to books, like sunflowers
And Sunday poets.
Comment by Barelas Babe on September 26, 2010 at 11:26am
I love the juxtaposition of the women prisoners with the birds. You capture the simple rhythms of life and the seasons beautifully here - I could feel the grit under my fingernails and hear the birds singing as I read your words. Welcome to Albuquerque!
Comment by Brian Hendrickson on September 26, 2010 at 8:41pm
Thanks, all, for the kind words and the warm welcome.
Comment by Merimee Moffitt on September 27, 2010 at 3:59am
I am impressed by the tenderness-- Teaching is a nurturing act. Makes me wonder about hawks and pigeons--do they have teachers among them too? Are we so special among mammals--is having teachers a significant demarcation similar to using tools? I bet all that singing and screaming animals do at each other has some teacher stuff in it-- I'm babbling, but I love the poem. so tender and respectful of the women and their flowers.
Comment by Richard V on October 26, 2010 at 9:43am
welcome to the sunday poets club. an impressive poem. some of brian's work will be included in the winter issue of The Mas Tequila Review.


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