The Length of Never

by Steve Meador
SplashHall Poetry
First Place, June 2008
Judged by Patricia Smith

How did the meadowlarks in Wichita
remain invisible for over two years?
Virgil showed up in the fourth grade
with five baby rabbits crammed into
a tan briefcase. Two died before lunch
recess, one squashed at playground’s
edge when it took a wrong turn–Kevin
stepped on it–and two dissolved into
the wheat field from which they were
plucked in the first place. Nature seemed
bountiful that May. The walk home tripled
in length with another relentless search
for a yellow breast with the black V.
Disappointment quadrupled by suppertime.
We toured a grain elevator the next day.
I watched the wheat-dotted blacktop
fill with sparrows as my voice spilled
a current of nevers on the man with
the face like a dry riverbed. His voice
was smoke and gravel, “Never means
something will not happen forever.
You should not say that.”

Out of the sun dropped a place named
Vietnam, then we moved to Ohio,
land of cardinals. Red spots dotted
the trees and bushes. Shrewd crows
attacked row after row of my uncle’s corn.
Straw men were useless. Killdeers faked
broken wings, lured us into hope
and away from their nests. Groundhogs
burrowed under tillable soil, escaping
from one hole as we dug at another. Still,
the sparrows were everywhere. We shot
them with BB guns, for a man hidden
underneath a John Deere cap. He hated
hordes, demanded that we line bodies up
for the count. As dust and slivers of husks
floated on his coffee he paid us for the
deaths, talked about the war and how
we would never lose. My voice was oak
and mint. “Never means something
will not happen forever. You should
not say that.”

I was in Colorado recently and saw one,
a meadowlark. I know now of intentions
and accidents, of dark skies and unstable
ground, of red spots and guns, of dropped
grain that doesn’t matter, of wars and when
to dump coffee. I know now that never
is a million sparrows later.

he first two lines of this riveting slice of narrative set up a dark and engaging mystery--and each tight stanza is like an unfurling slice of cinema--mesmerizing and crammed with color and heat. I loved the tale, and I loved the vivid search for an answer to the riddle. --Patricia Smith