Polar, antipodean, the father King
penguin would (if penguins did) think of us
as bodies hanging downside up, footsoles
adhering to the planet’s inhospitable
Pinfeathers glossy-smooth as ermine, the lower
part of his dinner suit can incubate
an oval solid, resting on black talons—
one blood-warm venture left to him in trust
the morning mother brooders metronomed
off on their way to ice brinks overland.
Instinct and hunger pushed them, plunged their flock
into resounding tanks of turquoise brine
to gulp a cache of fish for transport home.
The orange tint suffusing his broad chest
outglows this July afternoon’s decline
below horizons an ice age froze and locked
in place. To either side, cold high-rise silences
take the austral light, washes of blush rosing
a continent’s sheer quartzite crags and spars
as dusk’s slow indigo engulfs the valley.
He lifts and flaps his baffles
to test whiffling accelerations in the air.
Hardened, compliant, still, he’ll crane his head
and look: it’s bearing down, an ambush of white
artillery, whiplash bulletins forewarning
close-huddled bodies of the siege to come.
Birds at the margin get the brunt of it,
including one we’ve watched, who leans towards
the flock’s pulsating hub, his back abraded
by icy needles. One who’d elbow a path
between, among, a thousand cousins
if hindered limbs could manage
an exclusion so determined,
the blast unfavorable.
He stands and stays, giving what heat he has
to his small charge, its shell as hard as marble.
Morning’s still aftermath. Tilted dolmen
off to himself in a drift. Encased in crystal…
And she, homing in, will find that cold pillar,
not the mate who trilled a guttural
patter-song when he courted.
Dismal to see them down there in their blank
contra-hemisphere, small, black-and-white
emblems for team spirit, pins attached
to a globe not brooded over half enough.
No beaklet to peep and pipe for food, cushioned
body skittering across the summer ice….
Human nature: it likes sad narratives.
But currents charged beyond the natural
might conceivably thaw out a captive.
This antithetical perspective, bottom
to top, allows for an alternative,
the shell’s reticulations opening
on limbs snug warm in down, while seed-bead eyes
appraise new sky and snow, a twin sunrise
simmering on the ice-milk breast of giants
confirmed as shelter when their call tunes up.
Alfred Corn has published nine books of poetry, a novel, and two collections of critical essays, the most recent titled Atlas: Selected Essays, 1989-2007, published last year by the University of Michigan Press. He has received a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and a Fellowship from the Academy of American Poets. He spends part of every year in London.