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Weekly Poem: ‘The Virtues of Birds’

By Craig Morgan Teicher

Two birds came upon a crust of bread lying on the path through the woods.

“Please, after you,” said the first bird.

“No, you saw the crust before I did, you eat first,” replied the second.

“No I didn’t. I was distracted for a moment by a beautiful song. I thought it was a she-bird singing. I thought she might be calling me. But I could not see her among the trees. Then I saw you leaning over this crust of bread. So in fact you must have seen it first.”

“I too heard singing, but I thought it came from over there, by the stream. I was about to walk that way when I noticed you on the path, guarding the crust.”

“No, I was never guarding it. As soon as I saw you with the crust, I thought, ‘there is plenty here for two birds — we shall both have a feast, if only you will not keep all for yourself.’”

“How could you think I would eat it all? I am only one bird, with room in my stomach for only half a crust of bread. When I saw you with your crust, I hoped you would feel the same way.”

The sun was starting to set. The woods began to darken. The birds could hear a frightful clamor rising in the distance – grunting and shuffling in the leaves.

“Please,” said the first bird, who sensed the darkness welling around him, “eat now — we haven’t much time.”

“Yes, it is growing dark,” said the second bird, who remembered what he had been told about the woods, “but I would be impolite if I ate first, and politeness is foremost among the virtues of birds.”

“Certainly it is,” rejoined the first. “A bird hates to clutter a path on which someone is walking, so he skips away. But, for a bird, perhaps a caution is a greater virtue. How do I know the crust is not laced with some poison to which you were a party. How can I be sure that you do not wish me dead so you can scavenge my nest for sticks?”

“Persistence is also a virtue of birds,” replied the second coarsely. “How do I know that you do not hope to scare me off with your theories of poison and have the whole crust for yourself? And how do I know that you have not struck a bargain with a wolf or some other desperate animal. He may be waiting behind that rock right now, ready to swallow me whole.”

“Go see for yourself. No wolf waits there,” said the first bird.

“Ha! And leave you to make off with the unprotected crust! I think not,” said the second.

By now it had grown terribly dark, and the creatures who haunt the woods were awake. The clamor closed in like a gloved hand slowly tightening its fingers.


Craig Morgan Teicher is a poet, critic and freelance writer. His first book of poems, “Brenda Is in the Room and Other Poems,” won the 2007 Colorado Prize for Poetry and was published by the Center for Literary Publishing. His collection of short stories and fables, “Cradle Book,” was published in 2010 by BOA Editions. Teicher is senior web editor and poetry editor of Publishers Weekly and teaches at the New School and Columbia University.

The video above was filmed at AWP’s 2011 Conference & Bookfair in Washington, D.C. Special thanks to the Association of Writers & Writing Programs.

Camera and audio work by the NewsHour’s Crispin Lopez and Kiran Moodley.

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