listen ill tell ya about th chicken wing
what is see     say
yuv found ths chickn wing in th street
yu pick it up start playn with it
yur showin off fr yr frends
thrown it aroun walkin fancy swing it like a cane
fly wthit jump upanddown eat it beat it
wile thsis goin on yr frends
ar gettn in th car     ther goin away
yuv cum out to say gud by rite?
an yuv found ths chikn wng
wich binow is limp an grey
an as yu stand ther wavn gudby wth the chikn wing
(standn alon in th street wavn gudby wth the chikn wing)
yu kno wat it is
th bone u th chikn wng mvs loos wthin th skin now
fat an muscl hang whn yu shake it
its like yuv stopd on citystreetcornr
tu stand ther in th roar you kno sumthngs goin on
yu see th sky yu feel muvment wthin ya like th wing  chiknwng
© 2014, Riley Tench

Unless you were among the loosely connected — often divided — little community known 20 years ago as “The Peterborough Poets,” most likely you’ve never heard of ”wing 2” by Riley Tench. But every time I read it, I can feel the excitement of its first performance when Riley “found” the discarded chicken wing in the street, when he leaned back on his left foot, his right leg extended like Chaplin while he mimed himself with the twirling wing, “walkin fancy swing it like a cane.” I can still see the wan look of a man pretending, or perhaps remembering, how it was to look down the road long after his friends have departed and the joke is over. It seemed to me then that Riley’s performance of the poem actually got to the point where it peeled aside the urban skin and actually looked at that “muvment,” that “sumthng” that’s always “goin on” to which our words seem only able to point and never name.

When I got to the words on the page, I had the poem in my ear spelled and punctuated in the familiar Essay English of my education. With the exception of my daughter’s infant speech, I’ve never been a writer for whom the spelling of the word itself is a field of experiment. But it’s only a narrow (and yet prevalent) view of appreciation that says one can only enjoy something of the same kind as one’s own work. Rather, like all poems you should love, this one, in its very difference from my work, has only taught me more over time about poetry as a whole.

Content is first. I don’t just mean that in the philosophical sense that if form is an extension of content, the content must be logically prior to form, but in the practical artistic sense that content inspires form. Only certain contents make certain forms possible; every change of form is the expression of a new content also.

The central image of this poem starts as one of civilization’s waste products; it becomes the material for play, then for art, then for vision. A chicken wing is resurrected from the gutter — brought alive again — only to pull the body of its savior back down to the grave. And yet the man, through the wing, glimpses the unnamable both outside and inside himself. Look at the line by line changes in the words “chicken wing”:

1. chicken wing
3. chickn wing
11. chickn wng
13. chikn wing
14. chikn wing
16. chikn wng
20. chiknwng

From lines 1 to 11, the chicken wing decays in language, the way it’s rotting in life, the soft tissue of vowels vanishing. But suddenly, at line 13, when human memory recalls the object, the vowel returns, life resuscitated by art (though not fully; art immortalizes but it cannot give life). Then the wing decays again until the difference between its parts, between it and the rest of the world — the space between “chicken” and “wing” collapses. All of this is happening in the context of the phonetic spelling the poem inherits from cummings to bissett to nichol. That spelling ”system” reminds us of the newness of words. Yet this poem doesn’t just spell the old word in one new way. It spells the word in such a way that the spelling recapitulates the object’s discovery, decay, revitalization by art and the decay again which takes the artist with it. The form of the word recapitulates the content of the poem itself, makes both world and the eyes with which I view it new again.

This is a poem that doesn’t just see the universe in a grain of sand I ignore; it sees it in what repulses me. Not only that, in making the content of the poem teach me how to read its form, it refreshes a spelling device that I had become used to. And thus the poem also renews my wonder at words, the instruments of poetic insight. It’s a truism that all real poetry explores the world and the word at once. It’s one thing to know that, another to feel it, to have a poem that I can always go to to find that feeling again.

The Daily

Let us romanticize shit. Yesterday’s dinner, diaper curled away from
pelvis like petals of a tiger lily, examined shit, yes, today
everything is working thank you. Speaking from the gut, we are
successful parents; let us say the new diaper is a fresh page. It will
hold the questions posed by a magnificent poem, say the whole half-
truth of literature itself—surely the analogy is at hand, though it
comes far removed from the body worshipped by the brooding
bachelors of Academy and Romance. But consider how a good firm
shit is a sign this past resembled the past before it, the future will be
good, the gods smiled and we loved well when sent the invitation
of a fertile egg. So far our daughter has nothing to regret which is
why we mourn every stage that brings her closer to us; at the same
time we mark up one more without trauma (so we say), her
inimitable smell seizing consciousness through the nose and writing
in big letters on the brain, You must change your kid.
© 2014, Richard Harrison
reprinted from the New Quarterly, 1999.