In Deep

Rennie McQuilkin

In his newest book, Rennie McQuilkin describes visitations natural and unnatural, demonic and angelic—visitations from ghosts and scantily clad angels; from bears of all sorts, human, celestial, and ursine; from a cast ranging from the Queen of Sheba to the Primum Mobile, from “darning needles” fit to stitch up a small boy’s mouth to barefoot prophets and resurrected turtles. Though the poet presents plenty of reasons to mourn, he does not, nor do the characters he portrays.
Cover art - Visitations
Cover photo by the author
Rather, they dance like Shadrach in the midst of the fiery furnace; they resist the siren call of oblivion; they celebrate “this day, this very day.” In the end, the book is a revel in the midst of the storm, a song of hope lost and found, a love song.

Rennie McQuilkin’s work has appeared in The Atlantic, Poetry, The Southern Review, The Yale Review, The Hudson Review, The American Scholar, and elsewhere. This is his eleventh poetry collection. McQuilkin has received numerous awards for his work, including fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the State of Connecticut. For many years he directed the Sunken Garden Poetry Festival, which he co-founded at Hill-Stead Museum in Farmington, CT. In 2003 he received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Connecticut Center for the Book; and in 2010 his volume of new and selected poems, The Weathering, was awarded the Center's annual poetry prize. With his wife, the artist Sarah McQuilkin, he lives in Simsbury, Connecticut, where he is the local poet laureate.

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ISBN 978-1-936482-40-5

Copyright © 2013 by Rennie McQuilkin

6" x 9" paperback, 120 pages



"The woodcock, in essence, has an upside-down brain."
– NY Dept. of Environmental Conservation

It’s that rare Good Friday when the moon’s come full circle,
as utter as I’ve ever seen it, and the night
warm enough for Hyla and Wood Frogs and humming toads
going at it with hope springing, and the Dog Star
strobing green, blue, red, yellow, and low in the west Venus
huger than usual, Jupiter not bad either, just below her.

Here I am, between a bog and a moon-blue field,
wanting you with me to say what I hear is what I hear:
something in the alders like a cut-off kazoo’s beeent, beeent,
then a pause, a moon-struck galaxing of wing shine
high in the constellated sky, and a round of excited chirrups
before the bird spirals quickly down with a whirring wing-warble

to ground—then more beeeeeent beeeeeeent beeeeeeeent...
I think my brain's on upside down from staring up so long.
If such sounds come to me in my problematic state
and no one else to hear, does this bird-thou-never-wertness
exist at all? Or I? In theory I know what it is, who I am,
but doubt my theory. Now a stirring in the alders near the place
he landed. She was watching, apparently approves, wants more,

for he does it again. He is, therefore I am? We'll see.
We’re in this together, the woodcock, you and I.
Beeeeeent beeeeeeent. RSVP.


I too dislike the rasping, redundant repetition
of the nuthatch’s upside-down call,
but this—
its mortal mandala at the base of the feeder

where the Sharpshin hit home: a flurry of down
and lesser feathers, and arranged centrifugally,
primaries plucked off one by one from
the dumb throbbing thing before its ascension.

Now chickadees, titmice, finches come
and go at the feeder as if they don’t—but they
do—know what’s up. What courage it takes
to stay alive.


They can twitch the bushy brag of their tails all they want;
they are still rats. Grey, red, and black rats. They think
the birdseed belongs to them. But they do have their ways:

go high-wiring along the clothesline holding the feeder,
and better, after some contemplation, bite the line in half,
bring down the seed.

All right, let’s raise the bar. I set the feeder on a pole,
grease it, baffle it, wait for them to find a way, and think
of you, mother—how while you were waiting to die

you kept an eye on your seed to see how squirrels swayed
the lilac next to it for momentum, then leapt to the feeder.
How you laughed, preparing for your own crossing over.


I’ve been anxious all morning,
have come outside to sit by the fall flowers,
shaggy orange and pink and yellow zinnias
grown tall for the occasion
beside the rough-hewn slats of a barn-red barn.
The morning is warming after a touch of frost.
The zinnias have made it through

and have a caller—
orange-red, black-veined wings
rimmed with white dots and yellow oblongs.
The wings go from flower head to
head, landing, shutting, opening slowly,
then folding together like hands palm to palm
for the long deep drawing in,
and rising for delighted swags of dizzy flight
up and down the length of the barn
before lighting on another zinnia.

Perhaps this Monarch has no bad dreams,
perhaps every shag of zinnia,
every beam of light and shade, every slice of sky
is a close relation, every zig sensational,
a rehearsal for riding to a height
from which to glide to the next updraft,
all the way to some Mexico ingrained
in the body’s half gram of memory.

I drink it all in,
storing up for the long trip to come.


I prefer Bernini’s clay mockups
to his finished marbles and bronzes,
his finger prints lively on their skin—

not the angels he covered with drapery
and posed along the Ponte Sant’Angelo
for the Pope to bless,

but clay angels in their native state
composed of the stuff of durable earth
like this muscular one in the raw,

legs and torso torqued as if to hurl
his discus, though it is in fact the Crown
of Thorns he has in hand,

wild from Calvary. And such wings!
Not the wings of heavenly choir boys
or the melting pasted-ons of Icarus,

but wings that surged a moment ago
beneath the Cross
from the blades of such furious shoulders.


Still here, I watch—from far off—my diminished
stick figure, the world around it immense as a winter
landscape by Li Ch’eng: wild water, jagged peaks

in which one can barely discern a tiny man
stooped under his load of sticks, his colors merging
with the muted browns and ice-blues of woods and river,

threading his way as I thread mine, bent low by
the logs of maple and locust I carry up a slick path
to the woodstove fending off the elements,

my pale blue parka and white face not fading entirely
into shades of blue-white snow—slight calligraph for
Here, still here!


for K.C.

You rode hell-bent downhill on a Schwinn
at twelve, one knee balancing on the saddle,
one leg straight back—a circus bird
raucous as a jay, hands light on the bars,
considering release.

Back home you were stopped by Life,
July 28, 1941—a girl your age,
mouth and eyes taut, home smoldering
behind her from a Blitzkrieg bomb.
Your eyes stung from the smoke, still do

seventy years later, so much more
of the same having hit home,
in spite—no, because of which
you sit at your upright, hands still light
and joyful on the bars, repeating the notes

of a warbler in its spruce.
The bird answers you, you answer the bird.


Lying alone in the straight and narrow bed
of old age, I work my way down the crooked hall
of memory—to where it was I went those early mornings,
trailing behind me the tattered cloudbank of my blanket

to the room Father had not yet expelled me from,
the room with the double bed and rose-red comforter
I slid under, as close to Mother as possible, molding myself
to the seed-curl of her back and shoulder, the sweet tang

of her, slowing my breathing to match her own
with long, delicious inspirations
until first light lit the cream of her neck and cheek
and day broke in

with the rustle of pheasants in the pine,
fee-bee-ing of chickadees, phew-phew-phewing of cardinals,
swish of washing and brushing from
the street-cleaning truck,

and finally the high-pitched bellsound of bottles
placed in their metal basket by the Nakoma Dairy man.
And Father would groan and Mother would turn to hold
me against the soft of her

and beyond the veil of her hair the light would grow and
she would take me by the hand along the dark crooked hall
to the back stairs, down to the bright kitchen,
and let me bring in the milk.

I’d uncrinkle the stiff paper cap of a narrow-necked bottle
and lift the tab beneath,
pull it from the mouth, love the liquid labor
and pop of its release,

and lick the cream from its underside, the thick sweet cream,
a memory I knew—but not of what.

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