Karl Shapiro

The Dirty Word

The dirty word hops in the cage of the mind like the Pondi-
cherry vulture, stomping with its heavy left claw on the sweet 
meat of the brain and tearing it with its vicious beak, ripping 
and chopping the flesh. Terrified, the small boy bears the big 
bird of the dirty word into the house, and, grunting puffing, 
carries it up the stairs to his own room in the skull. Bits of 
black feather cling to his clothes and his hair as he locks the 
staring creature in the dark closet.
    All day the small boy returns to the closet to examine and 
feed the bird, to caress and kick the bird, that now snaps and 
flaps its wings savagely whenever the door is opened. How 
the boy trembles and delights at the sight of the white excre-
ment of the bird! How the bird leaps and rushes against the 
walls of the skull, trying to escape from the zoo of the vocabu-
lary! How wildly snaps the sweet meat of the brain in its rage.
    And the bird outlives the man, being freed at the man’s 
death-funeral by a word from the Rabbi.
    But I one morning went upstairs and opened the door and 
entered the closet and found in the cage of my mind the great 
bird dead. Softly I wept it and softly removed it and softly 
buried the body of the bird in the hollyhock garden of the 
house I lived in twenty years before. And out of the worn 
black feathers of the wing have I made pens to write these 
elegies, for I have outlived the bird, and I have murdered it in 
my early manhood.