The Whisper of Doctor Bird Wings: Poems

February 2013


Needles of coconut husk
shoot from the kaya mattress
through the well-worn sheets
to sting Reginald’s little-boy body
like thirsty mosquitoes
each time he wriggles in bed.

He tries to stay still under the warm blanket,
but awakened by their father’s beating
of his boots
against the side
of the small wooden house,
his sisters twist and turn, and turn and twist
in bed beside him, murmuring little-girl sounds,
while Reginald rises to make himself a man.

He trails behind his pa through the morning fog
and searches by the sparse light of his father’s lantern
and the blue Jamaican moonlight
for his father’s footprints,
but instead stumbles on cold chips of marl that crunch like ice
under the soles of his small bare feet.
His pa looks back: “Come on, Reginald, make haste bwoy; morning soon light and the cow them need to move.”

The rope scorches as he strains
to pull
the vexed calf
out of its dreams of sunshine and sweet grass.
Reginald recites his father’s favorite curses under his breath
as he marches the calf through the grass
over the yellow yam, cocoa, and dasheen
swelling in the soil under his feet.


The Journey

Crocus bags laden with banana and yam
rumble with excitement
as the truck heaves its way up Mount Diablo
past a giant Poinciana tree, blossoms on fire.

Reginald grips his bag and smiles,
imagining Kingston’s salty smells
as he curls his bare toes, imagining boots bigger even than his father’s
that beat him awake each morning.



“Nice job, bwoy, that leg look good. Just need to sand down likkle more.”

Reginald turns and twists,
twists and turns the wood in his hands.
and imagines his father
smiling from his eyes.

“Gwaan take your lunch now, but make haste.
We have to finish up this order by weekend.”

Kingston does indeed smell like salt,
sweaty black bodies loaded into tram cars
blur Reginald’s memories
of thirsty mosquitoes and sleepy cows.
But today he isn’t worried
that he can’t remember how to tell if a piece of St. Lucy yam is fit
or how to hang a bottle on a naseberry tree to keep thieves at bay.

A crowd is in Mr. Ling-Sam’s,
buzzing like fruit flies on the sweet rot of oranges.
A high color man in long pants and shoes
preaches of a place that sounds like paradise.
Reginald buys his coco bread and milk
(no patty except on Friday—payday)
and with a hoard of other bare feet shuffles closer.
“You may think that what you making now is money,
but none of you can even buy a jacket pickney1 with one week’s pay . . .”

Reginald  imagines himself in this farm work program,
with his first pair of long pants,
fabric coasting down his legs
like thick green sheaves of banana leaves.

Back at the woodwork shop he sands the table legs
so smooth they almost glisten
like the blue Jamaican moonlight,
but all he can feel is the scorch of that calf’s rope
and the coco bread melting away in his belly.



Michigan’s crisp autumn turns Reginald’s skin to ash—
a cracked, dry replacement for the skin left at home,
hidden in the folds of a young banana shoot.

No seats for the black herd of men
packed erect on the truck’s bed,
heading for Evergreen Nursery.

The men rub against each other, making cricket melodies,
then brakes groan, and the mass of bodies is thrust forward,
hands grasping for the icy metal rails.

The white driver loosens the latch on the truck’s door,
mumbling about his sons and nephews fighting Hitler
while island boys take their jobs.

 Today Reginald will harvest the last of the baby petunias
that hug tight to the soil, not quite ready for release from the earth
and banishment to the huge hot houses to save them from the winter chill.

He pulls at one that shines in deep shades of summer orange,
and as he eases it from the soil, tiny roots tear,
weeping milk across his arm.

Next week, he heads to Belle Glade,
his seventh American winter with
no fruitcake, no sorrel, no Christmas bread.
No jonkanoo dancers floating through the city,
clanging and banging to frighten in the Christmas morning.
Just sunshine with stalks and stalks of sugar cane,
the sweet grass waving at him in a slight Florida breeze.



1962, and the sweet aroma of independence is floating across Jamaica.
A national bird, a national flower, a flag.

In flight with doctor birds in a storm of lignum vitae petals,
people jam down Kingston streets
to the infant sounds of the Skatalites, Toots and the Maytals, and Bob,
wailing in the island’s womb.

Midnight, August 6th,
the Union Jack is swallowed whole
by the roaring sounds of blackness,
and the navy sky over the island explodes
in technicolored bursts of flame.

In the glow of his “Home Sweet Home” kerosene lamp,
Reginald slows a moment from his labor
to glance at the blazing sky.

Newly laid tiles buried under sawdust surround him in the empty house,
like a giant yam mound waiting to be uncovered.
“Just another week or so . . . ,” he can tell his wife, “if those good-for-nothing workmen not too drunk to shuffle in the next day, barefooted and dizzy with excitement.”
The new national anthem drifts in from the nextdoor neighbor’s radio.

 He packs up his tools to leave for the night
and checks the windows of his new house,
sawdust crunching under his feet
like Michigan snow.
A burst of color flashes through the window of the baby’s room,
and he smiles from his eyes as he thinks
how she will sleep to the whisper
of doctor bird wings against her window
and not the boom of father boots against her house.


Andrea Shaw is assistant director of the Division of Humanities and an associate professor of English at Nova Southeastern University in Ft. Lauderdale. She is a creative writer and a scholar of Caribbean and African Diaspora studies and author of The Embodiment of Disobedience: Fat Black Women's Unruly Political Bodies. Her writing has been published in numerous journals, including Anthurium, World Literature Today, Small Axe, MaComére, The Caribbean Writer, Crab Orchard Review, Feminist Media Studies, and Social Semiotics. She has a Ph.D. in English from the University of Miami and an M.F.A in creative writing from Florida International University. She is the associate managing editor of sx salon: a small axe literary platform


1 a waistcoat


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