The Weight of Witness

Unloading groceries in the drive,
you see only the swooping shadow, like a momentary dream,
feel yourself crouch before fully registering why,
snap your head left just in time to see its tail,
splayed wide and striped brown—lovely!—as it enters
the narrow black cave at the base of your neighbor’s juniper.

You hesitate. Question. Turn back
to your task before, unmistakable now,
seeing a fleeting sparrow’s escape:


The bush, green against the mostly drab
late-winter landscape, is perfectly still.
You hear nothing, sparrow gone. Turn again
to your task.

Canvas bag over one shoulder, two more in each hand,
you wonder what the hawk saw, why he swooped so low:
chipmunk, vole. Why the sparrow?

You scan the neighbor’s bare-branched tree
for the nest that’s been there for years, housing the birds
that destroyed your window screens,
chirping and darting endlessly, endlessly,
back and forth: your windows, the neighbor’s tree,
through hundreds of poems written
at the dining room table. It’s gone now,
the nest. The still-naked tree seems, somehow,
swept clean.

Halfway to your door, you remember the wind.
Last night’s howl. The scratch of branches at your window,
the crack that might have been another tree falling.
This morning, circling the yard, you found no damage.
But now, catching movement
from the corner of your eye, you see that silent, sneaky hawk,
wings wide, tail still splayed, sweep across your neighbor’s lawn,
his neighbor’s lawn, the sidewalk, the silver-gray street,
and—rising just enough to clear a fence—

You think how close you’d come
to never seeing it at all,
wonder at the weight of witness,
children starving a world away, parents shot
while waiting for food: flour, canned goods. Rations.
You shift the weight in your own arms, wonder what happened
to that quickly darting, terrified sparrow.
You stand awhile, not knowing what to do.

Paula J. Lambert’s work has been recognized by PEN America and supported by the Ohio Arts Council, the Greater Columbus Arts Council, and the Virginia Center for Creative Arts. She lives in Columbus with her husband Michael Perkins, a philosopher and technologist. More at Paula J. Lambert is an award-winning poet from Columbus, Ohio. Her most recent collection is The Ghost of Every Feathered Thing (FutureCycle 2022). Read other articles by Paula J..