The Modern Hen
1. Celia Opens the Box
“In 1923 … Celia Steele initiated the modern poultry
industry and the global creep of factory farming.”
—Jonathan Safran Foer
Even as a child, I hungered
for them, fox in the henhouse
my mother said. & a whole lot
worse. When I opened the box
to 500 straw-padded eggs instead
of the 50 I’d ordered, I wasn’t
thinking waste not, want not
or of a chicken in every pot.
I was thinking how I’d grown.
Thinking: of life, & how
can anyone argue with that?
The yolk’s yellow chalk afloat
in its wet ether. A world unto
itself – the only thing on
which my mother & I ever
agreed. I don’t blame her.
I was the one who palmed
the family’s last egg & peeled
its shell free: a flurry of white
to be buried in the dirt
out back like bones. I couldn’t
confess, even when she’d
looped & hung the dishtowel
like a noose, the stool
wobbling beneath my feet.
When I saw those 500 neat-
packed eggs on my doorstep, it
was her sour milk cloth I felt
beneath my chin. The same
bald want. I saw no harm
in it, in desiring that ochre sun’s
crumble upon the tongue.
Chicken of Tomorrow
“In 1946, the poultry industry launched a ‘Chicken of
Tomorrow’ contest to create a bird that could produce
more breast meat with less feed.” —Jonathan Safran Foer
I thought I knew about cages, about the boxes
we are born to, a row of eggs nestled in its crate.
I thought I knew about the cruelty of men.
I knew a lot of things: the clipped mouth, the feet
bound, “the dark night of the soul.” A life
doled out, grain by grain. Woman’s flesh-bound
bones mere meat to be consumed, silicone
breasts plumped until the frame folds beneath
her peony-heavy blooms. I thought I knew
what suffering was: a sun-cured body, powdered
feather-bronze. I never thought men could mean
me, never imagined lives of literal night.
I thought I knew cages, knew boxes. Thought
man could invent nothing worse than what I knew.
for Wilbert Collins, Golden Meadow, LA
I raise my camera, spinning
its iris. Focus shuttered & caught.
Not a glyph hollowed out, but
a voice written in light.
Collins Oyster Co.
Out of Business After 90 Yrs.
Because of BP’s Oil &
Governor Jindal’s Fresh Water
Sweat darkens my shirt-back,
shape of a hand pressing.
To my right, Rte 1’s traffic hurtles
past. “Ninety years!” a man
shouts, & idles his car.
Points to the sign. “My father’s
out back. Go talk to him.”
2. Post-Spill, October 2011
His dining room turned war-
room, just three card tables pushed
together & a wall papered
in maps: Jefferson Parish’s
oyster lease-lines, the Collins beds
thumb-tacked red. Arrows –
these leases should have been relocated –
marked in thick black.
“The fresh water was as bad
as the oil,” 73-year-old Collins
says of attempts to force
oil from the marshes. Report:
more than 60% of the oysters in one
Louisiana bay were dead as a result
of the release of freshwater.
He’s reseeding the beds this year.
In 15 more, maybe, the oysters
will be back. I nod, pivoting.
Then stop. Opposite the charts
hangs a photo, pre-spill, framed:
Collins on the Braud & Tragy’s
deck, head tipped to the sky.
“A typical haul,” he tells me.
I zoom in, filling the viewfinder.
That day’s dredge of mollusks
– I never imagined so many –
piled in drifts higher than his knees.
He poses for me, now-empty
deck behind him, arm braced
on a stanchion. Both eyes sink
into his cap’s angled shadows.
At his feet, the split shells
of last year opalesce, a hollowed
light. “I don’t have anything
else to do,” he says,
when I thank him. “I offered
to show them all my dead oysters.
They don’t want to see it.”
I know. It’s not in our nature.
I owe him more than this
utterance unheard –
must learn, at last, how to look.
—Rebecca Dunham, Bayside, WI