Published in the May 2003 edition of Poetry magazine, Kay Ryan’s “Home to Roost” has evolved into a poem that has quite a bit of personal meaning for me. Ryan, the 2008 U.S. Poet Laureate and the winner of the 2011 Pulitzer prize for poetry, is known for her spare, compressed verses, and “Home to Roost,” selected for the 2005 volume of Best American Poetry, reflects that impulse with its 23 compact lines of alternating monometer and dimeter.
The poem first came to my attention last spring, on a day when I was home tending to my oldest son, Nikolai, home from school with a cold. At one point in the afternoon, he claimed he was bored and, quite shockingly, asked me for something to do. I was looking through some volumes of BAP at the time, so I asked him to look through one of them and choose a poem to memorize. (I wonder if admitting such a thing make me seem unimaginative, über nerdy, heartless, or all three?) Picking up the 2005 volume, he initially chose James Cummins’s “The Poets March on Washington,” undoubtedly because it is short and consists of three repetitions of the same stanza. Though Cummins’s poem is obviously purposefully repetitious and it ultimately succeeds at what it sets out to do, I was hoping Nikolai would choose something with a bit more meat to it, so I challenged him to find another. He soon alighted upon Ryan’s “Roost,” and, after about 45 minutes of trial-and-error memorization, complaining, and recitation tweaks, he knew the poem cold. Here he is only a few weeks ago, at Jennings Beach in Fairfield, having only minimally reviewed a copy of the poem beforehand:
This is not my only personal connection to Ryan’s poem. One of my neighbors in Fairfield converted the vast plot of land behind his house into a suburban sanctuary for geese and various other fowls. For many years this neighbor owned a rooster (“Rusty”), which meant that I sometimes awakened to a “chanticleer in the morning” singing “lustily.” Here is a mostly obstructed view of my neighbor’s backyard “compound” from my back deck.
I don’t expect the viewer will be able to see the tool sheds, the beehives, all of the bird shelters, and the man-made pond, but in the left of the middle ground, I have captured the enclosure that houses baby ducks and pheasants. Beyond the obstructing trees, there are other enclosures that were once the homes of the aforementioned rooster and a clan of hens. These days, with Rusty having passed on to the barnyard afterlife, and the elderly hens having been quite literally “let go” in order to be replaced by, in the words of Cora Tull, “good layers,” I am unable to provide the reader with absolute visual evidence of my close physical proximity to chickens. You will have to take my word for it.
And because some of you will want more than my word, I risked life and limb scaling a steep declivity and dense brush in order to obtain some close-up shots of the fowl that remain: the baby ducks and the pheasants. Since pheasants also engage in the practice of roosting, I sought to obtain an “action shot” of this. Alas, my presence stirred up the pen-fellows too much for any roosting, and so the shots I have included are titled “Threatening Stare” and “Running in Circles,” respectively.
Even if you do not take my word for it, I have always known that Nikolai’s choice of “Roost” was an inspired one, since he and I spent years living next to a small group of experts when it comes to roosting.
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The history of the expression “chickens coming home to roost” is, like most idioms, fascinating, one with an English ancestry of nearly 500 years, and one that, over time, somehow displaced a mistaken notion (that birds eventually migrate back to their nests) and reassigned it to chickens. The resulting proverb has been attested to the work of Robert Southey, and it of course communicates to us a warning: if we do wrong in our present actions, we will encounter dire consequences later on. One of the most infamous uses of the expression comes to us from none other than Malcolm X, who, during this interview, uses it in clarifying his position that President Kennedy’s assassination could be seen as the end result of a “culture of hate.”
Ryan provides us with an exceptionally literal—albeit immense—representation of those “dire consequences,” since in the world of her poem, the sky is filled with returning chickens, so many that they blot out the sun. (An image that requires a bit of a leap from readers, as it not a common occurrence to see these winged creatures high in the sky.) The speaker of the poem attributes this return of the chickens to “you”—we readers—who had, at some point in the past, “let loose” a group of young chickens “one at a time.” Now “we” find ourselves overwhelmed with the consequence of our act, as the chickens are back, darkening the sky, and doing this “at the same speed.”
In her contributor’s notes, Ryan invites us to see the events of September 11, 2001, as an example of the proverb writ large, and it is certainly possible to pull this thread out of the poem, since its returning threat in the sky, “circling” with “speed,” is suggestive of the airliners that were used with such deadly force on that cloudless Tuesday morning. (Because of the poem’s slim shape, it might be seen as bearing a visual resemblance to a skyscraper.) If we continue with this interpretive stance, the only implication available to us is a matter of geopolitics, as the poem serves to remind us that it was our nation’s approach to the Middle East, whether governmental or military or cultural, that was the root cause of the attacks.
And yet, as I sit and compose this response on September 11, exactly 15 years to the day of those unforgettable events, I am not finding myself drawn to this reading of the poem. Instead, I am more interested in the sly way in which Ryan conceals the poem’s rhyme scheme, inviting us to see that the poem, even as it describes a present threat in response to our past deeds, relies on a seemingly outdated tradition as perhaps the best means for our future defense.