Feb. 15, 2007

Chicken Killing

by Mary Mackey

Listen (RealAudio) | How to listen

Poem: "Chicken Killing" by Mary Mackey, from Breaking the Fever: Poems. Marsh Hawk Press. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Chicken Killing

I was 5 and the chickens were my friends

I would pull an ear of corn from the crib
hack it against a brick and cry    here biddy biddy biddy

and they'd come running to peck between my bare
toes with beaks hard and smooth as sanded oak

when the crabapples rotted and fell off the tree into the yard
they would gobble them up and get drunk

then dance the crabapple dance  cluck
and strut, bump into each other, fly into the side

of the henhouse and stagger around laughing at chicken jokes

I laughed at their jokes    I partied
hard with those hens

one afternoon when we got back from
Hebron Baptist Church where you got to fan yourself
with funeral parlor fans

Uncle Wid went to the chicken yard with an ear
of corn    here biddy biddy biddy    he cried

and when the chickens ran up to peck
he grabbed two by the neck and swung them
over his head like sacks    wap    wap    and their heads
were off in his hands and their bodies were still

flying around the yard because no one had
told them they were dead

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of cartoonist Matt Groening, (books by this author) born in Portland, Oregon (1954). He decided to move to Los Angeles after college to try to make it as a writer. He lived in a neighborhood full of drug dealers and thieves, and got a job ghostwriting the memoirs of an 88-year-old filmmaker. After that, he worked at a convalescent home, a waste treatment plant, and a graveyard.

He started writing a comic strip based on his daily troubles called "Life in Hell." When a television producer asked Groening to created a TV show, Groening decided to invent a cartoon family that would be the exact opposite of all the fictional families that had ever been on American television. He named the parents after his own parents, Homer and Marge, and he named the two sisters after his own sisters, Lisa and Maggie. He chose the name Bart for the only son because it was an anagram of the word "brat."

Critics immediately praised The Simpsons, because it was in some ways more realistic than any other American sitcom. Homer was fat, bald, and stupid; he drank a lot, worked at a nuclear power plant, and occasionally strangled his son. His wife, Marge, was an obsessive-compulsive housewife with a blue beehive hairdo. The characters were frequently selfish, rude, and mean to one another, and the show often took on dark subjects like suicide, adultery, and environmental disaster. The Simpsons went on to become the most popular and longest-running sitcom in America.

Matt Groening said, "Teachers, principals, clergymen, politicians — for The Simpsons, they're all goofballs, and I think that's a great message for kids."

It's the birthday of comic book artist and writer Art Spiegelman, (books by this author) born in Stockholm, Sweden (1948). His parents were both survivors of the Holocaust, and when he was growing up, he often heard them screaming in the middle of the night from their nightmares. Spiegelman fell in love with Mad magazine when he was 10 years old, and started drawing comics. By the time he was 14, he had a job with the Topps chewing gum company, designing comics that came with different brands of gum.

He eventually got into drawing alternative comics, and one day he was asked to contribute to an anthology of animal cartoons. The request gave him an idea for a comic strip about the Holocaust in which all the Jews would be drawn as mice and all the Nazis drawn as cats. He said, "Almost as soon as it hit me, I began to recognize the obvious historical antecedents — how Nazis had spoken of Jews as 'vermin,' and plotted their 'extermination.'"

In order to write the comic book he had to interview his father about his experiences during the Holocaust. He and his father had never gotten along, but during the many hours of interviews, they developed a relationship for the first time. The comic strips were collected and published in two volumes: Maus: A Survivors Tale, My Father Bleeds History (1986) and Maus II: And Here My Troubles Began (1991). Both books were extremely successful, and in 1992 Spiegelman became one of the first comic book artists to receive a Pulitzer Prize for his work.

It's the birthday of astronomer Galileo Galilei, (books by this author) born in Pisa, Italy (1564). He was in his 40s in the summer of 1609 when he heard a rumor that someone in Holland had invented a device called a spyglass, which allowed people to see things up close from a distance. As soon as Galileo heard about it, he cursed himself, because he'd had a similar idea years before, but he'd never followed up on it. He knew that the Italian government would be interested in such a device for military purposes. So he decided to try to make one himself before anyone from Holland could travel down to Italy. If he could present it to the government first, he would get the credit.

According to Galileo, it took him only 24 hours to design his own telescope, even though he'd never seen one. And the telescope he designed was actually better than the one from Holland, more than 20 times more powerful. He presented it to the government, and they rewarded him with a lifetime appointment to his university post, with double the pay.

He went on to become one of the first people to use the telescope to examine astronomical objects in our solar system. On the night of January 7, 1610, Galileo saw three stars, arranged in a straight line next to Jupiter. He observed them over the next several days and found that they changed position in relation to Jupiter every night. Eventually, he came to the conclusion that these must be moons revolving around Jupiter. And if moons could revolve around Jupiter, then Aristotle's theory that everything revolved around the Earth was incorrect. This observation provided evidence for Copernicus' theory that the Earth revolves around the sun. Galileo spent the rest of his life writing about these ideas, even though they got him into big trouble with the Catholic Church.

Galileo said, "In questions of science, the authority of a thousand is not worth the humble reasoning of a single individual."

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




  • “Writers end up writing stories—or rather, stories' shadows—and they're grateful if they can, but it is not enough. Nothing the writer can do is ever enough” —Joy Williams
  • “I want to live other lives. I've never quite believed that one chance is all I get. Writing is my way of making other chances.” —Anne Tyler
  • “Writing is a performance, like singing an aria or dancing a jig” —Stephen Greenblatt
  • “All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.” —F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • “Good writing is always about things that are important to you, things that are scary to you, things that eat you up.” —John Edgar Wideman
  • “In certain ways writing is a form of prayer.” —Denise Levertov
  • “Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Let's face it, writing is hell.” —William Styron
  • “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” —Thomas Mann
  • “Writing is 90 percent procrastination: reading magazines, eating cereal out of the box, watching infomercials.” —Paul Rudnick
  • “Writing is a failure. Writing is not only useless, it's spoiled paper.” —Padget Powell
  • “Writing is very hard work and knowing what you're doing the whole time.” —Shelby Foote
  • “I think all writing is a disease. You can't stop it.” —William Carlos Williams
  • “Writing is like getting married. One should never commit oneself until one is amazed at one's luck.” —Iris Murdoch
  • “The less conscious one is of being ‘a writer,’ the better the writing.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is…that oddest of anomalies: an intimate letter to a stranger.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is my dharma.” —Raja Rao
  • “Writing is a combination of intangible creative fantasy and appallingly hard work.” —Anthony Powell
  • “I think writing is, by definition, an optimistic act.” —Michael Cunningham
The Writer's Almanac on Facebook

The Writer's Almanac on Twitter

Subscribe to our daily newsletter for poems, prose and literary history every morning
An interview with Jeffrey Harrison at The Writer's Almanac Bookshelf
Current Faves - Learn more about poets featured frequently on the show
O, What a Luxury

Although he has edited several anthologies of his favorite poems, O, What a Luxury: Verses Lyrical, Vulgar, Pathetic & Profound forges a new path for Garrison Keillor, as a poet of light verse. Purchase O, What a Luxury »