“Even the Smallest” by Kirsteen MacLeod, from Arc’s 2020 Shortlist

Even the Smallest


Everywhere you are there’s husbandry:
the hen house of driftwood and beaver
sticks, a large clock on top, hands still moving,
making it look like an avian train station, the coop
built up around a peach pit that sprang from the compost,
a vagrant tree of life with six roosting birds.

Your garden is a wild tangle of tomatoes,
kale, coriander gone to seed. Hives by
the back fence, bees that forage in clover
and dandelions and land woozily on the lip
of their boxes, legs pollened with violet
and yellow, crawling inside.

Come autumn you tithe them,
but now, eyes closed and lips moving,
you’re dreaming, of honey, or propellers.
The ones I failed to bid on vigorously enough
at the auction. You sat on a dusty box among farm
implements, head held in your hands, pleading:

Next time you bid on a propeller, really put your heart into it!


You won’t give up on the dying chicken
though she’s given up: eyes closed, pale comb
listing to one side, dull feathers, no longer able
to drink the dew off morning’s leaves.

You tuck her into a paint tray with soft rags, set her near
her squabbling sisters in the coop. Afternoon sunrays
pick up the exquisite burnished gold of her ruff, her amber eye
when it opens as I sing to her. You open her beak, squeeze
the eyedropper filled with yogurt milk, but she can’t swallow.
She swoons and dies in your hands. No more

breath, just the wind ruffling her feathers. You cradle her
and we admire her beauty, talk about her good qualities, how she
was the biggest, yet the gentlest of all the birds. From day one,
six chickens, now five. You dig a hole, place her in and I bring the grave
goods I promised, chopped garden tomatoes for her avian afterlife.
Sad, the loss of even the smallest. The neighbour, who has cancer, stops

by and cries, says, I loved that chicken. You decide you will cover her
in brown earth and plant a paw paw tree above. She tried to kill
the last one, ate all the leaves
, you say as you step on the spade
and split the earth. Let’s see how she feels about this one. We wind
a garland of red-fruited rosehip around the sapling and over the mound,
and the chickens run joyfully to peck worms from newly turned ground.

Margo LaPierre on “Even the Smallest”

Husbandry abounds in “Even the Smallest”: a backyard wild with life, “peach pit that sprang from the compost / a vagrant tree of life,” a fuzzy excess in dusty objects, woozy insects, tangled plants. The speaker addresses their partner, who “won’t give up on the dying chicken.” In this tender peach of a poem, death is the bitter pit.

Kirsteen MacLeod is a writer born in Glasgow, Scotland, who moved to Canada as a child. Her poetry, short stories and essays have appeared in many journals, including The New Quarterly and The Malahat Review, and been finalists for prizes, including the CBC Literary Award. She’s long been at work on her first poetry collection.

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