Suspend disbelief as you read this week’s poem, “Industrial Remains,” by Judy Kaber. We are about to hear a tale told by bones from the bottom of the harbor where “a counterpane of mud covers the bones/of ten thousand chickens.”

The poet is referring, of course, to the days of the Belfast chicken processors when long chicken houses across Waldo County grew out thousands of the birds and trucked them into town for processing. Our storyteller, the headless skeleton of one such chicken, “writes the story in odd runes/ sculpted from claw fragments left by moving tides.”

But this isn’t a ghost story; it’s a story of life told backwards from the conveyor belt to riding in a crate in the back of a truck to life in the barn to the chick’s first cheep under the mother’s warmth to the egg itself. In that way, it’s a realistic poem that documents the lives of those hapless birds who did so much for the local economy for decades.

Judy explains the history of her poem: “At the time I wrote it I was living in a house at the corner of Bridge and Pierce Street. This was before Front Street Shipyard, so I had a good view of the harbor, both by the walking bridge and at the city docks. The river was often on my mind in those days.

“Farther back, during the eighties, I rented a second floor apartment in Belfast and had to get up early for my commute to Albion where I taught. I'd often see the loaded chicken trucks drive by, feathers flying.”

The downside to the poultry industry was the stinking grain storage towers and the pollution in the bay. Judy notes: “During the same era, my husband and I had a sailboat and we'd sail around Penobscot Bay and anchor in various harbors where you could often look down through the crystal clear water to the seabed below. Belfast harbor was far from that! Boats moored here would wind up with a stripe of fat and sludge at the waterline.”

Belfast has changed a lot since those days. Some of those chicken houses have been repurposed and some left to fall down. At one point, there was a bumper sticker floating around that proclaimed “From Poultry to Poetry.”

Industrial Remains

Beneath the shadow of the new bridge where the Passagassawaukeag

rides salt into the sea, a counterpane of mud covers the bones

of ten thousand chickens. Wings, thighs, legs, feet scattered

in layers among mussel shells and glistening clams. They whisper

of past lives, spread rumors of how it used to be. One skeleton,

oddly whole except for the head, remembers another life —

lying limp and full of feathers, riding a conveyor belt,

fingered by calloused hands — and writes the story in odd runes

sculpted from claw fragments left by the moving tides.

Don’t believe it, a darting alewife cries. It’s all lies.

But the bird continues the backward tale unperturbed. Carving

a saga recalled of the slats of a crate, the careening predawn ride

through the streets, feathers gilding lawns, beaks drawn

and screeching, bumps, and brakes, and breezes from the sea.

Crazy, skinless fowl, hawks a diving herring gull.

But the beakless bard continues. Back into the chicken barn,

windowless, squinting in the hard electric light, warm

in the company of hundreds, fed, watered, watched,

hearing the tread of booted human feet, smelling the sharp

odor of acrid droppings, feeling the bite of wire against wings.

Fishing lines drop from above, even the nightcrawlers

snicker. But the bones press on, to write this legacy.

Back to the time beneath a mother’s breast, the warmth

of down, the hopeful cheep, the drying and quick pull

of air into lungs. Back again, back and back,

into the egg, the dark round beginning, the echoing sea,

fine pulsing red lines, food raw and golden, birth sounds

beating in waves, membranes of comfort, movements

like small comets, kicking thick, liquid sky.

Linda Buckmaster was Belfast's poet laureate from 2009-2011.