What Geese May Teach

My mother had the power that knowledge wields,
So questions such as—Would you like to go?
Were never invitations, but commands
To fly away, cross yellow fields and low,
Like summer insects, stuck upon windshields.
A raggle-taggle group we were, and so
Like sandflies could not change what time demands.

Beneath a half-known psychic undertow,
My mother screeched her well-worn, wearing wheels
As we pulled up to watch the wild geese soar
In ordered honking triangles. Much more,
We’d missed such ordered symmetry before.



The Desk and the Dove

The morning sun rose; it was May
When cirrus clouds clung to the roof
And Mama rang. I wondered why—
Most times she was reserved, aloof.
What do you want, this natal day?
She must have planned some secret spoof,
As flickering wings flew whistling by,
Around her memories of youth.

Dear desk, you glowed from an array
Of dusty walnut, yet forsooth!
A dove within my mother’s eye
Looked out at me; I knew the truth.

Upon my yellow desk, a dove
Had settled, and its name was love.



Trumping The Inevitable

Once in my younger days I got so hammered
I wrecked my cousin’s wedding at her house.
The guest stood on her royal rug like ramrods.
Snickered, and stared. I should have been a mouse.

Much earlier she mentioned a dead friend
Who, rising from a bridge game after lunch,
Announced I’m dying! and This is the end!
Then fell dead on the purple floor. A hunch?
I marveled at this lady’s sense of timing—
She trumped, then rose to Jesus in the sky,
While I, who could mix colors, do some rhyming,
Had zero social skills, and wondered why.

I was the hapless guest who filled the sink
With vomit (validation of my presence),
Then crept away from all the sounds and stink
You never could forgive. The local peasants
Saw shocking stains spread on your tasteful floor,
Indelible; which meant that I was cursed
To never own old thumbprint glass, or four
Puce velvet chairs, a fenced-in garden—worse,

No tongue that knew to tell my indiscretions
To Jesus, who could smooth and make things straight,
And no assurance, gentle intercessions,
No cards with which to trump your scornful state.



Sally Cook is both a poet and a painter residing in upstate New York. Her poems have also appeared in Blue Unicorn, First Things, Chronicles, The Formalist Portal, Light Quarterly, National Review, Pennsylvania Review, TRINACRIA, and other electronic and print journals. A six-time nominee for a Pushcart award, in 2007 Cook was featured poet in The Raintown Review. She has received several awards from the World Order of Narrative and Formalist Poets, and her Best American Poetry Challenge-winning poem “As the Underworld Turns” was published in Pool.  

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The Society of Classical Poets does not endorse any views expressed in individual poems or commentary.

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19 Responses

  1. Michael Pietrack

    The unity of geese help them fly far. How far would they go if the left veered left and right veered right? Perhaps they’d fall. They’d sit and fight. And get nowhere at all.

    Thank you Sally for all your contributions—from your fan, Michael.

  2. Russel Winick

    Thanks for these Sally. I especially enjoyed your lovely The Desk and the Dove. You have been blessed.

  3. Joseph S. Salemi

    Many of Sally Cook’s best poems are about her family life, and her childhood experiences. Her deep connection with her parents and other relatives provides the basis for many of her finest pieces.

    In “Trumping the Inevitable,” note that Cook begins (in the first two sections) with straightforward narrative, but the rest of the poem is a direct address to her offended cousin. And this change happens seamlessly, without any jarring shift.

    • Sally Cook

      Joe, I can’t help it — I just love it when you tell me (and others) what I’ve just done.

      Someetimes – not always – I don’t know I’ve done it. And when I do, it is such a pleasuew to have it recognized by such as you.

      Thank you so much.

  4. Sally Cook

    Michael, there was almost something sacred about the wild geese to my moither. She had a deep and direcdt connection with nature, perhaps because she pretty much ran wild with Indian children while her father, a shop kieeper, fulfilled his dream of building a hotel in a forest. Later he sent her East to be civilized, but not all of it took. She couldn’t lie, or eat deer meat. Not a bad start in life !

      • Sally Cook

        Michael, you certainly will, if you continue to read what I post here and wherever they will have me! Won’t take up room others can use here, but any poem by me titled “Mama” this or that will be yet another facet of this woman’s remarkable life.
        It is one thing to love one’s mother, as most people do; quite another to respect a person who in one lifetime sewed an entire wardrobe, did clerical work, painted beautifully, raised chickens, loved poetry, boarded dogs, gave piano lessons, sold eggs, churned butter, cooked in a restaurant, and when I won a scholarship, went to work in a sewing factory to help out. She died of a horrible disease at the age of 69, an unstoppable woman only God could command to cease.

  5. Sally Cook

    Russel I believe I have blessed — thank you for noticing. I can’t think why, but there you are – blessings seem to fall at random, I would guess !

  6. Julian D. Woodruff

    All 3 very fine.
    Joseph is right about “Trumping”: death is inevitably messy, and you added to that mess (if I assume correctly that you were present on both occasions), yet your cousin’s scorn made the worst of the moment (and beyond). But you have memorialized it beautifully.

    • Sally Cook

      Julian, some are doomed to always be on the wrong side, and never become collectors of antique butter dishes, creamers and sets of goblets. No matter how hard they try, their spirits keep flying off to the left when they should be lfet, and so forth.

      I am one of those. I wonder how many others there are at SCP?

  7. Anna J. Arredondo


    I particularly liked the lines in your first poem, “So questions such as—Would you like to go?
    Were never invitations, but commands.” Not sure quite why, only that it makes a vivid impression in my mind, with just a few words.

  8. Sally Cook

    Anna, don’t you think there are people in our lives who start out with a plan, and assume dignity and direction in our lives? Natural teachers.
    It was so with my mother.

    Nothing was simple — every occasion was designed to teach you. What a woman !

  9. Roy Eugene Peterson

    Geese flying in formation foretold winter approaching when I was a child living in South Dakota. The time of year also brought the hunters for geese, ducks and pheasants from urban areas meaning it was a time not to wander into fields. You captured my feelings for my own desk in the second poem. I understand the feelings in the third poem, but fortunately I never came close to those misguided steps.

  10. C.B Anderson

    Reading these poems was like peeling back mystery after mystery to find a clear vivid picture beneath each layer. What I mean is that you say so much without always having to spell things out. Your Mama taught you well, and, if you dare to believe it, I learn something from and about you every time I read anything of yours.

  11. Susan Jarvis Bryant

    Dear Sally, your glorious words make me want to applaud all the fine traits, foibles, and faults of human nature… you always manage to depict them so vividly, so honestly, and so beautifully that I can feel the presence of those you have breathed life into with your poetry… especially your magnificent mother! Superb!

  12. Alena Casey

    These lines: “My mother had the power that knowledge wields, / So questions such as—Would you like to go? / Were never invitations, but commands” put me strongly in mind of something I one read, which my husband and I still talk about regularly. It was someone musing online about the difference between “Ask” culture and “Guess” culture. Those from a family culture of asking speak directly, ask for what they want, and accept either yes or no. Those from a family culture of guessing operate according to unspoken rules of politeness, including indirect speech such as what you describe. One typically doesn’t ask for things that would be rude to ask for, and when a request is made one typically doesn’t deny it (although this may come with a sense of being improperly imposed upon!). So a simple request such as “May I borrow this book?” or “May I have some of your snack?” can make completely different impressions on people from different “cultures!”

  13. Evan Mantyk

    Dear Sally, thank you for your exceptional poem. Something interesting you may not have known is that there are four great Chinese classic novels, one of which is the 14th century novel Outlaws of the Marsh by Shi Nai’an, and in Chapter 110, the leader of the band of righteous outlaws, Song Jiang, draws parallels between geese and the five Confucian virtues. I’ve pasted it below because it resonates interestingly with your poem above.


    Song Jiang now ordered the army to resume its journey home. After a few days on the road, they were passing a place called Double Woods Crossing. Song Jiang looked up from his saddle and saw several lines of geese flying across the sky. But instead of their usual organized formations, these geese seemed to be in disarray, as some flew high, some flew low, and all were squawking in alarm. This sight puzzled Song Jiang, and then heard cheers from in front. He sent someone up ahead to see what was going on, and his men reported back that it was the doing of Yan Qing the Prodigy. Yan Qing was just starting to learn to shoot with a bow and arrow, and he was taking practice shots at the geese. But he was such a natural that every shot hit its target, and within minutes, he had shot down more than a dozen geese, drawing praise from the other officers.

    Song Jiang now summoned Yan Qing, who arrived atop a roan desert steed, carrying his bow and arrows, donning a broad-brimmed felt hat, and dressed in a parrot-yellow tunic quilted with flaxen floss. On the back of his saddle were strung up a bunch of dead geese. When he came upon Song Jiang, Yan Qing dismounted and stood to one side.

    “Were you shooting geese just now?” Song Jiang asked.

    “I was learning how to shoot with bow and arrow,” Yan Qing said. “When I saw the geese flying past, I mindlessly took aim. Who knew every shot would find its mark and so I accidentally shot down a dozen or so.”

    “A soldier should learn archery,” Song Jiang said. “And it’s a testament to your skills that your aim is true. But the geese left the Himalayas in autumn and flew south across the Yangzi River with reeds in their beaks to where it’s warm and they can find food. And they don’t return until the next spring. They are most virtuous birds. They travel in flocks of up to 50, and they fly in orderly ranks, with the leader at the head and the inferiors behind. They never leave the flock, and they post sentinels when they rest at night. If a gander loses his goose, or a goose her gander, they never mate again. These birds possess all five attributes: compassion, honor, propriety, intelligence, and faith.

    “If a goose dies in flight, all the others will cry in mourning, and none will ever harass a bereaved bird. That is compassion. When a fowl loses its mate, it never pairs again. That is honor. They fly in a definite order, each automatically assuming its place. That is propriety. They avoid hawks and eagles, silently crossing the passes with reed sticks in their beaks. That is intelligence. They fly south in autumn and north in spring, every year without fail. That is faith.

    “How, then, can we bear to harm them? A flock of geese flying by overhead, all helping each other, are like our band of brothers. Yet you have shot down a number of them. That is like losing some of our brothers. How would that make us feel? You must never harm such virtuous creatures again.”

    Yan Qing listened in silence, filled with penitence and remorse for harming these perfect Confucian waterfowls. Meanwhile, Song Jiang, feeling emotional after his own speech, composed and recited a poem while riding along. The poem said:

    Jagged peaks draped in mist,
    Three lines of geese across the sky.
    Suddenly in flight a mate is lost —
    Cold moon, chill breeze, a mournful cry.


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