from ‘Reduce the Silence to Swallows’

There were violet edges. A bird breathed against his cheek, pushing past. A bird breathed against his cheek, the sound drowned out. Perched sparrows made of tin, smashed bread, jewels we know are made of glass. 

I felt the grief, but numbness crept into every cavity. I pulverize the grief. There, in the vets’ operating room, I watch the surgeon pull out a dog’s uterus, a “V” for victory over cell death; she makes small cuts with a razor from a sanitized bag. I deflect my grief; I wonder if I’m doing penance. How many animals must I save to move toward the light.

There was a lifting, a veil swimming out of his mouth into sunlight, dissolving. The back of his throat cleared, and the feathers formed a wind around him. Deep in him, dove ghost churned, and the birds settled onto rocks and branches. 

I write my name over and over in the minds of the people who hate me until it’s just a background hum. I write my name. 

The birds write their songs in dirt, and Francis does not want to read so much and yet, every song says, I want a dove to crush and bless me. Absolve me of what I can’t understand. Francis kisses each bird, his mouth burning with love. 

The first time I kissed another man, we trailed into a restaurant together, salvina and choked river, and when he asked if he could kiss me, hair falling in our faces, and when he asked if he could kiss me, on the street in the cold with our gloveless hands wrapped around each other’s waists, all the way to a movie where he put his hands under my vest and whispered in my ear, I want you. I want a dove who will crush and bless me. Absolve me of what I cannot understand. 

Francis felt their grief, spilling into his mouth like the oniony skin of failing resolve, and he whispered his resolve to the birds now, in the kind words he saved for Leo on nights next to each other on scratchy mats and spoke of stars they couldn’t see, the stars God saved for himself. 

Francis was too busy to think about dying—sunflowers, wisteria, bending to kiss his feet. Sitting shirtless on his frayed couch was living too. Francis mouthed resolve to pill bugs in the couch cushion, the house gecko flattening her body into a bubbled cape.

Summer came; thousands of kittens mewed in the shelter lobby, some covered in maggots and trash. He was too busy to think about dying.

Sitting shirtless on the frayed couch in his apartment was living too. You are the morning, I am the night. The night comes in spite of them, the people who want you dead. The morning comes too.

Little daffodils pushed past dirt inside him. He imagined soft bears, Leo in flannel, Leo in a beekeeper suit stoned and twirling. 

He imagined soft bears, photos of them on twitter in above-ground pools, on grody decks with margaritas in their hands. He imagined tracing the punctuation curls on their chests, shaving the places they couldn’t reach on their backs. Francis imagined being dough-soft too, his antler angles dissolving like salt on the rims.

Leo sleeping with piles of men, men upon men. The top who kissed Leo’s scars, and the way Leo cried, coming home to Francis on a heady afternoon with his eyes oiled. My desire bends somewhere else, Francis said, holding Leo as the birds flashed past, as pieces of God did for him.

Possums died. Kittens died, umbilical cords still dangling. Blue crabs in the thousands, fed to captive seals. A boa died, triangle head full of puss. A dog tased and shot by the cops, a hiccupping wound. Late-night seizures. Viral rabbits. A thimble-sized sparrow and one rotten egg. Turkey plumped on fluids. Parvo puppies died, distended. Fur piles, asphyxiations. The fancy animals died too, embossed pedigrees digitized and trashed. Turtles with cracked shells. Brain infections, water lungs, rat poison. Fleas died on their feline continents. Parasites shriveled in their hosts. Tumors elsewhere. Poor circulation, heat stroke. Possums died. Kittens died, umbilical cords still dangling.

You and I are free and I am sensing your warmth under glass. You and I are free and what is eternal but a dehydrated float in space, the stars burning off our blood. How we make a home in words they called to keep us a death wish, Francis, how they made us wish for death.

How you sun me with glowing temples, nails crusted with blood. You and I are free. The toads sing for you, throats beaded with slime. The bears sing for you, men with hands like burning toast.

You and I are free: magnolia petals kiss your beard, my face. We dust ourselves in pollen to become trees ourselves. Francis, our love is not conditional but a condition. The stars burn off this love – edges that eat us like moths because we want to be eaten.

Wren Hanks

3 Questions for Wren

What was your process for creating these pieces?

These excerpts come from the first section of my new manuscript, Reduce the Silence to Swallows, which is a queer and eco-centric reimagining of the life of St. Francis. They began as straight-forward verse and then took on a hybrid format as I incorporated other sources, including pandemic journal entries I'd made while taking Esmé Weijun Wang's Rawness of Remembering Course and critical medical cases from my animal welfare job.

What is the significance of the form/genre you chose for this work?

The shift from verse to a hybrid format broke open this project for me. What began as a contained third-person poetic series about St. Francis, a saint I admire for his identification with nonhuman animals, became a wilder love letter to interspecies relationships – punctuated by autobiographical bleed, POV shifts, and queer intimacy (both platonic and non-).  

What is the significance of this work to you?

As a trans, heretical Catholic, I have a complicated relationship to the church and its priorities. This St. Francis project represents a “taking back” of the values I ascribe to within church doctrine and transposing them onto a reimagined Catholicism that views entire biomes, not one “exceptional” species, as sacred.

I supervise an emergency department at the city animal shelter where my clients are high-risk cats and dogs, wildlife, and casualties of the exotic pet trade. I feel a strong personal responsibility toward nonhuman animals, and that extends to my poetics – both the language I use (I reject “it” as a pronoun for other species) and the intention I bring to my writing life. My job has taken a significant toll on my mental health, and I’ve found allowing elements of memoir into this manuscript healing. When reading biographies of St. Francis, I’ve encountered a life infused with joy, a life that celebrates biodiversity and fellowship. I hope, even when these pieces deal with difficult subjects, some of that joy slips through. 

Wren Hanks is the author of Lily-livered (Driftwood Press, March 2021) and The Rise of Genderqueer (Brain Mill Press, 2018). A 2016 Lambda Literary Emerging Writers Fellow, his recent work appears or is forthcoming in Indiana Review, Third Coast, New South, and elsewhere. He lives in Brooklyn, where he works in pet and wildlife rescue. 

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