Penguins Used to Fly

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December 15, 2013 by The Citron Review

by Nels Hanson


The waddling penguin gave up flight
to swim, its body changed from bird
to birdlike seal or un-flat streamlined

manta ray. Short wings cause less drag
and heavy bones more easily descend.
Bigger bodies insulate, stay warmer

than simple kicking webs. Penguins fly
far down, the Emperor 250 fathoms,
20 minutes on a single breath. Adept

at diving they turned ungainly, forgot
blue sky. One bird stroking cold ocean
still soars past bergs and floes, Canadian

Arctic’s Thick-Billed Murre, an Auk,
penguin-shaped. Injecting them with
isotopes experts tracked, computed

energy spent in water and air. Diving
costs this bird of all the birds most
calories to fly except Bar-Headed

Goose above the Himalayas, Everest
and K-2. Murres expend less strength
than webbed divers but more than

any penguin does. Double lives take
their toll a scientist in Missouri said:
Murres need to shrink their wings

or gain weight to better sink. Either
choice flight becomes impossible
so they balance evolution’s stropped

edge between two worlds unlike
penguins who lost the gift, perhaps
desire to fly. Sea’s been air, fish

birds, kelp forests trees, strange
jellies phosphorescent stars 10,000
centuries or more. And yet ancient

memory persists, hidden, appearing
unexpectedly. Penguins flap pathetic
stubbed wings on shore as sometimes

in late avid rooms when talk turns
outlandish and unfair we raise both
urgent arms to interrupt, insist one

pressing missed cogent point and
drop our hands, fall silent, old wings
recalling a life not ruled by gravity.


Nels Hanson’s fiction received the San Francisco Foundation’s James D. Phelan Award and two Pushcart Prize nominations. Stories have appeared in Antioch Review, Texas Review, Black Warrior Review, Southeast Review, Montreal Review, and other journals. Poems appeared in Word Riot, Oklahoma Review, Heavy Feather Review, Meadowlands Review, Citron Review, Ilanot Review and other magazines, and are in press at Stone Highway Review, Works & Days, Scintilla, Emerge Literary Journal, Drunk Monkeys, and Hoot & Hare Review.


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