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The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

by Matthew Tuckner

Orange Band, the last of its species,
the endling of the dusky seaside sparrows,
named after the metal tag clipped to its leg, died
in a cage on Disney World’s Discovery Island.

I am told by your mother that when you left
your body, there was a sound. A warble.
The faint chirping of machines, she says.
Muffled singing behind a door.

This particular poem from my forthcoming collection of the same name has always seemed to me like the most concentrated distillation of all of its concerns: entropy, loss, elegy, the eternal problem of representing an entire lifetime in a lyric poem. It is a poem that, when I re-read it today, strikes me as both extremely vital to the book’s overall structure and to the overall structure of the grief that surrounded the book’s conception. For this reason, maybe more than any other poem, I’m very thankful to have written it.

The composition process for the poem is blurry. It was written in the same frenzied month where I ended up writing half of the poems that appear in the manuscript as it stands today. However, I do remember that the origin of the poem hinged around my discovery of the word “endling” in my research for another project on extinction I have been working on alongside The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. I remember thinking of the word—a word designated for the last known surviving specimen of a species—as applied to human life, and how the elegy, as a form, both exalts, and preserves, its subjects. In the elegy, the subject is always treated as an endling—the last remnant of a greater enterprise. But it also seems to me that the speaker, or the writer, becomes a kind of endling in the act of telling or transcription. In turn, the poem becomes a record of this individual who has survived the catastrophe of loss. Following this thought process, the eight-line poem arrived rather quickly.

Matthew Tuckner is a PhD candidate in English with a specialization in creative writing at the University of Utah. His debut collection of poems, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, is forthcoming from Four Way Books. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in AGNI, American Poetry Review, The Adroit Journal, Copper Nickel, The Common, Colorado Review, Denver Quarterly, Ninth Letter, Pleiades, West Branch, and Poetry Daily, among others.