Extinction Sonnets

You couldn’t compete with them or with man, or so we think: extinction’s a mystery we’ll never understand

Photo of Susan Glickman.

1. The Monteverde Toad (Costa Rica)

For five days every spring, you sought a mate
where water flowed against the roots of trees
in the elf forest, home to species
that are small; you most of all. How desolate
the mountaintops where you no longer breed
like fallen stars! How lost the scientists
wondering where you went and why. Perhaps mist
gave fungus purchase on your shining hide;
perhaps the heat increased, dried up your pools.
The formula’s wrong, a deadly alchemy,
but fire and water in sympathy
surely forged such strange amphibian jewels,
so there’s still hope that one day you’ll be found
like buried treasure: patient, underground.

2. The Baiji Dolphin (China)

The ghost of a drowned maiden whitely shone
in the holy Yangtze for centuries,
esteemed as a goddess: one glimpse then gone—
brief as joy or beauty. Now factories
foul rivers thrown off course by hydro dams
since the Great Leap Forward left that myth behind
as obsolete; a hollow ideogram
not fit to keep up with the modern mind.
Always shy and blind, what could you do
but sing to your children in the muddy gloom
where hooks were many and the fish were few?
Repentance came too late; we must assume
this time you’re drowned for real, will not return
no matter how much incense people burn.

3. The Black-Faced Honeycreeper (Hawaii)

Rarest bird in the world, you remind me
of chickadees who make the winter merry:
black-capped, finch-billed, a fistful of airy
fluff. But unlike them, you are solitary,
hidden on remote Haleakala
in scarlet-flowering trees fifty feet high
whose honey you sip, scanning the blue sky
for predators. You can’t see malaria,
can’t sense the lack of snails, your favourite diet;
still, some instinct chased you here, out of range
of pigs and cats. They say that you are strange.
They say you are “unusually quiet.”
Well, lonely as you are, why would you sing?
You pretty thing, pretty thing, pretty thing.

4. The River Otter (Japan)

Once abundant as reeds in the waters
where you swam and played and raised your young for years,
you’ve disappeared, victim of casual slaughter
because humans must wear fur. Profiteers
grew rich while your ancestral home grew poor;
poisons stilled the fish that were your food;
the rivers couldn’t keep you anymore.
How long did it take till you understood
you must flee their shelter for the inland sea,
its unknown depths and belligerent waves?
Small and brave, in groups of two or three
you swam away, believing you’d be saved.
Those who search may find you in haiku
symbolizing spring. But there’s no spring for you.

5. The Pyrenean Ibex (France and Spain)

Who called you “Celia,” I wonder, and why?
There was nothing heavenly about you
except perhaps the panoramic view
the mountains gave you of the shifting sky
piled high with clouds white as those winter snows
that drove you, hungry, to find pasture land
where sheep and goats already grazed below.
You couldn’t compete with them or with man,
or so we think: extinction’s a mystery
we’ll never understand. But full of guilt
or full of pride, we tried to fix history
by cloning you. No luck. The things we killed
can never be restored, we know that now.
What we don’t know is who dies next, and how.

Susan Glickman
Susan Glickman’s most recent book of poetry is Cathedral/Grove. She lives in Toronto.