What Is a Magpie?

after Susan Elizabeth Howe’s “What Is a Grackle?”


By Matthew James Babcock


Jocular old boxer, jockey swaggering

in patched black and white satin,

raucous uncle with the bluesy squawk


of a young Joe Cocker.

No jackdaw, no Australian butcherbird—

too loose.  Glib opportunist with a cry


like a hacksaw, glossy spin doctor

drag racing cops, goosing the throttle,

snoozing in superhero silks.


Behold the bruised lover.  Balloon vendor

snagging stragglers at the Job’s

Daughters Dance in a used blue tuxedo.


Magpies laugh at their own gaffs, off-color

jokes rolling like boxcars through

family gatherings.  From junkyard jukeboxes


they airlift in the biker jackets of drifters,

sling breezy news from six-shooters—

titter, gawk, chaffer, shmooze, wink and gargle—


proof you come back as the real you.

Boozed up, bulletproof smile, zoot suit

the sheen of a cheap razor.


Cheeky Pica pica flubbing Latin and Greek,

Mark Twain in clownish doctoral gowns,

shoebox of medals rubbed smooth. You choose,

they warble, lollygagging in long lines

to haggle for the bargain bauble. In every puddle


shines a miracle.  Every mile a free meal.

You can never take too many bows.

Songs of the Magpie


the six refrains



What is every February moon

but the amber in your eye?


The footloose goose cruises in the caboose.


Some days only you can take the snake

out of the snake oil.


Sinister sisters: punch clock and prescription.


Roam rhymes with home rhymes with shalom

rhymes with Om rhymes with . . .


Brood tomorrow.


Matthew James Babcock is Professor of English at BYU-Idaho in Rexburg. His books include Points of Reference (Folded Word), Strange Terrain (Mad Hat Press), and Heterodoxologies (Educe Press). His debut fiction collection, Four Tales of Troubled Love (Harvard Square Editions), won first place in the 2020 Next Generation Indie Book Awards. His follow-up fiction collection, Future Perfect, was a finalist for the 2020 BOA Editions Short Fiction Prize and is forthcoming from Engine Books.