How to Be Gentle

How to Be Gentle
Nathaniel Youmans 

So much of being alive is erosion and the permission
to feel the deep, desperate love of a private ceremony.

Giving your beloved dog an entire cheeseburger before
the vet comes to your home to put her down, or, years

earlier, rereading Keats in the bath as your molars ground two 
cubes of ice, a fistful of hydros, one mothball into a strange

haloed paste. Empty bottles in their ranks like bishops on the 
tiles, like flash floods over a fallow landscape. A bird flew through 

the bathroom window and because you had just shattered the 
mirror there was not one but a thousand screaming sparrows 

bashing their heads, too, against the fractal edges of their own image. 
What I mean is I have spent so long staring into the empty 

sockets of every day, pulling out a tooth or eye here, a 
blackberry bramble, a fistful of loam there, whispering I am

taking this harsh instrument, I will hone it and take care of it for us. 
What I mean is I was once a boy who spent his youth burying

blind translucent baby robins who fell from their nest high 
in the oak whose bark still bears my and my siblings’ initials. 

It is a matter of something other than survival, perhaps, to go
on gathering deaths, keep them close, hold them like heirlooms,

a bird’s nest or a loaded gun. So much of life, it seems, since 
then, has been spent standing alone at the top of this cliff 

watching coyotes run across this frozen lake, watching some
break through thin patches in the ice, scream, sputter, go quiet. 

I think of the many children I’ve seen whom I don’t know, whom
I want to be kind to, whom I want to forget a stranger but 

remember in their kindness a syntax of innocence sustained.
I want to show them the landscape from above and say 

See, all stories are made of something painful. You don’t know 
my name and won’t, but I will always be here to read them to you. 

I want to ask them, what if everyone in the world woke up 
one day and believed the quiet kindness of strangers was

greater than any kinship, familiarity, or love? I want them 
to know what it’s like for a goshawk to land on your fist, 

that there are things in this world that can seize you with
such violent force then fall back effortlessly into wind. 

Sometimes a goshawk will toy a shrieking rabbit to a slow
death, breaking in below the shoulder, pecking at a lung, 

talons in its eye for an hour. There are times in your life when 
what you think is right dissolves in your numb hands like an 

ancestral garment, and you take the rabbit, the base of the 
neck in one hand, the back legs in the other, and pull apart.

How many hours in a life are spent observing the ways in
which disturbed water grows still again, wondering, horribly, 

If I could have killed you myself, would it have been the greatest 
act of kindness you’d never know or does each step in this 

animal music wade through a dark water in the brain 
that is the same as dark ripples on a page, one likeness 

of protracted care through another? Aggregated histories 
of erasure, spring runoff through a canyon of scoured basalt. 

There is no fullness, only appetite. An entire world 
waiting for you to consume it from the inside out.

Nathaniel Youmans is a poet, editor, wildlife conservationist, sound artist, and apprentice falconer based in the Channeled Scablands of eastern Washington. He earned his MFA from the Rainier Writing Workshop at Pacific Lutheran University. Nathaniel has worked in libraries, museums, schools, mental health clinics, wilderness areas, and on farms throughout the Pacific Northwest, and he has been a geological spelunking guide in Iceland. His work has appeared in Talking RiverHigh Desert JournalPermafrostNew South, and elsewhere. Hear more at Come Seeling Night | Lahar (

“How to Be Gentle” was originally published in New South.

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