2021 Best in Literary Arts – Brenna Goss

Threatened Loons

The loon ruffles her feathers
beads of water slipping off their oiled sheen
like raindrops on a window,
that moment when gravity stakes its claim
and their grip on the glass slips.

She dives, webbed feet propelling
her body down, down,
till her beak finds a mark in
the electric blue of a sunfish,
and she rises back to the surface.

The loon’s neck arches as the small fish
slides into her stomach, inconspicuous,
as it has for millions of years.
Yet the loon is tired already—
her chick floats in the water beside her,
the loon unable to bear its weight on her back.
She has forgotten she’s supposed to.

She does not eat enough that day.
Slowly, she weaves her way back to her nest,
does not see the mussels coating the floor
of her aquatic home like grime
on a windowsill too high to reach,
does not remember a time when smokestacks
blocked her parents’ view of the sky—
but she feels it still.

Her chick calls out to her,
but she does not move towards it,
does not lift her head at all.
Her nest is slowly crumbling,
picked apart by the water brushing by.
She does not tend to it; she does not lay eggs;
She just sleeps, as poison seeps
from her half-empty stomach to her blood.

Threatened Loons

Medium: Writing (Poem)

This poem is about the loons that live in the Great Lakes area. Since the 1960s, the population of loons in this area has been declining due to human activity. In this poem, I focus on one of the causes: mercury poisoning. For several decades, large amounts of mercury were expelled into the atmosphere through coal-burning power plants and waste incinerators. The mercury then made its way into the Great Lakes and surrounding bodies of water through precipitation and falling dust. Mercury turns into methylmercury when in water, a highly poisonous form of mercury that sinks to the sea floor where it is consumed by bottom feeders. These bottom feeders are then eaten by fish, who become contaminated with mercury. When loons eat these fish, they are poisoned by the mercury in turn. Symptoms of mercury poisoning in loons are lethargy, decreased care for chicks (such as by not carrying them on their backs), inability to take care of their nests, and inability to lay as many eggs. Although stricter pollution regulations have significantly decreased the amount of mercury released into the atmosphere over the last few decades, there is still enough mercury in the water to affect loon populations, and invasive mussels are thought to be contributing to mercury’s longevity. Loons are endangered in Vermont, threatened in New Hampshire and Michigan, and considered a species of special concern in New York, Connecticut, and Massachusetts. This poem aims to shed light on the plight of loons and the harm they are suffering as a result of human actions. We must do more to save these birds.