Wednesday, 22 October 2008

The Road Kill Poem

A dark post, this, so beware. I chased up the William Stafford poem mentioned by Michael in his comment on the Dog post. Yes, I had read it. How could I forget I had read it? Here it is:

Traveling Through The Dark

Traveling through the dark I found a deer
dead on the edge of the Wilson River road.
It is usually best to roll them into the canyon:
that road is narrow; to swerve might make more dead.

By glow of the tail-light I stumbled back of the car
and stood by the heap, a doe, a recent killing;
she had stiffened already, almost cold.
I dragged her off; she was large in the belly.

My fingers touching her side brought me the reason--
her side was warm; her fawn lay there waiting,
alive, still, never to be born.
Beside that mountain road I hesitated.

The car aimed ahead its lowered parking lights;
under the hood purred the steady engine.
I stood in the glare of the warm exhaust turning red;
around our group I could hear the wilderness listen.

I thought hard for us all--my only swerving--,
then pushed her over the edge into the river.

I seem to remember reading other poems about that modern phenomenon, the road kill. In fact I wrote one myself, years ago. Or at least it was partly about road kill, one I killed myself late one night on the road to Norwich.

The deer - or it might have been a muntjack - suddenly appeared as I was just at the top of a hill. There were no other cars. Nothing. C was with me. We stopped the car and moved it. There was no blood as I remember. There was, however, a considerable dent in the car. Such things make one think. And then think again. What I thought of then was the photograph of a long-dead but preserved Inuit baby I had seen in a colour magazine. Lovely tender face. Dark spaces where the eyes would have been. Terrible, insufferable tenderness.

And this was the poem.


I have fallen in love with this baby
whose empty eyes and wrinkled mouth
appear to be essence of baby,
his death a perfect pathos
without sentiment, still as a photograph
of stillness, without potential energy,
with how he looks and does not look at me.

Could he be the Christchild under an Eskimo moon,
part moon himself with pitted eyes,
proverbial round cheese, a comforting thing
in uncomforting space, registering surprise
at the thingness of anything and everything?
And why is he more touching than any live baby?
More nocturnal, more animal? And might he wake up soon?

I hit a deer once, doing a steady lick
at dead of night. Its quivering body
was a thousand startled eyes. I didn't see him fall
but felt his dark soft leg, a heavy stick,
hammer briefly at my metal sheath
then disappear as we sped on, unable
to adjust to his appearance, or
the knowledge of his death.

It was on the brow of a hill. We were heading north,
the notional arctic, but would later bend east
toward Norfolk as the sky lightened. I want to speak light
for the baby, that he might understand. Let him at least
hear the noise of our passage over the earth
and watch the live deer crashing out of sight.

There's that heavy hammering stick that Tóth too mentions (what's that De Quincey essay about the beating on the gate and the porter in Macbeth)? I remember reading the poem in public just once, the only time I ever read with Anthony Hecht, at the Bury St Edmund's Literature Festival, not long after the poem was written. We talked a little, he somewhat a grandee unbending, I awkwardly, in fact a little awed. I have no idea what he thought of the poem, nor did I ask him. I still like the poem. I can date it fairly precisely to 1993, since it appeared in Blind Field (1994) and the incident took place soon after I started commuting to Norwich in 1992. We did of course stop before speeding on.

As to the Inuit baby, here is some information:

[T]he Inuit baby was found along with six other women and another child, in a grave-like cave in Qilakitsoq, Greenland, in 1972. Dating of the bodies brings their age sometime to the 1400s....The Inuit baby was so small that when the mummies were discovered, the baby was tossed to the side by some archaeologists, who assumed it was a doll belonging to the child mummy!... The baby and the other seven mummies were, in effect, freeze-dried after death, resulting in very little deterioration to clothes and body tissue... What exactly killed the group is still unknown. Food was found in the women’s stomachs, so they did not starve to death. The mummies were well-dressed for extremely low temperatures, with the baby’s clothes even made from the skin of baby seals, with the soft fur turned inwards.

Long post. Let me know of other poems on this subject. I really am not interested in the macabre, at least no more than in macramé. There is Richard Eberhart's famous 'Groundhog', which is not a road kill poem but it thinks down vaguely similar lines.


michael said...

Not exactly a roadkill poem, George, but your beautiful Inuit poem brought this one of David Wagoner's back to mind and I expect I will now forever link it to yours and, as I already do somehow, to Stafford's - possibly because of the 'setting out but, perforce, never returning' theme.

George S said...

Thank you for that, Michael. I've just glanced at it, but will get back to it properly.

Not sure who you are. I see the various sites. Why don't you drop me an email at ?

PJ Nolan said...

Again, not exactly a roadkill poem - more a roadmeet, perhaps - but it came to mind straight away - Elizabeth Bishop's The Moose ;

George S said...

Ah, The Moose. Thank you, pj. One of the great poems, and indeed one I sometimes teach from - the timing, the patience, the delicacy yet easy colloquiality, the deepening, the encounter at depth.

It's very much an alive moose, of course. As I remember "It's a she."

Hedgie said...

Eberhart has another "almost roadkill" poem "On a Squirrel Crossing the Road in Autumn" which can be found here.

George S said...

Thanks, Hedgie.

The story that hangs by this is about human encounter with the deaths of animals. I wonder whether there is any pertinent contact here between animal and anima. The death or flight of the soul, the daemon, the familiar...

Mark Granier said...

There is a fine poem by the Aussie poet Philip Hodgins about a trucker running over a snake. I'll see if I can find it on my unruly shelves. I wrote a longish post about a roadkill that affected me quite a bit, on my Lightbox blog HERE:

Jonathan Wonham said...

When I visited you in Budapest all those years ago, I was walking up the hills of Buda to the conference centre, and a dog ran gaily across the road, as if it was running to greet me.

A moment later, it was run over by a very large lorry and was crushed in the middle, its face still looking at me as it died. A horrible incident. I tried to write a poem about it, an attempt to expiate my feelings of guilt and hopelessness, but it wasn't any good.

There is a rather well known poem by Miroslav Holub which explores the roadkill phenomenon from the point of view of "clean kill" or "not clean kill", dwelling on the idea of death's clumsiness (the driver's inaccuracy) and turning the metaphor to the clumsy death which may befall any one of us. It is called Half a Hedgehog.

On a slightly lighter note, there is also a poem called "Rubber" by Norwegian poet Rolf Jacobsen (translated by Roger Greenwald) which dwells on the relationship between man/machine and nature:

"a car had passed over the clay / just where the ant came out busily with its pine needle / and kept wondering around in the big G of "Goodyear" / that was imprinted in the sand of country roads / for a hundred and twenty kilometres."

Background Artist said...

Lots to ponder in the post now rollin, rolling onward like a wholly anima ghost..


This is fun, speaking of what we love, poetry in all its guises and forgive us if we stumble mother and father for new it is, no formal precedent for what's occuring and the only measure, what trace left when we respond, what impells us as anima and the first stop came arse over sideways, as i went to the comment box first, read G's post above and the words - anima and daemon which made me think of..? of course, he doesn't need naming on reading the post, stopped:

on the edge of the Wilson River road...

...edit head kicking in, excised the for reasons of flow:

stopped on the edge of Wilson River road, and only now i've done it see it is because - though very tiny a syntactic flag informing our intellect of something, never the less, it makes definite a road called Wilson River, suggesting the reader (admittely on an unconscious level if not focussed in on like this) - will be in some way familiar with this road, inferring S wrote it addressing provincial audience.

Like if i say the Diceman, mister G knows immediately who i mean, but the majority, will not.

Then, reading the second poem, the first thing to hit was he and thinking, why?

i wondered if it was a he, or S had projected the sex onto - what may have been a her, if the gender was unknown.

Then reading the part of the post which as a competing bore, i found fascinating, the human, real life, it happened'ness of two poets, and having met S myself very very briefly, found the courage to speak and george being kind enough to not make me appear as an idiot, which was well within his power, at a Trinity reading last year, in my imagination at least, having some connection to Hecht, the anima in me, the woman. According to wiki, that's what they are, our opposites within, so the daemon of a woman is male and vice versa.

Then, going to the link and the sex not revealed and thinking, how to respond?

dings gug is the sequence of letters in the word verification


rymin 'n timin - Marty Mulligan from Mullingar line that, who's billed the godfater of Irish slam.

Poet in Residence said...

One time I saw a dead hedgehog squashed in the road; it looked a lot like a toilet brush. But we drivers will never admit to doing it. Guilt or ignorance?

Driving at night in the rain

~ life's flushed away