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.