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Archive for November 12th, 2021

All Wild Animals

[with a poem by Brigit Pegeen Kelly]

Prepare for a long poem today. To discover some destinations takes a bit of traveling. Have I missed my turn? Have I totally misunderstood the directions? Then suddenly it becomes familiar, a place I’ve never imagined but somehow always knew I would reach.

First left after the Carter Falls Trailhead, Bob told me, then watch for the vineyard. I’ve already driven a mile farther up Pleasant Ridge than I expected. Sudden blind left, swerve onto Preacher Field Road, but there’s no vineyard in sight. Well, think, Bill – you’re meeting up on the west bank of Elkin Creek so you’ll have to cross water somewhere. The country road becomes all elbows and knees and wanders down into the little valley. Here’s a bridge. Now we’re meandering back uphill.

And here’s the vineyard, gravel farm drive, crunch down past the barn on right through the pumpkin field to where the trail crew is parked. They’re standing beside the old grave plots talking tools while one man kneels to trace the dates on a headstone: 1751-1848, William Harris, who served three years as General Washington’s body guard then settled here to farm.

We can hear the upper falls from here; glint and sparkle tease us through the oak and sourwood . For the next three hours we’ll follow Bob’s little pink flags with our mattocks, shovels, loppers, Pulaski. Almost too steep to stand and swing in some places. Bench an 18-inch wide footpath, almost every strike flashing sparks on stone (did you say granite or dammit?). Give it just the right camber, slope & runoff. We inch through morning with the murmured encouragement of Big Elkin Creek at our backs and the first draft of a new trail emerges.

So far the trail doesn’t come from anywhere or go anywhere. Today it just enjoys its windings between chestnut oak and beech, through greenbrier and grapevine, and is more than happy to take us with it.

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All Wild Animals Were Once Called Deer
Brigit Pegeen Kelly (1951-2016)

Some truck was gunning the night before up Pippin Hill’s steep grade
And the doe was thrown wide. This happened five years ago now,
Or six. She must have come out of the woods by Simpson’s red trailer—

The one that looks like a faded train car—and the driver
Did not see her. His brakes no good. Or perhaps she hit the truck.
That happens, too. A figure swims up from nowhere, a flying figure

That seems to be made of nothing more than moonlight, or vapor,
Until it slams its face, solid as stone, against the glass.
And maybe when this happens the driver gets out. Maybe not.

Strange about the kills we get without intending them.
Because we are pointed in the direction of something.
Because we are distracted at just the right moment, or the wrong.

We were waiting for the school bus. It was early, but not yet light.
We watched the darkness draining off like the last residue
Of water from a tub. And we didn’t speak, because that was our way.

High up a plane droned, drone of the cold, and behind us the flag
In front of the Bank of Hope’s branch trailer snapped and popped in the wind.
It sounded like a boy whipping a wet towel against a thigh

Or like the stiff beating of a swan’s wings as it takes off
From the lake, a flat drumming sound, the sound of something
Being pounded until it softens, and then—as the wind lowered

And the flag ran out wide—there was a second sound, the sound of running fire.
And there was the scraping, too, the sad knife-against-skin scraping
Of the acres of field corn strung out in straggling rows

Around the branch trailer that had been, the winter before, our town’s claim to fame
When, in the space of two weeks, it was successfully robbed twice.
The same man did it both times, in the same manner.

He had a black hood and a gun, and he was so polite
That the embarrassed teller couldn’t hide her smile when he showed up again.
They didn’t think it could happen twice. But sometimes it does.

Strange about that. Lightning strikes and strikes again.
My piano teacher watched her husband, who had been struck as a boy,
Fall for good, years later, when he was hit again.

He was walking across a cut corn field toward her, stepping over
The dead stalks, holding the bag of nails he’d picked up at the hardware store
Out like a bouquet. It was drizzling so he had his umbrella up.

There was no thunder, nothing to be afraid of.
And then a single bolt from nowhere, and for a moment the man
Was doing a little dance in a movie, a jig, three steps or four,

Before he dropped like a cloth, or a felled bird.
This happened twenty years ago now, but my teacher keeps
Telling me the story. She hums while she plays. And we were humming

That morning by the bus stop. A song about boys and war.
And the thing about the doe was this. She looked alive.
As anything will in the half light. As lawn statues will.

I was going to say as even children playing a game of statues will,
But of course they are alive. Though sometimes
A person pretending to be a statue seems farther gone in death

Than a statue does. Or to put it another way,
Death seems to be the living thing, the thing
The thing that looks out through the eyes. Strange about that . . .

We stared at the doe for a long time and I thought about the way
A hunter slits a deer’s belly. I’ve watched this many times.
And the motion is a deft one. It is the same motion the swan uses

When he knifes the children down by his pond on Wasigan Road.
They put out a hand. And quick as lit grease, the swan’s
Boneless neck snakes around in a sideways circle, driving

The bill hard toward the softest spot . . . All those songs
We sing about swans, but they are mean. And up close, often ugly.
That old Wasigan bird is a smelly, moth-eaten thing.

His wings stained yellow as if he chewed tobacco,
His upper bill broken from his foul-tempered strikes.
And he is awkward, too, out of the water. Broken-billed and gaited.

When he grapples down the steep slope, wheezing and spitting,
He looks like some old man recovering from hip surgery,
Slowly slapping down one cursed flat foot, then the next.

But the thing about the swan is this. The swan is made for the water.
You can’t judge him out of it. He’s made for the chapter
In the rushes. He’s like one of those small planes my brother flies.

Ridiculous things. Something a boy dreams up late at night
While he stares at the stars. Something a child draws.
I’ve watched my brother take off a thousand times, and it’s always

The same. The engine spits and dies, spits and catches—
A spurting match—and the machine shakes and shakes as if it were
Stuck together with glue and wound up with a rubber band.

It shimmies the whole way down the strip, past the pond
Past the wind bagging the goose-necked wind sock, past the banks
Of bright red and blue planes. And as it climbs slowly

Into the air, wobbling from side to side, cautious as a rock climber,
Putting one hand forward then the next, not even looking
At the high spot above the tree line that is the question,

It seems that nothing will keep it up, not a wish, not a dare,
Not the proffered flowers of our held breath. It seems
As if the plane is a prey the hunter has lined up in his sights,

His finger pressing against the cold metal, the taste of blood
On his tongue . . . but then, at the dizzying height
Of our dismay, just before the sky goes black,

The climber’s frail hand reaches up and grasps the highest rock,
Hauling, with a last shudder, the body over,
The gun lowers, and perfectly poised now, high above

The dark pines, the plane is home free. It owns it all, all.
My brother looks down and counts his possessions,
Strip and grass, the child’s cemetery the black tombstones

Of the cedars make on the grassy hill, the wind-scrubbed
Face of the pond, the swan’s white stone . . .
In thirty years, roughly, we will all be dead . . . That is one thing . . .

And you can’t judge the swan out of the water. . . . That is another.
The swan is mean and ugly, stupid as stone,
But when it finally makes its way down the slope, over rocks

And weeds, through the razory grasses of the muddy shallows,
The water fanning out in loose circles around it
And then stilling, when it finally reaches the deepest spot

And raises in slow motion its perfectly articulated wings,
Wings of smoke, wings of air, then everything changes.
Out of the shallows, the lovers emerge, sword and flame,

And over the pond’s lone island the willow spills its canopy,
A shifting feast of gold and green, a spell of lethal beauty.
O bird of moonlight. O bird of wish. O sound rising

Like an echo from the water. Grief sound. Sound of the horn.
The same ghostly sound the deer makes when it runs
Through the woods at night, white lightning through the trees,

Through the coldest moments, when it feels as if the earth
Will never again grow warm, lover running toward lover,
The branches tearing back, the mouth and eyes wide,

The heart flying into the arms of the one that will kill her.

 

All Wild Animals Were Once Called Deer from SONG by Brigit Pegeen Kelly, BOA Editions, January 1st, 1994; © 1994 by Brigit Pegeen Kelly.
First appeared in The Massachusetts Review, Vol. 34 No. 4 (Winter, 1993)
and featured on Poetry Daily October 18, 2021.

More by Brigit Pegeen Kelly:
The Poetry Foundation
The Academy of American Poets

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