Pushcart XLI: Robert Wrigley, “Elk” (poetry) from Conduit, #26

Photo by Inger Sjöberg

Photo by Inger Sjöberg

His hindquarters must have fallen through
the ice, and he could not pull himself back out
and the incoming colder weather
refroze the hole around him and he died,
sinking some, only his broad horns
holding his head and neck above the surface.

I’m always a little uncomfortable with nature poems – I feel like I’m supposed to be in awe of something, but I’m not sure what – but following the theme of “look beyond the surface of what’s in front of you” from the first couple of pieces in this year’s volume, I found several points of interest.
The narrative concern a youngster (I’m presuming), headed out to the frozen-over lake to skate before the forecast snow falls, who finds a dead elk stuck in the ice where he seems to have fallen through. Apparently this sort of thing happens a lot in Norway: the NRK calls it the fourth leading cause of death for moose, and once in a while, a school of fish gets itself naturally frozen. So I’d imagine it isn’t unheard of in Wrigley’s home state of Montana, either.

The poetic speaker seems to take it in stride. Things get a bit grotesque for those of us city folk who can watch homeless old men lie passed out on the sidewalk and read about shootings and stabbings of our neighbors and drone bombings of children in Yemen with mere disgust or sorrow or helpless rage but are appalled at the idea of a coyote eating the face off a trapped elk. I think it’s the face. Eating a leg would be gruesome, but the face is so much more personal. To the coyote, it’s just dinner; he doesn’t claim to be made in the image of God. What’s our excuse?

I see the poem as occurring in several stanzas, though it’s presented without any white space. Given my penchant for finding patterns when I’m not sure what else to do, I can see some similarities to both elegiac and sonnet form, complete with variations and shared structures moving from past to present to future, shifting attention from object to subject, from observation to speculation.

But I’m punching above my weight there, so I’d rather think about the meaning of two particular places:

A half-mile skate back to where I hung my boots
from a limb, a hundred yard walk from there
to the truck, in which I keep a bow saw,
which I could use to remove a wedge of pate
with the perfect rack, but I choose not to.
Something in the weariness of the bones
of his jaw, also the snow just now beginning.

I love that simple “but I choose not to” – present tense, single-syllable, a wall of will. But the speaker doesn’t try to claim more than he’s earned: he’s motivated partly by the distress he sees in the elk’s posture, but also by self-interest, because it’s just too much work. Had the snow not been starting to fall, had the saw been at hand, he might’ve gone home with the rack, and he doesn’t try to paint it otherwise. And by the way, that last couplet is one of the two-line turns in between two sonnet variations, as well as the turn of the overall elegiac structure. Because I can’t resist. And I’m trying to get the thought of what it’s like to saw an elk’s antlers off out of my head.

The final sextain also got my attention:

Although the coyotes may be back tonight,
to dig their way from the horns’ stumps
for the ears, which I notice are still whole and upright,
the left one turned slightly farther left,
as though, with the last of his miraculous
senses, he heard them coming over the ice.

Beginning with “Although” preps the reader for a second clause: although this, that. But there is no that, only this; the “although” connects to the prior lines. Past, present, and future are all brought together, speculation brings subject and object together once more as the speaker notices those ears and imagines what it might mean. The final line is horrifying, and brutally honest. Yet I wonder if the optimistic elk might have thought the sounds of approach predicted rescue rather than scavenge, and was cheered. And then I wonder if I’m really that determined to turn this into something hopeful, to avoid considering that we are all stuck in the ice and the sounds we hear are footsteps of coyotes rather than angels.

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2 responses to “Pushcart XLI: Robert Wrigley, “Elk” (poetry) from Conduit, #26

  1. That was beautiful writing, Karen. It expresses the mood of many, I believe, this Jan. 2017. Maybe because of today’s date I was moved to read T.S. Eliot’s “Journey of The Magi” and found a similar mood.

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