Saturday, April 16, 2011

Dying Out

In 1977, a creative-writing professor at Midlands Technical College mentioned a poem by James Dickey, of Deliverance fame. Sadly, the teacher's mention of it long outlasted his name. I remember him only for the poem he recommended. I had written a harmless poem to a whale, whose extinction seemed imminent at the time. The last line went something like "We could have called you Brother/But now we teach our children what you were."

Dickey wrote "For the Last Wolverine" in 1966. Despite the fact that his own prognosis for the animal's survival was exaggerated, his love of nature and of wild things like wolverines give the poem emotional and imaginative power. As the poem demonstrates, Dickey delighted in language and in the physical world.

The idea that he grapples with in the poem is a fate actually worse than death: extinction; the end of oneself and simultaneously of one's kind. The statistics, in this case, don't lie: our epoch, known as the Holocene, is witnessing a mass extinction. Dickey's novel solution to the wolverine's passing is one that geneticists might find challenging. The image of a winged wolverine swooping down and snatching away lumberjacks is disturbingly compelling. The nature that Tennyson claimed is "red in tooth and claw" has been vindicated.


They will soon be down

To one, but he still will be
For a little while still will be stopping

The flakes in the air with a look,
Surrounding himself with the silence
Of whitening snarls. Let him eat
The last red meal of the condemned

To extinction, tearing the guts

From an elk. Yet that is not enough
For me. I would have him eat

The heart, and, from it, have an idea
Stream into his gnawing head
That he no longer has a thing
To lose, and so can walk

Out into the open, in the full

Pale of the sub-Arctic sun
Where a single spruce tree is dying

Higher and higher. Let him climb it
With all his meanness and strength.
Lord, we have come to the end
Of this kind of vision of heaven,

As the sky breaks open

Its fans around him and shimmers
And into its northern gates he rises

Snarling complete in the joy of a weasel
With an elk's horned heart in his stomach
Looking straight into the eternal
Blue, where he hauls his kind. I would have it all

My way: at the top of that tree I place

The New World's last eagle
Hunched in mangy feathers giving

Up on the theory of flight.
Dear God of the wildness of poetry, let them mate
To the death in the rotten branches,
Let the tree sway and burst into flame

And mingle them, crackling with feathers,

In crownfire. Let something come
Of it something gigantic legendary

Rise beyond reason over hills
Of ice SCREAMING that it cannot die,
That it has come back, this time
On wings, and will spare no earthly thing:

That it will hover, made purely of northern

Lights, at dusk and fall
On men building roads: will perch

On the moose's horn like a falcon
Riding into battle into holy war against
Screaming railroad crews: will pull
Whole traplines like fibers from the snow

In the long-jawed night of fur trappers.

But, small, filthy, unwinged,
You will soon be crouching

Alone, with maybe some dim racial notion
Of being the last, but none of how much
Your unnoticed going will mean:
How much the timid poem needs

The mindless explosion of your rage,

The glutton's internal fire the elk's
Heart in the belly, sprouting wings,

The pact of the "blind swallowing
Thing," with himself, to eat
The world, and not to be driven off it
Until it is gone, even if it takes

Forever. I take you as you are

And make of you what I will,
Skunk-bear, carcajou, bloodthirsty


Lord, let me die but not die

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