Herewith a lovely, trenchant, hilarious, smelly essay on writing narrative poems, growing up, mothers and sons, and skunks. Some of the delights: the essay is in part a dialogue with a friend and hence the deceptively intimate and casual throw of the long sentences which accrete heft and wisdom from underneath, as it were, slyly and with mysterious suspense. Lovely to read. Also, of course, the unforgettable image of Sydney Lea, naked, slewing down a muddy, dark forest road in a truck, holding a shotgun out the window as he steers one-handed and tries to shoot a skunk. Of the inception of this essay, Syd wrote to me:
“My friend Fleda Brown, lately poet laureate of Delaware but now escaped to northern Michigan, and I are writing a book together. She writes an essay on a topic (food, sex, clothes, houses, illness, and wild animals — see attachment); then I write one on the same topic. Then I write one and she follows suit. Etc. It’s fun, though I don’t know who in Hell will publish it.”
Apparently, Numéro Cinq is just the place.
Sydney Lea is the Poet Laureate of Vermont, a prolific author of poems, essays, and fiction, a former colleague at Vermont College of Fine Arts (where, one wintry eve in Noble Lounge—and I believe I have mentioned this before, becoming garrulous and repetitive in my old age—Syd gave the finest reading I have ever witnessed), and an old friend.
Many, many years ago I wrote a poem called “The Feud.” It got a little acclaim, several commentators applauding my reimportation of elements that most poetry had for some while ceded to fiction: character, plot, setting, dialogue – values of that sort.
In fact I hadn’t set out with any agenda in mind. I’d come to poetry late in life by most people’s standards, having been a conventional academic into my mid-thirties, and I didn’t know much about contemporary poetry. (I’m not yet sure such a thing is entirely knowable, at least to me.) So I wasn’t looking to be idiosyncratic or aesthetically inventive. I merely wanted to tell a tale, and when I did, for some reason it presented itself in blank verse.
“The Feud” is a long poem, some seventeen typescript pages, so it may appear surprising that it came to me intact in less than an hour. I never stopped my fingers on the keyboard, wrote as if possessed. Thereafter, such revisions as I did on the poem were very minimal: I remember excising a single stanza of the many, and changing a handful of words here and there. But that was about all.
As a good Puritan, I was suspicious of any poem’s quality if it presented itself do rapidly. But whatever that quality, I now think “The Feud’s” sudden arrival had something to do with its being the first thing I’d written in about half a year after the death by aneurism of my younger brother, an event so shocking of course as to make me wonder among other things why in the world one would bother with mere poetry at all.
I’m now persuaded that the whole story of “The Feud” is allegorical of my relationship with the man who’d died so tragically young, which was both an intimate and often a heatedly adversarial one, and on which I had of course been meditating for that half-year, even when I didn’t know it. In short, I had been doing so much emotional research, for the most part unawares, that when I began composition the material was right at my fingertips.
My narrative involved a speaker and his hostile dealings with a local have-not family named Walker. That speaker is proud unto vain, and is especially given to righteousness: throughout the tale, he contrasts himself with his sad, impoverished counterparts, seeing respectable ideals in himself, and in them no higher aims whatsoever.
I didn’t like my protagonist much, I still don’t, and it took me more than a year after the poem’s completion to recognize why: his self-absorption and quickness to judge were a lot like mine, particularly when I was even younger, and more particularly with respect to my late brother. In our school years, for example, I estimated my roles as accomplished scholar and athlete to be exemplary, looking down on him because he thought them useless charades. And despite my own shortcomings in her eyes, to my hugely imposing mother too I represented the white sheep, he the black.
I look back on that sad period after he died and I understand why I might have had a negative opinion of the person I’d been up until then. It wasn’t only my scores of petty feuds with the younger brother, which seemed so ridiculously petty in the wake of his passing. I can’t list, either, all the ways in which I was a bad husband to a fine woman, how often I fabricated occasions to look down on her too, as well as on colleagues, neighbors, even dear friends and family.
These introductory musings derive from my unexpectedly thinking, when I set about composing an essay on my confrontations with wild animals (and as an inveterate and devoted hunter I have naturally had many), of a passage from “The Feud.” I shortly recalled, and not at all for the first time, the circumstances that engendered those lines.
“The Feud’s” speaker at one point refers to a time when a skunk, reacting to a rush from his house cat, sprayed copiously enough in a shed under his bedroom to awaken him: “The smell was worse than death,” he remembers,
And till the dawn arrived, for hours I felt
the stink was like a judgment: every sin
from when I was a child till then flew back
and played itself again before my eyes.
Now the closest encounter I myself ever had with skunks goes back to a much earlier period, when I was in fact a child. Fourteen years old, I was mowing a patch of meadow at my great uncle’s farm. Suddenly the tractor’s sickle bar decapitated a mother skunk, though it was set high enough to pass over the heads of her three small kits.
I don’t know where on earth I could have gotten the notion, but I somehow believed – given their tininess – the baby skunks too young to spray. I left them tumbling between windrows and ran to the barn for a burlap sack. I’d heard that skunks made good pets, and I figured my mother, whose only sentimentality was for animals, would surely pay to have their musk sacs removed before they became operational.
I hustled back to the field, holding the bag open and reaching for the first kit. In that instant, all three skunks fell quickly into formation and blasted me from less than two feet away.
I won’t speak for others, but I find the distant smell of skunk almost pleasant, wild and woodsy as it is, redolent, particularly, of spring. To be literally soaked in skunk musk is another matter entirely. Child of the 60s, I know what tear gas feels like, but given a choice between the gas and what I experienced on that morning over fifty years ago, I’ll ask for the cops and their canisters.
Choking, blinded, I bumbled to the pond and threw myself in – which of course did no good at all. Since then, women’s douche solution has proven the best antidote for skunk that I know, and we now keep a lot of it on hand for dog-and-skunk emergencies. But I didn’t have this unlikely remedy then. I submitted to a more traditional one: my bachelor great uncle’s wise and wonderful Irish housekeeper (God bless dear Mary Griffin) doused me with tomato juice, tomato paste, even ketchup, which made things not perfect but a lot better. I soaked in a bubbly bathtub through the afternoon, then took shower after shower, and slathered myself with my great uncle’s cologne, By evening, I’d become bearable to Mary – and to myself.
For weeks after, however, when the weather turned very humid or rainy, the odor of skunk came nauseatingly back, and I recall that for whatever reason, yes, “the stink was like a judgment.”
Now let me leap ahead some twenty years, to a time more patently connected to that portion of “The Feud,” when I lived in a drafty yellow farmhouse with my first wife. One August, two or three times a week the same skunk kept waddling into the shed below our bedroom, even after I moved our rubbish can down-cellar. Having struck pay dirt once, it seemed, the beast imagined with persistence he’d get lucky again.
We had a cat named Wendy, good in the house but in many ways half feral. We left her outdoors at night all year round, and in summer would simply let her fend for herself back home after we went to our Maine camp for almost a month. She was always sleek and fat when we returned, having subsisted on the plentiful voles and red squirrels of the remote neighborhood. Wendy charged that skunk each time it came calling, but somehow managed never to get sprayed herself. The stench would rise up, though, and would indeed wake the sleepers above.
One night, an unusually hot and steamy one for upper New England, I lay up there in the buff, on top of the bedclothes. When the smell roused me from my slumber, I swore I’d had enough. Rushing down to my hunting room, I fetched my12-gauge Browning, a handful of shells and a flashlight. Then I ran to the kitchen door that opened onto the shed.
The animal must somehow have sensed danger, because, under a hazy full moon, I saw it bobbing down the dirt road, about to reach the deep woods west of the house. I knew I’d never catch the skunk on foot, so I leapt into my old Chevy pickup and roared after it, leaning out the window, shotgun in hand, ready to blow the creature to kingdom come from behind the wheel, like one of my childhood cowboy heroes shooting at a bad guy from horseback.
Just as I came within range, ready to hit the brakes and fire, I lost control of the truck and fishtailed into those same woods. I miraculously avoided every tree, but, four-wheel drive be damned, I found myself hopelessly stuck in a wetland pothole.
So there was I, buck naked, toting a shotgun, mud to my shins, perhaps a hundred yards from the house. Thank God, I thought, we live in the middle of nowhere and it’s three in the morning. I started walking homeward.
Then I heard the engine. On looking back I saw headlights pointing upward. Unbelievable. Whoever it may have been was climbing the hill a quarter mile behind me and heading my way. By now I was out in the meadowland, so I couldn’t just dash back into the forest for cover. I stumbled up into a field and lay my naked body on the stubble of lately cut hay, mosquitoes strafing me, astonished at their good fortune.
To make matters worse, the driver of the car – whose identity I’ll never know – had noticed my truck in the woods and, no doubt with the best of intentions, gotten out to inspect the scene of the accident. I heard male voices, though not at such a distance what they were saying.
Jesus, can’t they see there’s no one there? I silently screamed. The would-be Samaritans seemed to be lingering a long, long time, and I was in plain misery there on my painful bed, prey to the vicious insects.
In due course, the vehicle passed, I picked myself up, returned to the house, showered, went back to bed. But I never slept again through those slow early morning hours. Again, “the stink was like a judgment.” I lay there wondering how in hell I had turned out to be such an unadmirable man. Even minor pecadillos, never mind what I considered my more epical sins, seemed monstrous. Even now, I find that insomnia can have ill effects under the best of conditions.
But even now I also wonder why, after those three skunk kits let me have it at fourteen, I’d felt so unlikable.
I do have a tendency – as my wife often reminds me – to what the feel-good parlance of our time names low self-esteem, and although I don’t want to engage in the very psycho-babble I usually mock, I suspect that this self-laceration goes back to a vexed relationship with that same larger-than-life, animal-loving mother.
I was a good student back in the field-mowing days, and better later along – but I never proved good enough for her. An example: our school still used a numbered grading system, and I recall getting a 96 on my English final in tenth grade. I also, and more painfully, recall her asking what had happened to the other four points. For all I know, she was joking – but I’m pretty sure not.
It was late in her troubled, if quite productive life that she told me something about her own school days, something I now believe to have been crucial, determinative. She was her class valedictorian, and had just been accepted to Radcliffe, about the toniest women’s college going at the time. When she ran with the news to her uncle, the same man whose field I mowed and who was her virtual father, the biological one having died in her fifth year – when she ran in, breathless, to share that report from Radcliffe, the old man looked her in the eye and said five terse words.
Women don’t go to college.
I am sure our great uncle, like anyone, carried his own bag of rocks. My siblings and I have sometimes wondered if he remained unmarried because he was gay, closeted as the times demanded, though there is no way to prove that either way. For whatever reason, he could be gracious and generous in one instant, explosive in the next.
He was at his most daunting, however, when he turned steely. Women don’t go to college. On hearing that pronouncement, my mother must instantly have known there’d be no appeal.
And so, I suspect, she wanted me as firstborn to be her academic vicar. She may well have withheld approval of my scholastic achievements from a belief that I was squandering a gift that had been summarily denied to her. My every accomplishment, then, amounted to relatively little. It seems never to have occurred to her that I was doing the best I could. Who knows? Maybe I wasn’t. But that is a separate story.
After my mother’s death, and after more than a decade of resenting her memory, I wrote her a letter whose first half catalogued all my grievances, and whose second catalogued the things she’d passed on for which I felt grateful. I went to the columbarium where her remains lay, read the letter aloud, then struck a match to it, watching the paper’s ashes fall to earth around her own. For whatever reason, the resentments vanished in that moment.
My feelings about myself have subsequently improved, at however gradual a rate.
Which, oddly, brings me to skunks yet again. I recall a beautiful forenoon in May, and my even more beautiful wife and I enjoying it in Montreal’s botanical gardens. We had gone to that great city for a romantic weekend, and the blue sky, the brilliant sun, and the countless flowers in bud or bloom – all felt precisely in keeping with that mission.
We were near the Japanese-style temple at the heart of the gardens when Robin noticed a rustling in some pachysandra.
“What do you suppose that is?” she asked.
We leaned over together as I parted the leaves. There stood a skunk, back-to, tamping its front feet, its spray-hole distended almost to bursting. Needless to say, we bolted like hares.
As we walked back to the subway, we marveled at our good luck. Once sprayed, we’d never have been allowed on that Métro; we couldn’t have hailed a cab; it was a full five-mile hike back to the hotel, and once we got there, we’d have been barred from it too. What in the world might we have done?
Why that little creature didn’t let us have it I’ll never know. But while we wandered along, giggling like schoolkids, I suddenly realized that I felt not a trace of the old self-loathing.
Perhaps that equanimity came only from not being sprayed by the skunk. And yet there’s still enough of the romantic poet in me to turn that datum around.
I loathe and, largely on behalf of the animals, have always campaigned against the Disneyfied humanization of wildlife. I know that animals are emphatically not, as some inane bumper stickers would have us beklieve, little people in fur coats; so I also know full well how wrong the following notion is on a literal level. Metaphorically, however, it makes perfect sense to me that the skunk failed to spray simply because I’m a different man at seventy than I was at thirty or even fourteen – a man who, in his own eyes at least, has a lot less to feel guilty or inadequate about.
I’ll keep on dreaming that’s so.
SYDNEY LEA is Poet Laureate of Vermont. His most recent collection of poems is Six Sundays Toward a Seventh: Selected Spiritual Poems, from publishers Wipf and Stock. His 2011 collection is Young of the Year (Four Way Books). Later this year, the University of Michigan Press will issue A Hundred Himalayas, a sampling from his critical work over four decades. A North Country Life: Tales of Woodsmen, Waters and Wildlife (Skyhorse Publishing), a third volume of outdoor essays, will also be published in 2012, and his eleventh poetry collection, I Was Thinking of Beauty, will follow in 2013 from Four Way Books.
He founded New England Review in 1977 and edited it till 1989. Of his nine previous poetry collections, Pursuit of a Wound (University of Illinois Press, 2000) was one of three finalists for the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. The preceding volume, To the Bone: New and Selected Poems, was co-winner of the 1998 Poets’ Prize. In 1989, Lea also published the novel A Place in Mind with Scribner, and the book is still available in paper from Story Line Press. His 1994 collection of naturalist essays, Hunting the Whole Way Home, was re-issued in paper by the Lyons Press in 2003. Lea has received fellowships from the Rockefeller, Fulbright and Guggenheim Foundations, and has taught at Dartmouth, Yale, Wesleyan, Vermont and Middlebury Colleges, as well as at Franklin College in Switzerland and the National Hungarian University in Budapest. His stories, poems, essays and criticism have appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The New Republic, The New York Times, Sports Illustrated and many other periodicals, as well as in more than forty anthologies. He lives in Newbury, Vermont, where he is active in statewide literacy and conservation efforts.
Thanks such a beautifully-written and unexpected blend of emotional experience, Who knew skunks had such prophetic powers!?
Burning the two-voiced letter — what a marvellous idea. Maybe at 71 I can still write a couple of those & put the torch to them.
Meanwhile I’ll go looking for “The Feud.” My thanks again.
Hi Sydney, see you in Ottawa soon, I think. Looking forward to that. Great essay! all good things, John B. Lee