Feb 142014

sl, bird dog pete and sharptail, Montana

On Valentine’s Day, of all days, a beautiful, yes, and uncannily disturbing short essay from Contributing Editor Sydney Lea that approaches the sex & death theme not in any trite pop-phil way, no, but in the way of poetry, juxtaposing two porcupines fucking (oh, man, the teeth chattering of two porcupines going at it) and the author’s rage and also the author’s own youthfully naive “savage romance” and the squalid death and the Wagnerian rise of “the deafening whistles of great churning trains; the shrieks of taloned raptors; the clamor of enraged men” at the end. Life is savage and strange. Something here of the ancient hunting myths: you kill (out of rage, out of necessity) and call down the curses of the dead upon your head for you have stretched your hand into the bitter lands. But brief, flashing, language that explodes. Also a story of love gone tragically bad.

May I draw your attention to Syd’s new author photo, which delights me. Author, gun, bird and dog. Bird dogs come into the essay. Ekphrasis. (Well, almost.) The author’s essays on bird hunting and dogs are among the best pieces of nature writing/observation I have ever read.



I hesitated, doubtful I really wanted to learn just what that racket could be, mere yards into the woods behind our house. Hilarity seemed to blend with loud despair in that caterwaul, a mix somehow expressive, though of what I couldn’t have said.

Uncanny. The word flew into my thoughts unbidden. Once you dig up its roots, of course, it really means nothing more than unknown, yet in common usage it often holds some hint of horror.

I longed to go indoors, unhorrified, where fall’s first fire waited in the woodstove. Now that the house had lost its children, I looked forward as well to a romantic, last-of-the-workweek meal with my wife. I wanted to get away from … what? a windigo? a lycanthrope? a djinn? Nothing ordinary, at all events. I couldn’t associate that clamor with any local fauna, which I’d always thought I knew so thoroughly.

My flashlight found two forms, not big, not small, the size perhaps of new fawns, but far darker–dark as dark ever was. I saw an eye-gleam, then another, and finally four, each the color of a coal: two porcupines, carnally clinched, hooting and cackling. I still can’t think quite how to describe those squalls.

My childhood hero Frankie de Angelis once showed his own eyes’ glint and, laughing meanly, proclaimed he wanted to die at what these beasts were so roughly up to. I wasn’t entirely sure what he meant, though I recall managing a comradely, pseudo-manly chuckle.  Frankie, twice my age, could knock men out. He could walk on his hands forever. He could do a back flip from a standstill.

A porcupine is not even good at climbing the trees that make up his diet, so these two looked awkward in their noisy act of sex. Or maybe just careful, as in the lame old joke. Indeed, they chattered their teeth and tittered as if their behavior were just that, a sort of petty farce.

But then they’d hiss like bobcats, or scrabble or bark. Graceless, ugly things. I considered the hours I’d spent over the past summer, pliers in hand, plucking quills from my swift but stupid bird dogs, all yelp and twitch and tremble, their blood flecking our mudroom. So perhaps it was simple rage that drove me now, though surely that’s too simple a description.

When I got a little closer to Frankie’s age, my very first sweetheart and I would chafe and scrabble at each other’s bodies, as if we meant to do each other harm. Ignorant, savage romance.

I ran to the shed, grabbed a shovel, rushed back, and clubbed that pair of animals dead. It takes some doing to murder creatures with brains the size of warts, and it’s not as though I wanted violence anyhow, only peace and calm.

As I quelled one set of noises, however, others rose to mind: the wails of sirens; the deafening whistles of great churning trains; the shrieks of taloned raptors; the clamor of enraged men. I heard them all, uncanny.

— Sydney Lea

Sydney Lea is Poet Laureate of Vermont. He founded New England Review in 1977 and edited it till 1989. His poetry collection Pursuit of a Wound (University of Illinois Press, 2000) was one of three finalists for the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. Another collection, 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. 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 College of Fine Arts and Middlebury College, 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. His selection of literary essays, A Hundred Himalayas, was published by the University of Michigan Press in September, and Skyhorse Publications just released A North Country Life: Tales of Woodsmen, Waters and Wildlife. His eleventh poetry collection, I Was Thinking of Beauty, was published in 2013 by Four Way Books.

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