Friday, July 18, 2014

A Poem by Gretchen Primack

Here’s another installment of “Poetry…I just don’t get it”. A series where I send some good poems out into the world with an explanation by the poet – in the hopes that the average non-poet reader will explore the realm of Poetry Land with less fear (or anger), and maybe buy a book or two. Or three. 

The last two episodes can be found here (Michaela Kahn) and here (Erling Friis-Baastad). 

This month: a poem by Gretchen Primack, from her collection Kind (Post Traumatic Press, 2013). The title plays with the idea of what kind means. Kind is sometimes a noun, defining class or group (human, animal, etc.). This definition usually creates difference, a sense of us vs. them, and so, alienation. Kind can also be an adjective, meaning benevolent, loving, or considerate.

I quote from her interview with Chronogram (a Hudson Valley, New York magazine) when Kind was first released: “I don't have a line between our species and other sentient beings…I don’t think children have that line; somewhere along the line we’re taught it. I find that separation very artificial, and I don’t think it leads us to healthy lives. It leads to profound problems in our world. It contributes to environmental disaster, to world hunger, to public health nightmares, to a breakdown of morality.”

While many of the poems in this collection have been seen through the lens of “animal rights,” I see the collection in broader terms, as part of a new wave of authors re-defining Humanism: that what makes us human is our relationship with the non-human.

Gretchen is also the author of a more recent collection of poetry, Doris’ Red Spaces (May Apple Press, 2014); a chapbook, The Slow Creaking of Planets (Finishing Line Press, 2007); and was co-author on The Lucky Ones: My Passionate Fight for Farm Animals (Penguin, 2012), about the life of Jenny Brown, founder of The Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary.


What I like about the poem “The Dogs and I Walked Our Woods” is the immediacy of the language. The description of the scene moves forward, back, groping, the way the mind does when confronted by something brutal and frightening. What am I seeing? Did someone really do this? Why? The poem then expands, moves quickly from horrified witness, out through the questions the scene poses, and into the world with one person’s answer…

The Dogs and I
          Walked Our Woods,

and there was a dog, precisely the colors of autumn,
asleep between two trunks by the trail.
But it was a coyote, paws pink
with a clean-through hole in the left,
and a deep hole in the back of the neck,
dragged and placed in the low crotch
of a tree. But it was two coyotes,
the other's hole in the side of the neck,
the other with a dried pool of blood below
the nose, a dried pool below the anus,
the other dragged and placed
in the adjoining low crook, the other's body
a precise mirror of the first. The eyes were closed,
the fur smooth and precisely the colors
of autumn, a little warm to my touch though the bodies
were not. The fur was cells telling themselves
to spin to keep her warm to stand
and hunt and keep. It was a red
autumn leaf on the forest floor, but
it was a blooded brown leaf, and another, because
they dragged the bodies to create a monument
to domination, to the enormous human,
and if I bore a child who suffered to see this,
or if I bore a child who gladdened to see this, or if
I bore a child who kept walking, I could not bear
it, so I will not bear one.

The Dogs and I Walked Our Woods

Every morning, I take the dogs on the forest trails that loop behind our house. We rarely see a human. Occasionally, there’s a man with a gun. 

One morning, we were about a mile from the house when I noticed the sleeping dog, which turned into a coyote, which turned into two shot coyotes assembled in the crook of a forked tree. I wrote this poem almost immediately afterwards (though there was plenty of shaping to do). 

About a year later, I wrote a longer poem, The Hunter, trying to get into the head of someone who feels more alive by taking life. He is making his mark on the world; he is exercising ultimate control; he is slighting his own death. 

Maybe he goes one step further. Maybe he handles the bodies, makes these beings into his puppets (echoing the heads on spikes of Old London Bridge). But part of him, too, might feel the satisfaction that comes from making art. 

Art is another way to derive worth and fight the vulnerability of mortality. It can, of course, be created without causing harm, even work against harm – but there’s his kind, too. In his case, one way to stave off the fear of mortality—taking life—led to another way—making art. 

Both ways came at the expense of a creature every bit as worthy as himself.

Gretchen Primack

You can buy Kind and Doris’ Red Spaces from her website here.
(where you can also find sample poems)

Interview with Chronogram

Gretchen discussing Kind at EcoRazzi

Review of Kind at pank magazine

Review of Kind at ourhenhouse