Poem of the Week | September 12, 2016

This week, we are excited to present a new poem by Joe Wilkins. Wilkins is the author of a memoir, The Mountain and the Fathers: Growing Up on the Big Dry, winner of a 2014 GLCA New Writers Award—an honor that has previously recognized early work by the likes of Richard Ford, Louise Erdrich, and Alice Munro—and two previous books of poetry, Notes from the Journey Westward and Killing the Murnion Dogs. His most recent full-length collection, When We Were Birds, was selected by Billy Collins for the Miller Williams Poetry Prize Series. The winner of the 2015 Boyden Wilderness Writing Residency from PEN Northwest, he and his family recently spent six months in an off-the-grid cabin in the Klamath Mountains. Wilkins makes his home in western Oregon, where he teaches writing at Linfield College.

Author’s note:

My family and I spent the summer and fall of 2015 living in an off-the-grid cabin in the Klamath Mountains above the Rogue River of southwest Oregon. We were two hours from the nearest grocery store and more or less neighborless in that far, rucked, difficult country. But we weren’t alone. We had one another, my wife and I and our six-year-old son and four-year-old daughter, and we had as well the many wild creatures of the mountain. The swift, furious hummingbirds; the curious otter; the gray fox that left delicate piles of scat along the river trail; big black bears loping off into the woods. And we shared the meadow below the cabin with two deer. They showed up in June and spent a good part of their day in the meadow, always the two of them. We named them Daisy and Danny. We came to count on them. We’d look up from gardening, from splashing in the old washtub, from napping beneath the apple trees—and they’d be right there, lipping windfall apples, turning a soft black eye on us.

“Explain: Extinct” grew out of our desire—our need, really—for the company of these deer; I couldn’t help but think of where that need might lead. And I’d already been working on a series of poems to my children that were all titled “Explain: ______.” So I used that form to follow that need. And, of course, I ended up where our wider culture too often ends up: in acquisition.


Explain: Extinct

They are all beasts of burden, in a sense,
made to carry some portion of our thoughts.


We could, if we wanted,
follow the old buck


down through the madrone grove,
the high branches splitting now


their ochre skins. See how
below the boulderfall


he slows, slips without sound
through sword fern


& thimbleberry, waits
in deep creek-shadow? He knows


this is where they might meet,
he & whoever will one day


taste him. We could,
if we wanted, follow farther—


follow down the mountain
rock-clack & leaf-shatter,


his trail of dripwater & piss
all the way to the river,


where at his shadow
salmon flash & scatter,


& eagles dream him
drowned & on a gravel bar


wracked, which is how eagles
dream all of us. Child,


there is no place
we couldn’t find him. Even


if he were the last,
we could one hour or day or year—


it’s all the same—
take him in our arms,


the almost unbearable softness
of the ear.