Poem of the Week | October 04, 2021
“Scare” Nickole Brown
This week’s Poem of the Week is “Scare” by Nickole Brown!
Nickole Brown is the author of Sister and Fanny Says. Her poems have, among other places, appeared in The New York Times, The Oxford American, Poetry International, The Academy of American Poets Poem-a-Day, Dark Mountain, and The Best American Poetry 2017. She has received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Kentucky Foundation for Women, and the Kentucky Arts Council. Currently, she lives in Asheville, North Carolina, where she periodically volunteers at several animal sanctuaries. Since 2016, she’s been writing about these animals, resisting the kind of pastorals that made her (and many of the working-class folks that raised her) feel shut out of nature and the writing about it. Her work often speaks in a queer, Southern-trash-talking way about nature beautiful, damaged, dangerous, and in desperate need of saving. To Those Who Were Our First Gods, a chapbook of these first nine poems, won the 2018 Rattle Prize, and her essay-in-poems, The Donkey Elegies, was published by Sibling Rivalry Press in 2020. In 2021, Spruce Books of Penguin Random House published Write It! 100 Poetry Prompts to Inspire, a book she co-authored with her wife Jessica Jacobs, and they regularly teach generative writing sessions together as part of their SunJune Literary Collaborative. Every summer, she teaches at the low-residency MFA at the Sewanee School of Letters.
Let me tell you — no animal far away is the same
up close. I mean, a whale in a magazine might
seem majestic and free, but what you don’t see is
how too near the surface she falls
asleep, how the light blisters her so raw
gulls tear into her sunburnt skin, lifting into the air
beaks full of her proud flesh.
Or you might believe the rhinoceros a beast
with sight so poor and mean he doesn’t bother
to make out a shape ahead before
rushing from the bush, charging
prehistoric horn first, but come with me — meet Jo,
the lone black rhino at the zoo. His caretaker said,
No worries, he won’t bite down, and sure enough,
I placed my hand in the daunting socket
of his mouth, and inside it was
sweetly pink and warm. He gently received
the treat dropped there, closed the soft pads of his eyes
while he chewed. After, he puppied up to the fence
for a scratch, and trembling I reached to touch
the living concrete of his back.
Or take the house sparrow — harmless suburban
chirper, common as a potato chip — I’ve seen them
pluck each other bloody, snatching feathers to line
their own nests, and it’s no secret they’ll mob
their kin, dispatch their sister’s hatchlings with ease.
You see, once, when I had cancer
or at least again thought I did, one of those hot-wired birds
fought his reflection in my window, and facing an adversary
equal to his own, he broke his own neck.
So don’t let the word fool you:
It’s just a scare. It was only a scare.
Queen of dismissal, the word is quick to exhale,
OhthankGod, to sigh, that was close. But listen: the word is
a caul, an amniotic skin peeled off a newborn so she can
breathe but also a membrane of omen and second sight.
Scare is the threat of death gone but the threat
made real; scare is your life returned but worse
your life returned to how it was — you will bicker
again and take it for granted again,
and all those promises
made to God and heaven above
if your pathology was clean you
will break. That’s right: I’ve missed
every chance — six times already, I’ve seen how death
might find me, each tumor core-needled and excised,
cauterized and cut away, and between detection
and diagnosis I thought at least I’d get
the last bit of my days right with so little left
to go. Now, I’m again set free, but the forecast
still tickles the back of my throat — not what if
but when. What I mean to say is
I’ve been brought to the edge
of the woods, close enough to meet a herd of bison
a friend kept, and when the bull ambled to our truck
I saw at first a sublime beast, a sovereign of the past,
but once he was close enough to smell the stranger I was
in his field, I saw a perfect row of flies drinking
from the wet rim his perfect eyes, how the winged ring
of them persisted even when he blinked as if he could still see
the countless of his kind once murdered in this place. Listen.
I’m not ungrateful: I survived
another summer to see such a thing.
And I don’t pity myself more
than I pity all of us who have to
go. I only mean to say when I felt for sure
my marrow had soured and was killing me
from the inside out, I dreamt every animal
was a cage and inside each animal was another
animal, another cage. When I woke, I meant to
write down the dream but instead wrote
two words: I’m scared.
Now, I’ve healed. I’ve been blessed
another clean bill of health. But the scare has grown
teeth. Now, I go back. I revise my original
entry. I cross out scared and write terrified,
then change it to terrorized. No. Try again.
I write: I am sorry. I am petrified, Lord. I am
deeply afraid. Can you hear me? I am an animal
who knows she will die. Can you not let me stay
in my cage?
I have a body prone to making bumps and lumps and fibroids, tumors that have—ever since I was sixteen — terrorized me every time I’ve discovered one. Gratefully, thus far, they’ve all been benign, but after so many frightening surprises lurking within, I’ve had a difficult relationship with my body. One solution I’ve found is giving myself over to the study and observation of animals. Nothing is quite as comforting to me as putting on my overalls and mucking out a barn; nothing is as nurturing to me as being in the presence of animals and listening for what they might have to teach. When I was struggling with the uncertainty of a growth deep within my leg, I spent days and days at the Little Rock Zoo, and it was there I encountered that rhinoceros—a profound experience during that hellfire time. Many years later, not too long after the removal of a large abdominal mass, two dear friends in Tennessee drove me out to meet a herd of bison they keep, and I’ll never forget the power of that bull stepping out of the forest, approaching to smell my unfamiliar presence. So, yes, the deeply embodied way of animals has helped me heal, but it’s equally as important that we not romanticize them or make them into metaphors for our own uses—their realities are far more complex than the ideas we have of them, and they often suffer, just as we do. That’s the focus of this poem. I suppose what all of it has taught me is how deeply interconnected we are to our non-human kin. Knowing the deeper reality of animals doesn’t make for an easy story, it does mean that I and you and every living being belong — all of us, together — here on this earth. None of us alive — human or not— are alone in our suffering or our will to survive.
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