The elegies begin with a couple of beauties dedicated to his father’s dogs–“Let’s hear it for the dogs!” Lots more dogs follow, cows and mules and birds, but hardly any small game except for the hints of why there were so many dogs around the family farm in the first place.
There is, however, the one stunning “Opposum,” which begins with an epic quest:
November falls when local boys and men
Go to Beaver Dam to rout the possum . . .
And rout Possum they do, though a little rough for the poet’s sensibilities:
. . . I can’t digest the hunting part of Youth.
The possum, barbecued, was my Sweet Tooth.
And on our table set in winter’s thrall
The venerable possum laid quiet as hell.
His eyes were scared and roasted to a crisp,
though he did not vary his prowl one bit.
When my father cut out what were his eyes
And plopped them in his mouth and crushed the dyes . . .
This fine collection recalls some of the best of A.R. Ammons in its treatment of the non-human inhabitants of the family farm and woods. Its playfulness and use of formal rhyme and structures in constructing narratives recall some of Fred Chappell’s most entertaining poems.
Even “Possum” has a happy magical realism kind of ending: poof, I was free.
Also includes the essay “Meditation on Guns,” which is really a meditation on hunting small game: “My father never grieved for animals he killed.” Naming his pig (Sparkle) before she was killed for food was, perhaps, a critical mistake–and certainly a haunting one–for the young Archie Ammons growing up on his family farm in Columbus County. Shelby gets a little of that unease, but his love of his father (and all those dogs!) and the world he represented makes clear that necessity sometimes outweighs moral restraint which, for the most part, is nonexistent in this world of seasonal cycles that you’ve just got to figure a way to get through. Being a good shot, having well-trained dogs, and knowing where to look for small game are great ways to help ease through the seasons.