Thursday, December 09, 2010

`Delicate Mocking Feet'

I grew up thinking coyotes lived only in the more picturesque regions of the American West, in the vicinity of late-night campfires. In Cleveland, coyotes were as scarce as coatamundis. In upstate New York about twenty years ago I first heard them in the wild, always at night, a lonesome, grieving sound like souls abandoned.

For three months in the spring of 1994, I worked the late shift as a copy editor for the newspaper in Schenectady. The building stood on a bluff above the Mohawk River. I would leave after midnight, following a winding river road home, and most nights I saw pairs of glowing disks ahead of me – the eyes of coyotes reflecting the beams of my headlights. Skinny, furtive, feral creatures, they stared and then ran into the trees.

I’d read of coyote sightings in greater Seattle but hadn’t seen one until Wednesday evening. Two blocks from home, I was driving to the mall to pick up my ten-year-old. From the left, two pairs of blue-white agates moved across the pavement and stopped in the rain. They looked like dogs but bonier, with gray, matted, washed-out fur. Shaky and frightened, like escapees on the lam, they disappeared between two houses. Among the poems Yvor Winters included in his first book, The Immobile Wind (1921), was “Two Songs of Advent”:


“On the desert, between pale mountains, our cries --
Far whispers creeping through an ancient shell.


“Coyote, on delicate mocking feet,
Hovers down the canyon, among the mountains,
His voice running wild in the wind's valleys.

“Listen! Listen! for I enter now your thought.”

In his introduction to Selected Poems: Yvor Winters (2003), Thom Gunn describes his former teacher’s early work as “short gnomic poems that might mean either nothing or a great deal.” About this poem, I vacillate between Gunn’s alternatives. Winters was age twenty and not yet a great poet when he wrote "Two Songs of Advent." “I enter now your thought” is uncomfortably close to Carlos Castaneda’s flummery, but “delicate mocking feet” is precise and memorable. The poet no doubt knew the coyote was a Trickster figure among American Indians. Is Winters suggesting the poet, too, is a Trickster, perhaps juggling “nothing” and “a great deal?”

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

coyote scene: