"Ekphrasis Magazine" published an excerpt from my prose poem series "Hall of Mammals" in their Winter 2022 issue. The full poem is reproduced below.
Hall of Mammals
A room of dioramas, a word derived from the Greek “dia” (through) & “horao” (view), so “to see through,” which for me means to see it is changed & unchanged since childhood. Grizzly Bear still turns his grey, woolly head towards me, his deep-set, unfathomable eyes, huge gleaming black nose, his small ears—almost comic—his expression more curious than startled or afraid—“extinct in California” in 1932, as the placard reads—Asking the Librarian, I learn installers Egmont Rhett & Ben Wright kept rejecting specimens brought in by hunters, trappers and a rancher. She suspects from letters exchanged among these artists that the proffered carcasses were too large for the space allotted for Grizzly Bear.
The background had already been painted by Belmore Browne—the sandstone boulders, patches of lichen, Rye Grass, grey leaves, a lone stunted Coyote Brush bush clinging to a crevice between stones—all this was already put in place by the installers, as they waited for a Bear’s carcass that would fit into the space. Grizzly bewitched me in this “Hall” of windows, for 40 years, he’s looked at me as I stood, meeting his gaze—departed & returned, finding a wilderness, inhabited & revived in his reliable body (his dull fur, the armature of his constructed pose), his confidence & curiosity; & still I sit before him (contrived & real), unwilling to break his gaze & return to a world that no longer includes him in the lower 48—that soon enough will include neither of us except as whatever is made of us after we are gone.
Two Grey Wolves, more charcoal now than grey, one, nose to the ground & bushy tail erect; the other, tail slack, nose to the wind, looking far ahead into the distance, into the painted scene by Elizabeth Jordan, who took her own life not long after she completed her work in 1927, over a love affair gone sour—it’s there in the landscape: ultramarine hills that rise, ridge upon ridge to a high horizon line: a turbulent sky of clouds massing as if about to storm; Golden Hour light just fading, a loss of gold to lighter yellow smudged with blue; a hillock below the Wolves, some unsteady silhouettes, a blue snag & a few wind-twisted trees too far away, too dim to name.
Her story overwhelms the window’s scene, the careful installation of Egmont Rhett & Ben Wright making the ground slope away under the Wolves, then fall off steeply, a precipice to give the tableau the illusion of space, which her painting suddenly turns into a rhapsodic elegy on time. The Wolves are paired against this dissonance of space & time—so little space separates them—yet each is at work on a task that benefits them both—a self-contained, cooperative narrative that needs no recognition of the viewer, no implied inclusion in the scene sealed off behind the slanting safety glass. I am, & always have been alone before this wild pair, their species hunted to extinction in the years that followed, extinction upon extinction, the daily lives of those outside the diorama silently, perhaps even unconsciously, demanding the extirpation of the Wolves, to further the production of meat, which may indeed be how these two carcasses came into the hands of taxidermists Rhett & Wright, as unwanted pests that early ranchers killed or put a bounty upon—it’s all already there.
“Found in nearby mountains,” reads the placard above the Mountain Lions, the word “found” fouled by meaning both habitation & death; the viewer—if not myself as a child in the 1970s, then surely the astute men of 1927—must have smiled at the subtle irony. The domestic scene, mother & cubs, is hardly as straightforward as it must have seemed to me as a child, as I look closely: the mother stretched out, her head resting on her foreleg, a sanguine look to her face as she watches her cubs play, one pouncing & the other rolled on his back, paws in the air defending, both at the edge of a ledge, the rock face over the mother scored with ochre symbols—two lines & below them three inverted triangles—in imitation of a Chumash cave painting, the Chumash being mostly extinct by 1927.
The sandstone ledge, carefully staged by Rhett, is littered with bones of small mammals & two small antlers from a yearling Buck, a scrap of a tail, white upper jaw & skull of some animal; & at the far edge, a Deer leg with the dark hoof pointing out, as if in exclamation at the viewer, so everywhere evidence of the hunt—the kills, the remnants of predation of all those “found in the nearby mountains.” Behind this essay on death is a landscape by John Marshall Gamble, who described his work as “untrammeled views of nature’s bounty”: green meadows rising up to brown hills with purple crests, light made of blue & pink, the sky pale blue, puffy impressionistic clouds catching a pink-gold light, a moment balanced just before the blush fades to blue shadows at dusk; “death & habitation are always at play” seems to be the message deciphered, the message “found.”
A creaky bench so worn I feel the rough wood grain raised along the front edge—time pulses; a Spanish tile floor hollowed where generations paused & shuffled their feet; even the fur of the animals has grown ragged—from incandescent light, the Librarian tells me—but the fearlessness of the animals, who often show some sense of being seen, yet accept a gaze that searches them, from nose to tail; even reduced to a single pose, the animals’ fearlessness overwhelms the scale of human time: motley Jackrabbit stares out curiously, as does sad-eyed Bobcat stuffed in 1927 & melting to dust; Desert Bighorn Sheep look out intently, as if they’re trying to recognize me (they are “threatened in California” already in 1929).
Ringtail with a Mouse in his mouth, one eye glinting with recognition, prepared by Egmont Rhett in 1943, who noted that while “once abundant in the Santa Barbara region, has declined in numbers due to the competition with the domestic cat introduced to the area with the coming of the white man—” of course, the dioramas all lie; yet something older than this place, or even the animals’ bodies, is in play—a lost (or an abandoned) idea of the wild that once included us, not just as predatory suicides, but as everyday inhabitants in the lives of these wild ones, ourselves just as wild, yet more to be acknowledged than feared—a time imagined by painters, installers & taxidermists of this Hall; even in the context of an illusion, a pretense—in spite of all that, they slyly managed to slip in a bit of the wilderness they could only imagine: fearlessness in the animals’ eyes & their postures that include us with them.
Two new poems, "Refrain" and "Winter Solstice" in the Alice Oswald issue of "Interim: A Journal of Poetry & Poetics" guest edited by Regan Good.
"Timeless" first appeared in "Love & The Pandemic," published by the Moonstone Press, 2021
Robins guide soft-beaked fledglings to my yard, teach them
the birdbath, to cleanse—first delight of wings splashing water
in the specious present—that must have been summer.
Today, there’s frost; weedy grass glazed white; I tip a plate of ice
out of the birdbath, shattering it on the grass—I remember you said
“cornices” & named the tiny herbs orphaned in sidewalk crevices—
in this anomalous present was that today or some previous
today?—Time’s dislocated, strangely lugubrious & chaotic—
oppressive. We’re unable to move forward in our usual way
or conceive of time as an arrow speeding day-to-day or
accumulating & compounding value in an orderly fashion—
Wailing sirens increase, everyone in a bubble under threat of illness
tyranny & death—Today, wind hurls pine needles, pinecones—
two Does & two Yearlings lie in dew wet grass, nibbling, chewing
their cud as last year—one Doe licks her Fawn like a Cat.
"Meeting Them" first appeared in "Beyond Queer Words: 2021 Anthology"
On Forest path, I meet
myself in a beige trench coat—
earrings dangle & swing
pale face, shy voice greets me—
Birds squawk alarm, squirrels
dodge up trees—in Forest
we’re all intruders—we meet, we
speak, we pass in opposite directions—
I, a slim ghost, who had no words
to describe myself, no people.
I slip between trees at dusk, as wind
pulls the darkness in. Raindrops
snap & dissolve in a winter pond.
© 2014-2021 by Randall Potts.