A Surprise in the Peninsula
When I came in that night I found
the skin of a dog stretched flat and
nailed upon my wall between the
two windows. It seemed freshly killed –
there was blood at the edges. Not
my dog: I have never owned one,
I rather dislike them. (Perhaps
whoever did it knew that.) It
was a light brown dog, with smooth hair;
no head, but the tail still remained.
On the flat surface of the pelt
was branded the outline of the
peninsula, singed in thick black
strokes into the fur: a coarse map.
The position of the town was
marked by a bullet-hole, it went
right through the wall. I placed my eye
to it, and could see the dark trees
outside the house, flecked with moonlight.
I locked the door then, and sat up
all night, drinking small cups of the
bitter local coffee. A dog
would have been useful, I thought, for
protection. But perhaps the one
I had been given performed that
function; for no one came that night,
not for three more. On the fourth day
it was time to leave. The dog-skin
still hung on the wall, stiff and dry
by now, the flies and the smell gone.
Could it, I wondered, have been meant
not as a warning, but a gift?
And, scarcely shuddering, I drew
the nails out and took it with me.
I found this poem while I was in England, and since then I’ve read it at least 30 times. It feels so personally primal, delivered with a harsh viscerality that burns right through me.
The primary image is haunting, a stripped and earthy rawness that is tinged with ambient, unformed fear. The themes speak to a deep place in me: Protection coming from where you least expect it; life outside being viewed through a hole shot through the wall; a willingness to sit with slow and odorous putrefaction; the instinct that will claim this ghoulish remnant as a talisman. The visionary quality of this poem has cast an unshakable spell on me.
Fleur Adcock has been one of my favorite poets ever since I was introduced to her haunting “Weathering” by David Whyte 20 years ago. A gentle and comforting acknowledgement of being a woman and how one can age with grace, that poem does not belong on the same page as this one—a poem that reads more like an open wound. Of course with time, we get around to encountering all the difficult passages that happen in living a life, ageing and open wounds being just two.
A note about the image: This is a portion of a large scale drawing by Chuck Holtzman hanging in the MFA in Boston, with the faint reflection of me in the glass. This drawing has become a kind of personal talisman for my art making self these last few months as I have sat in the silence.