Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Donald Hall's poem "Wolf Knife" is a real blood-soaked stunner

Poet Donald Hall
An attendee at out local Pass On A Poem meeting tonight read a poem by the American, Donald Hall, whom, I’m ashamed to admit, I’d never heard of until tonight. A Harvard and Oxford man, festooned with honours, the first poetry editor of the Paris Review, nineteen books of poetry to his name, America’s poet laureate in 2006, 84 years old… and I’d never heard of the man! (For some odd reason he isn’t one of the 35 poets featured in The Faber Book of Contemporary American Poetry (1985) – even though he’d been producing poems for 33 years when it was published. Maybe he makes too much sense.)

“Wolf Knife” is subtitled “from the Journals of C. F. Hoyt, USN, 1826-1889”, so I presume it’s meant to read as if it’s taken from an actual diary, with the lines split up to make it read like poetry. I can find no trace of C.F. Hoyt or an expedition to follow in Sir John Franklin’s doomed footsteps (hauntingly commemorated in song by the folk group Pentangle here) online, and it’s highly unlikely that a bluff naval officer would come up with such a series of arresting images (for instance, "two wolves, lean as the bones/of a wrecked ship”. So the whole thing has to be a product of Hall’s imagination. The image towards the end of the poem of the wolves unwittingly committing suicide is stunning – in fact, the whole poem is a brilliant short story. (Forgive my crassness, but it would also make a compelling if somewhat gory film sequence - 35 years ago, it could have starred Robert Shaw as Kantiuk and Roy Scheider as Hoyy - though the animal rights lobby would now probably picket any cinema showing it.)
In mid-August, in the second year
of my First Polar Expedition, the snows and ice of winter
almost upon us, Kantiuk and I
attempted to dash by sledge
along Crispin Bay, searching again for relics
of the Franklin Expedition. Now a storm blew,
and we turned back, and we struggled slowly
in snow, lest we depart land and venture onto ice
from which a sudden fog and thaw
would abandon us to the Providence
of the sea. 
Near nightfall
I thought I heard snarling behind us.
Kantiuk told me
that two wolves, lean as the bones
of a wrecked ship,
had followed us the last hour, and snapped their teeth
as if already feasting.
I carried but the one charge
in my rifle, since, approaching the second winter,
we rationed stores. 
As it turned dark,
we could push no farther, and made
camp in a corner of ice-hummocks,
and the wolves stopped also, growling
just past the limits of vision,
coming closer, until I could hear
the click of their feet on ice. Kantiuk laughed
and remarked that the wolves appeared to be most hungry.
I raised my rifle, prepared to shoot the first
that ventured close, hoping
to frighten the other. 
Kantiuk struck my rifle
down, and said again
that the wolves were hungry, and laughed.
I feared that my old companion
was mad, here in the storm, among ice-hummocks,
stalked by wolves. Now Kantiuk searched
in his pack, and extricated
two knives—turnoks, the Inuit called them—
which by great labor were sharpened, on both sides,
to a sharpness like the edge of a barber's razor,
and approached our dogs
and plunged both knives
into the body of our youngest dog
who had limped all day. 
I remember
that I considered turning my rifle on Kantiuk
as he approached, then passed me,
carrying knives red with the gore of our dog—
who had yowled, moaned, and now lay
expiring, surrounded
by curious cousins and uncles,
possibly hungry—and thrust the knives
handle-down in the snow. 
he left the knives, the vague, gray
shapes of the wolves
turned solid, out of the darkness and the snow,
and set ravenously
to licking the blood from the honed steel.
The double edge of the knives
so lacerated the tongues of the starved beasts
that their own blood poured
copiously forth
to replenish the dog's blood, and they ate
more furiously than before, while Kantiuk laughed,
and held his sides
And I laughed also,
perhaps in relief that Providence had delivered us
yet again, or perhaps—under conditions of extremity,
far from Connecticut—finding these creatures
acutely ridiculous, so avid
to swallow their own blood. First one, and then the other
collapsed, dying,
bloodless in the snow black with their own blood,
and Kantiuk retrieved
his turnoks, and hacked lean meat
from the thigh of the larger wolf,
which we ate
gratefully, blessing the Creator, for we were hungry.

I'm really looking forward to reading more of Donald Hall's stuff.

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