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Owen Barfield wrote of the “felt change of consciousness” that occurs when a reader encounters a true poem. I read poems every day longing to experience that, and when I read Ann Marie Thornburg’s, I do. Her subjects, her subtle music, her intuitive lineation, precision, mystery. She cracks the world open in layers for me. In these poems she, whisperingly, leads me into the minds of animals, where I have cause to linger. Here, Lucy Temerlin, chimpanzee, sits down to a meal with her silverware and her human family while the chimpanzee inside her screams. Wolves move in down the street, try to raise and tame their human children in peace. All those teeth. The pharmaceutical company in our town closes down, is taken over by the squirrels and birds of our conveyor-belt dreams. She beckons to the reader. A bear creeps closer, nibbling from her hand the same sweets she offered me. These bears are neither animal nor human. I am no longer awake or asleep. These aren’t poems based on life experiences. These poems are experiences, and they take place in an uncanny place—that place the best poets manage to create (and to decorate, and to populate, and to annihilate) between a poem and a reader.
“FOR THE BENEFIT AND ENJOYMENT OF THE PEOPLE”
Placard on the Roosevelt Arch, North Entrance, Yellowstone National Park
This territory, which is not your own,
begins and ends
the way spring begins and ends:
the stalling light slows for weeks
until the reddened carpet of a June night unrolls.
It smells different from your own,
this territory. A fox smells the wolves
and their kill. Its bones cage some birds
who pick the scraps. The fox does the same,
But tonight the wolves give chase.
They do not stop
until they have the fox in their mouths
and pull in the cardinal directions.
This territory is not your own.
You cannot even see it
through the windows of cars
that move in slow lines like animals
along the designated roads.
Or through your camera lenses
that square off the landscape
so it stops abruptly at the horizon.
Wolves hiding, pressed against the cool backs
of wire crates, don’t want to be forgotten
Disappearances are best:
when their nightlong faces
are printed on the back of milk cartons
they will be long gone,
moving through night’s pipelines,
crossing the guarded border,
outrunning the little helicopter stars and
the little sheriff ants for a little while longer.
During the day the men
file past in plaid,
showing their children
the glass-eyed buck next to the fox
next to the squirrel next to the mountain
goat next to the duck next to the wolf.
This is one way of understanding.
The other is this:
At night, the bills with their smell
of iron and dirt have been counted,
and the door locked
like a rifle clicking into place.
The pupils of those glass eyes
widen, like blood around
a clean shot.
All across town the hunters
are watching TV and the wives
are lacquering their nails.
The dogs lying by their sides
and back slowly out of rooms.
Ed Sullivan would have loved it:
a monkey in an apron making tea
for a friend who strokes
her own hair like a pet.
Lucy’s apron is double-starched
and so stiff that smoothing
would break it.
And the chimpanzee hand that smoothes:
skin like the surface of an airless planet,
The dark tea leaves slop
into the trash when the party is over.
Lucy could have read in them
the wet wood chips and choked dirt
behind the circus tents
where they might have buried her mother.
AFTER PFIZER, INC. LEFT
There are no cars on this white-grey strip of highway,
and three dun deer graze on bonegrass in the median.
The buildings are empty as a butcher shop at night
with its hanging hocks and rusted scissor smell.
But this place is clean as a snow globe and
the inner wrist of a girl caught in a tangle of sheets,
and here night is white laundry left outside,
the white plastic benches and stools and tables perfect
for dissection. But the frogs are stitching themselves up
down by the river and the caged rabbit dreams she is a hare
chased by a coyote down a hallway lined with vials
that grow matchstick trees, and past rooms heaped with white
pills like storage houses in salt mines. When the girl
shifts in bed she flips on the conveyor belt’s switch
and the cardboard boxes rattle on through the night
until they reach the end of the line.
The dogs must let you pass through.
Car yes car car yes
person yes person always yes
fox no fox fox fox yes no fox
wolf no no phantoms here
the mountains circle the town
like curtains around a hospital bed,
and the stars are bright nurses that wish
only for your speedy recovery.
So follow the dog to Master’s wooden house.
Master is darning a sock by the flickering
of a red light. The sock was once a sheep.
And you, Fox: rest at Master’s feet.
Yawn. Scratch. Look at Master.
Fox, look at Master. There are no windows here.
Just ask the wooden walls about their leaves.
Here the landscape pops and fades,
like an old Technicolor film.
Still, its parts are recognizable:
Hold the symbol for tree up to the symbol for sky,
which is bristling with the symbol for light.
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