Death of Alaska
My white German Shepherd,
female ears tuned to sounds
I could not hear, disappeared the day my son left.
She must have heard him going;
he who cut me off like the sharp snip of scissors
against the papery peony stems.
She, my white cavalier, could not keep
me from the way he redrafted our love,
flinging himself, a young man now, into the universe.
For him I canvassed the stars, glossed against a crepe sky.
For her, I tramped through copsewood and brambles −
flashlight a-beam, calling her name.
But no staccato bark and no cantering boy returned,
and I stood alone in the spring cold midnight.
Notes on “Death of Alaska,” winner of the 2011 Gregory O’Donoghue International Poetry Competition sponsored by the Munster Literature Centre (Ireland)
I was moved to write “Death of Alaska” as a way to work through the grief of my son departing after eighteen years of learning and laughter at home. I used the disappearance of my beloved dog, who later appeared in our garden, having curled up in a corner and passed away at an old age, as the vehicle of parallel experience for my son going off to university.
Setting is usually another character in my poems, and the night setting here is true to my memory. I lived on a large farm that stretched out beneath dark, clear skies. I was walking across the pastures late at night calling for my dog, named Alaska by my ten-year-old son because she was white. The dark setting fosters the mystery of “where is Alaska,” as well as the mystery of how does a mother let go, how does anyone let go of a loved one. However, the dark night was clearly lit by stars, “going” not a mystery at all.
I find poetry in the familiar peonies and brambles, flashlights, but also research unfamiliar words such as copsewood. I select my words for the rhythm, music, often using alliteration and tend to struggle with each word in the poem, choosing purposefully. The alliteration “sharp snip of scissors” and the verb “redrafted” were expressly chosen to evoke the way in which a young man declares his independence from a mother.
I chose “canvassed,” “staccato,” “cantering,” “cold” for sound, and because each suggests the themes of searching and movement. “Cantering” was a familiar activity on the farm because my son grew up with a horse and often cantered across our fields.
The event weaves from a singular, personal experience to a universal theme of loss, a familiar experience of loved-ones moving on to a wider feeling of being part of a universal wisdom.
“Death of Alaska,” and Sandra’s commentary, were published in The Deep Heart’s Core (The Dedalus Press, 2017), in which “some 100 Irish poets accept the invitation to revisit a favourite, key or touchstone poem of their own, and offer a short commentary on same — as they might at a live event.” Those poets were asked “to choose a poem of their own that seemed to encapsulate their own particular ‘voice’ or vision and to explore in prose why they regarded that poem as seminal to their overall work.”
Calving Under the Moon
Mozart charges the country air. The cow, midnight black,
lies in the corner of a stall, under a single incandescent bulb;
rubbernecking members of the herd press around the byre.
The acrid odor of manure and disinfectant blend with sweet hay.
Up to his elbows in latex, he wets the ropes in a dishpan of water,
taps the jack together. She turns her cumbrous head;
bovine eyes, brown, gaze beneath pleated brows to see him
lean into her syncopated contractions, but no give there.
Are you sure it’s a poly? he asks the old Irish farmer.
Kneeling, he pushes his right arm, inside, up to his shoulder.
On her flank his left hand rests, keeping tempo with her breathing.
She bellows against the moon. Shadows of the gate
fall across his back as a white hoof presents; he attaches the rope,
a loop above the fetlock, a half hitch below, but she outplays him.
Swaying, she rises, runs from birth, jack trailing.
Settling her, trying again, he cups the tiny hoof in his hand,
Pulls the calf in an arc, downward, avoiding hip lock, tells the farmer,
Lean gently on the jack. Go with her. Stay with me.
In concert the two of them crank when she pushes,
hold the tension when she rests. Blood bursts red streams, shooting stars,
the calf slides out wet, a linen-white face.
She swings, licks the birth, enormous pink tongue working.
Stripping the gloves from his dirt-creased hands, he leaves,
whistling Violin Concerto No. I, allegro moderato.
Notes on “Calving Under the Moon”
While visiting my second home in Millstreet, Co Cork, one spring my Irish veterinarian friend lamented to me his fatigue resulting from frequent calvings, often at night and early morning. I asked if I might possibly attend a birth as a privileged observer, and he advised me to be available at any time. Soon thereafter I received a ring on my mobile around midnight on a clear cool moonlit night. I enthusiastically met him at his house with a mug of hot coffee and notebook and pen in hand, where he loaded me into his veterinary van smelling of hound and medicinals. Careening through narrow gorse-lined country lanes, we finally arrived at a dimly lit barn with its anxiously awaiting farmer. The conclusion of this tale is recounted in “Calving Under the Moon.”
“Calving Under the Moon” exemplifies my striving to capture the extraordinary in ordinary and mundane events. I work at honing my observational skills to effectively translate my own visual images into poetic detail, and I always research my topics to ensure accuracy, whether scientific or historical. I never write about my characters until I personally know them and their foibles, which, when recorded in poetry often has universal appeal.
For the veterinarian in “Calving Under the Moon,” the entire scenario was a familiar and tedious event that he had attended many times over. A musician and philosopher at heart, he orchestrated to successful delivery a potentially disastrous birthing with skill and aplomb, engaging the farmer/owner, all the while day-dreaming a musical favorite.
I often conclude my poems with an unexpected scene or ironic turn of events.
I crack the hard claw, pick the tender pink, place it on your tongue, blush,
while you hold your newborn against your peach breast, hands cooing.
Saul sucks soft mouth, pouts petal pink, knows we are in the moon sign.
Male crabs seize a sook, soft, shedding – long ribbons of sticky sperm explode.
After one year, myriads of tiny zoeas escape, forage on seaweed, luxuriant,
caught in the tangled nets of Oyashio, the “parent current.”
Crack, the crab whispers, as I fish for the flesh.
Saul sucks the nipple, your tongue smiles for the pink.
Feeding you feeding him, I find myself caught
somewhere between creature and human.
North Carolina Literary Review; nominated for 2011 Pushcart Prize