February: Raccoons and Salmon

“A raccoon is a nice animal?” asks Chiragee, looking across my desk uncertainly. 

I suddenly acquire a new appreciation for how utterly North American a poet Mary Oliver is. It’s an understandable question, the way Oliver treats her raccoons–each a gray dreamer, silvery, slumbrous.

What if this gray dreamer was your first raccoon, his tiny paws on the riverbank spreading the myths of the morning in the delicate hieroglyphs of his tracks? 

I remember how, years ago, a British friend asked me with rising agitation, “I don’t get it. Is a raccoon a cat or a dog?” It struck me then, as it strikes me again now, what wonders we grow up so inured to.

Oliver’s poetry works in implicit contrast with our daily underestimation of the world. When I teach “Raccoons,” I strive to help students see what here is art, what about Oliver’s words makes us see the world anew. I solicit students’ usual association with raccoons. In response to Chiragee’s question of whether a raccoon is a nice animal, I supply some of the things her classmates said on the day she was absent. Raccoons come out at night and raid trash cans and rampage in campsites. If you see one in the daytime, it might have rabies. 

She is a nursing student and nods her head gravely when I mention rabies, weighing contagion against awe. 

“Ah. It can give disease.” 

I run a quick Google Image search for raccoons and proffer the laptop screen. We match the images to descriptions, breathing the wonder back into the raccoons that the specter of rabies has just foreclosed. 

We turn to the next poem. When I teach “The Fish,” I can usually count on some sportsman or woman to say, with a glow of pleasurable recognition, that the fish is a salmon. This poem runs on wonder, too: when the waters / divide she follows / the fragrance spilling / from her old birth pond. You need the ecology: how out of the great ocean, out of all the rivers, and all their tributaries, the spawning salmon ascends against the current, against all odds, to the place where she began life as egg and alevin and fry. But even to know her lifecycle is not enough. A salmon’s journey has meaning beyond the life cycle of one fish: it speaks to an intact watershed, unsevered by dams. Her life makes one piece, together with the other members of her species, of an abundant spawning run. Five such species together make the succession of spring, summer, and autumn salmon runs, the resource base that fattens grizzly bears and enables the lifeways of the people of Alaska and the Pacific northwest. 

Up in Alaska, a land I know only by legends of ecology, anthropology, and Klondike gold-rush literature, my brother works for the Fish and Wildlife Service to restore streams and give them back their salmon runs. My eyes are misted after I finish telling Chiragee what a salmon is.  I do not use Google this time. All the orange-fleshed fillets or silvery leaping fish will not show how a salmon is three hundred miles of open stream and ten thousand years of human history and dependence on the earth’s bounty. 

In contrast to most of my students, Chiragee needs no gloss for Oliver’s slightly archaic simile, seeing the fish as like the torn silvery half-drowned body / of any woman come to term. Chiragee dreams of returning to India and working as a neonatal nurse in a rural clinic someday. 

A smile breaks across her face and she says, “It’s quite deep. It’s quite lovely.” She tells me of how a mother’s joints are altered by carrying a child to term. I had not thought to see the poem’s shaken bones so particularly. I’m grateful. 

Part of me has never known what to make of this sudden turn in Oliver’s poem, its final pivot from the natural world to a celebration of the trans-species feminine strength to give life, of her transmutation of the fish’s upstream journey into a labor agony, caught as mortality drives triumphantly towards immortality, her shaken bones like cages of fire. 

But I have been living with this poem for years now, as, one after another, my friends have embarked upon this upstream journey against mortality, their very skeletons changed forever by the life they nurtured within. 

I have never felt the need to test the fierce waters of those streams, but now, at 32, there are some things I finally understand: what it is to tremble with desire to see my family circle widen; what it feels like to make a life by making love. It’s not my unborn children I see in my lover’s eyes, but together we practice an embrace that may someday hold up his daughters and shelter them from life’s storms. I see my other children too–unmet, perhaps out there somewhere, already born, already needing us. In each other’s arms we practice flinging open the doors to our hearts, as we will to our children someday. 

Sometimes my bones, too, feel like cages of fire. How can one body hold so much love and so much need? Sometimes I shake with the hope that his children will let me love them.

Our daughter–I dare to call her that–is like a wild pony, sensitive and flighty. I hold out my hand, speak words of praise, am grateful when I can smooth her forelock, walk her over some new threshold. Loving her is like having a wild bird perch on your shoulder, a hummingbird sip nectar from your palm, the enchanted inhalation and inheld breath. 

For several days after I meet with Chiragee, my web browser remains open to a Google Image search for “raccoon.” Row on row, the whiskered, bandit-masked faces stare out at me, tuning their round ears, presenting me with their hand-like paws to admire. I look at the way their velvety coats flow over their round backs, as if holding caught moonlight. They ask me if I did right to supply any ordinary context for raccoons. Perhaps I did not. I am grateful for every striped-tailed washer bear, every miraculous promise of this world. 

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