As the spring equinox approaches and creatures rouse from dormancy, the number of roadkill incidents spikes. Yesterday as I made a left turn into my driveway, I noticed a groundhog carcass lying in the middle of the street. I was stopped to retrieve my mail anyway, so I figured I should move the body off.
And then it moved–bloodied mouth opening and shutting, one heavily-clawed forepaw shuddering slightly. It wasn’t quite dead.
Poems about road kills sprang to mind. I thought immediately of Stafford’s “Traveling through the Dark” and that moment of swerving, replete with caesuras, in the last couplet; Billy Collins’ “Ave Atque Vale” also skittered into my thoughts, that bloated woodchuck waving “hail, Caesar” to the passing vehicles. As I pulled a plastic bag from my car, one of my own poems resonated–“Burials,” which is in my collection Water-Rites (available through this link and posted below).
I made a glove of the bag and grasped the poor beast by its tail, a precaution: it might have been lively enough to snap at me. Not the case this time. A car running over the body would have put the groundhog more quickly out of its misery, but by daylight drivers tend to avoid road kill; it gets smashed during the night hours. So I left it on the embankment to gasp out its last breath with the birds larking about above it and some damp wintry weeds under its dark body.
This sort of experience feels oddly metaphorical…obviously, not only for me but for people like Stafford and Collins. I am sure one could put together an anthology of very lovely roadkill poems.
Last week the neighbors’ dogs eviscerated a woodchuck,
left it, stinking, at the perimeter of our woods
which is how we found it, by the smell—
body bloated, partly hairless:
a scientific demonstration on the rapidity
and absoluteness of decay, the brief time it takes;
but today my daughter cannot bear the stray cat’s
road-killed stillness, the soft, domestic body,
the pet, which isn’t hers—she begs to bury it.
The schoolbus arrives with my promise
to give the cat some cover. Under mulberry I scrape
a shallow grave, in thin and gravelly roadside soil,
cover it with fallen leaves, an autumn prayer—
nothing more, because I know burial does not forestall
death’s swell, its stink, desiccation,
absoluteness; I do what I promised,
disguising the body’s inevitable progression
from the eyes of my grieving child.
Shall I cover my gray hairs
with dry leaves, shall I layer
my wrinkled hands beneath clay,
hide my own departure—
or shall I teach my children
to understand the truth of maggots,
which consume equally
the treasured and the stray—
which arrive unasked,
fulfill their contract with the earth,
never seeking recognition
or time, more time?
© 2012 Ann E. Michael