"The White Skunk"

A weekly poem, read by the author.
Nov. 25 2008 6:59 AM

"The White Skunk"

Click the arrow on the audio player to hear David Ferry read this poem. You can also download the recording or subscribe to Slate's Poetry Podcast on iTunes.

That glorious morning late in August when
The rosy-fingered dawn had scattered shadows
Away from the dreams I had dreamed the night before,
I looked out the back door of my condo, seeing
The parking lot we share, the cars we own,
And the houses all around, an embracing scene,
And there was Manfred and his small child Julia,
And, I thought for a moment, a little white toy
Trundling along behind her on its wheels.
But something was wrong with this. Julia, though little,
Wasn't so little as to be trundling such
A toy as what I thought I was seeing there,
On that glorious morning late in August when
The rosy-fingered dawn had scattered shadows.

And then I saw that the toy I thought I saw
Was not a toy but a little white skunk intently
Following Julia's legs and studying them,
And then, of course, her father had snatched her up
Into his arms, and was backing away from the skunk,
And kicking at it to get it away, but the skunk
Kept following, it seemed for a very long time,
As the three of them kept on this way on their way,
Julia crying now, a piercing cry,
And Manfred perplexed, a father protecting his child,
Backing away and saying, in a voice
Carefully calm and maybe pretending to be
Almost amused, "What should I do about this?"
Holding his child in his arms, having to keep
Backing away, unable to turn his back
On this bizarre studious creature following them.
Transfixed in the doorway of the place I live in
I stood there out of time, watching them go.

But then, as they were halfway down the driveway
The creature turned aside and disappeared
Into the tall grass alongside the driveway,
And Manfred, carrying Julia, was able to turn
And quickly make his way away from there
To the preschool across the street from the end of the driveway.
A moment later the skunk appeared again
And ran across the lawn beside our house,
Intently studying the ground, near-sighted
Creature reading the ground for information,
Moving about the yard between our house
And the kindred house next door, purposeful, wandering.
What was it trying to find? Where was it going?—

A reader of the ground as if it were
The walls of the facility at Mount Auburn
Where she kept wandering the halls, reading blank walls
To see if there was an exit there, or maybe
A bulletin board telling her what to do,
Telling her how to be there, or where to be,
Or what she was trying to find, or where she was going,
Intently studying where it was she was.

The skunk was white where a skunk is normally black,
And striped black where it's normally striped white.
Was it transmogrified? Come up from down there
In the Underworld where it could have been changed like that?
It came back over across the lawn toward where
I was standing transfixed in the doorway of my dwelling,
Its eyes still intently studying the ground,
Close reader of the text whose narrative
Or whose instruction it was following.

Orpheus, I, stepped back in nameless fear,
As it looked as if the skunk was reading its way
Toward the back porch steps up into my condo,
Coming toward me as if it were coming home.
And then the skunk ran past my back porch steps
Reading the ground, paying no heed to me,
And disappeared in the ground cover we planted
To ornament the dooryard of our dwellings
In the world the strange white skunk had disappeared from.

The township animal-control man said
The skunk's behavior probably meant it was rabid
And that it was probably looking for some place to die.

David Ferry is a poet, a translator of poetry, and a professor of English at Wellesley College.


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