I was on the board of the World Bird Sanctuary, an organization on the preservation of raptors (birds like hawks, falcons, great horned owls, and eagles). We met monthly at different locations. One month we met at the ranger’s station at Lone Elk County Park in far western St. Louis County.
Our meeting began at 4 p.m. and spilled over into the evening hours. I had to leave at 7:30, and as I stepped outside to go to the parking lot, I instantly realized two things: it was pitch black, with no outside light; and, I was in the middle of something large and alive.
I froze in place, not knowing what to do, until the ranger’s car appeared on the road and I could see by his headlights. I was in the middle of the elk herd, which liked to come down to the station at night to sleep. Some were already asleep; others were standing on the sidewalk, blocking the way to my car. The park, by the way, was misnamed. There was no lone elk; there was actually a herd of about 100 elk.
With the light of the ranger’s car, I carefully made my way through the herd. If you’ve never seen one, adult elk are big, like horses, and I was meandering my way through them. Carefully. And smiling. “Nice elk. Good elk. Just let me get to my car and you can go back to sleep.” They gave me a rather bored eye as I made my escape.
Caribou, which we often call reindeer, are in the same family as moose, deer, and my herd of elk (or wapiti). Caribou have mostly vanished south of the Canadian border, but they are still to be found in Canada.
No poem in the collection bears the title “Caribou,” but it’s a fitting title nonetheless. These poems are about memory, what has passed, and what is gone, perhaps like the caribou gone from southern North America, memories all enclosed with descriptions and metaphors of nature.
These are the poems of old age, expressing few regrets except for friends now gone, reflecting on what has been. And even more are the poems imagining the end-times, because for the individual, end-times in this world come with the individual’s death.
Here’s “Shadow and Smoke”:
Shadow and Smoke
Live your life as though you were already dead,
Che Guevara declared.
Okay, let’s see how that works.
Not much difference, as far as I can see,
the earth the same paradise
It’s always wanted to be,
Heaven as far away as before,
The clouds the same old movable gates since time began.
There is no circle, there is no sentiment to be broken.
There are only the songs of young men,
and the songs of old men,
Hoping for something elsewise.
Disabuse of them in their ignorance,
tell them the shadows are already gone, the smokes
Tell them that light is never a metaphor.
What does Wright say in these poems? That as we age, we realize life is less about what we achieve and do and more about who we are. That the answers to fundamental questions don’t become clearer but that accepting that the answers may not be understood becomes easier. That we will find ourselves listening more and talking less. That we owe a debt to those who came before us that we can never repay.
That perhaps life is really about acceptance, and we won’t realize that until the end.
I’ve said what I had to say
As melodiously as it was given to me.
I’ve said what I had to say
As far down as I could go.
I’ve been everywhere
I’ve wanted to but Jerusalem,
Which doesn’t exist, so I guess it’s time to depart,
Time to go,
Time to meet those you’ve never met,
time to say goodnight.
Grant us silence, grant us no reply,
Grant us shadows and their cohorts
stealth across the sky.
Caribou is Wright’s twenty-second collection of poetry (in addition to two translations and two works of non-fiction). He’s won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award and numerous poetry prizes. This new collection continues the stellar work he’s produced.
I consider my herd of elk again. How much of life is stepping into the darkness, sensing the presence of something large and incomprehensible, without any light to explain or make sense of it? That is, until a glimmer comes, and allows you to walk through the darkness. That’s what Charles Wright says in Caribou.
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