In the Old Songs about Washington, a raccoon and fox had an argument, each one bragging that he was the better thief.
The fox stole some colors from the sunset and painted, for himself, the first flowers,
but the raccoon grabbed their pollen and gave it to bees to carry everywhere.
The fox got mad. And more bold. He picked the lock and entered the Land of the Dead: endless bones to gnaw on.
Quiet as a current, the raccoon followed. Quickly, while the fox was eating, he took and hid the door,
and in the Old Songs, this was good. It meant the living and dead could now speak.
The fox saw one last chance to even the score: He poked a paw into Thunder’s pocket, trying to swipe a streak of lightning,
and the flash, if you listen to the Old Songs, burned his fur the colors of smoke and fire.
That’s an origin story about the color of foxes, so the raccoon’s just a minor character. He isn’t even the antagonist since the fox is really his own worst problem. But the minor character is the one on my mind because the other morning I saw a baby raccoon and was glad that I did. So were Jen and Quentin and Jameson. And so were our neighbors who kept a kind of casual vigil while he slept all day and evening in their tree.
He’d been moving around under some groundcover vines in this spot where cats like to hide and ambush birds, so I figured he was just a cat until he strolled out onto the grass: this baby raccoon. I got my boys to come and look, but by then he’d gone up the tree, walking up the branches the way that you and I would walk down the sidewalk. And that’s where he was, still napping, when my wife Jen got home in the afternoon.
If he were a bird, so what? But he wasn’t. He was rare. And I think that’s what a poem is too: this unexpected creature stepping out from under our language and climbing up a tree. And you there to notice.
I like that definition: Poems are raccoons. I like it for two reasons; first, because it’s easy to remember, and second because it doesn’t make sense unless you’re thinking in metaphor and imagery. I’ll bet you that’s how Williams felt after he’d written his famous wheelbarrow poem. I mean, I don’t know for sure, but it doesn’t seem impossible:
so much depends upon
a red wheel barrow
glazed with rain water
beside the white chickens.
Thinking in imagery tells us plenty more, of course. For starters, the colors stand out in contrast—red and white and brown (there are chickens, so there’s dirt around) and gray (it’s drizzling or used to be, so the sky above is overcast, but the sun’s coming through enough to light up raindrops) and even green (not pictured, but somewhere just outside the frame since a place with chickens would have crops or a garden and likely some trees as a windbreak). And thinking in metaphor, what it’s saying is we really need poems—those well-made language contraptions—to bring us new encounters and experiences. A poem, if you’re willing to pay attention, is capable of hauling more than chickenfeed. And it’s capable of taking daily crap-loads and rolling them away. That’s some kind of wheelbarrow.
I’m going to try to imitate that same kind of balance now and circle back to foxes and raccoons:
Why the Raccoon’s Tail Has Stripes*
A fox is a fox—bright zigzag, cunning stomach—but who is Raccoon,
which way do his whiskers point? You can knock all day on that question; nobody’s home,
just a key beneath the welcome mat, and inside,
hanging from his ceiling, strange chandeliers:
arrangements of keys and hoop earrings, loose change forever going missing,
the silver promises of corkscrews, laughter, desire . . . anything shiny.
All those years spent collecting— here they are.
He isn’t a thief; he just looks like a bandit. Take back whatever you like.
He knows his tail is a lesson in perspective: Find it/Lose it, Have it/Vanish, making stripes.
* This poem and two others by Rob Carney were finalists in Terrain.org’s 6th Annual Poetry Contest. Read them here.
Rob Carney’s fourth book, 88 Maps, was published by Lost Horse Press (distribution by University of Washington Press). Previous books and chapbooks include Story Problems and Weather Report, both from Somondoco Press.