In a world of constant collision and distraction, it is easy to forget who we live with and among. Anne Haven McDonnell, in her remarkable chapbook Living with Wolves, reminds us that to know a place—to understand the life we live—we must truly know our neighbors and acknowledge and respect their way of life. Without this knowledge we are bound to be lost, bound to keep “driving to another parking lot, / late again.” Thankfully, McDonnell, in her own understanding that “every story needs an ear,” gives us an entire, rich world to consider in Living with Wolves.
This beautiful chapbook centers on the wolves that have returned to inhabit a remote island in British Columbia after being decimated in the 1970s. McDonnell writes from “the lands that have forgotten, / with the people who have forgotten” in order to help us remember the world we occupy. She moves between places and their distinct voices with ease and precision. In “The Farmer,” a poem in four sections, we see the land through a farmer who “stopped thinking and stayed still with the dark / inside him, felt it like the night itself entering him the way / night enters like water rising” as he watches two wolves—one alive, one he killed—lying together in his field. In another section of the poem, we are with the moon and its “bonelight” washing over the wolves. And in still another, we are with the wolf who has survived and stayed with his dead companion:
The smell of her body still her and not her, her musk fading, and sinking into the ground as the other smell rose and filled her form, this other smell that pinned the dark wolf beside her, as if leaving would let the smell collapse, let it flood her body
The patience that McDonnell gives these denizens is engaging, asking us to remain here, in this island ecotone: feeling, sensing, and understanding the sounds of this environment. Through McDonnell’s writing we are bound to these poems, to these landscapes and the animals that she so beautifully and compassionately venerates.
Throughout Living with Wolves, the poems narrated by the people who have wrestled with the existence of these wolves tie the island’s history and culture together. It would be easy for McDonnell to stereotype or sympathize or generalize with their voices, yet she doesn’t. Instead she gives us their view, unflinchingly. In a sculptor we find a person who is trying to understand these wolves deeply: “I thought if I cast all these prints, I can know them.” In a tracker we hear a voice that both hunts and respects the canines but is wary of “the new-comers, do-gooders, tree-huggers / (like you) don’t know shit.” The tracker speaks again, later in the collection, showing us how one’s connection changes through time: “I think they have a place. Up to a point.” In the man at a maple tree who deliberately shares his world with wolves, we witness the awe the wild can bring us: “But when they start singing— / the little ones yip yip yip yip / and the low drone like a vacuum / all the hairs stand up.” Each narrative is tight and clear in its connection to this small, complex community and each ties the chapbook together, creating a larger arc of the island ecosystem.
Ultimately, the poems move us to question the way we live on Earth: “Now that you have heard / this story, what will you do / with your own / ecology of fear?” Will we continue to live in that fear, to separate ourselves from our environment? Or will we do as the poet does when she questions “what I saw and how I might tell it”? The answer is clear, “like a dream swims up to waking,” we must wonder and dig deep—just as the poems do throughout Living with Wolves. We must hear all the voices of the landscape we inhabit.
McDonnell takes the threads that make up an ecosystem—natural and human history, geography, flora, fauna, humans—and weaves together a complete literary habitat in 23 stunning poems. Each poem is a fully realized citizen of this island. Each poem is an etch in the horizon of this unique place and captures a full life lived. As readers, we are rewarded by McDonnell’s deft use of description and voice, her gorgeous lyric. She approaches the people, animals, and their habitat with a deep sense of understanding and reverence.
What Living with Wolves shows us so masterfully is how landscape is more than just what we see—that it is an intricate play rich with tension and relationships (seen and unseen), compelling us to examine the way in which we too live with other species on the larger island that is Earth.
Michael Garrigan writes and teaches along the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania. He loves exploring the riverlands and believes that every watershed should have a poet laureate. He is the author of two poetry collections, Robbing the Pillars and What I Know [How to Do]. His writing has appeared in Orion, River Teeth, The Flyfish Journal, and The Hopper. He was the 2021 artist-in-residence at the Bob Marshall Wilderness Area. You can read more at www.mgarrigan.com.
Header photo by Volodymyr Burdiak, courtesy Shutterstock.