(At this year’s Woodstock Writers Festival Gretchen Primack will teach a workshop on Friday, April 20th and lead a panel discussion on Saturday, April 21st. Tickets are selling fast, so don’t hesitate.)
On Gretchen Primack, By Will Nixon
Many people, I suspect, never venture past their own backyards, which in my fortunate corner of the world, the Catskills, are often bordered by woods. What is this fear that keeps them out of the forest? Are they wary of “No Trespassing” signs (a plague in my area)? Getting lost? Running into a bear or, worse, a psycho hillbilly out of Deliverance? Whatever it is, I had it myself when I rented a backyard writing cottage in the little hamlet of Cottekill. Beyond the lawn lay what was, in effect, a huge park, many hundreds of acres of woods that had once been the site of cement mines. They would have been easy to explore on abandoned gravel roads that passed through clearings for old mines, which looked like office floors carved out of bedrock layers but sloped steeply downwards into blackness. It was fascinating, a ruined landscape recovering with scrubby bushes and white pines. Yet in two years I only walked back there once, habitually hopping in my car, instead, for a quick drive to nearby trails, including those at Williams Lake which passed similar mines. What kept me out of my backyard woods? That the property was owned by Iron Mountain, a company that now stores documents in the mines? I doubt it. Not that I don’t notice “No Trespassing” signs, but I have to live my life. I doubt that I even would have admitted to being afraid of walking in my back woods, but the fact is, I never did. Sometimes on sunny weekends I heard the neighbors popping off at rifle practice. Never having used guns, I’m made uneasy by hearing gunshots. Then one day, venturing into the woods to collect kindling for my wood stove, I came upon a horrific sight down by the trickling stream behind the neighbor’s house. What made it horrific, in part, was that it seemed so uneventful. Half a dozen Canada geese lay dead on the leaves, their long black necks now useless handles for their bulbous bodies. Had they been shot? Poisoned? Slaughtered on the spot? Or killed elsewhere and dumped down the slope? Their necks pointed uphill in the same direction, a clue of some kind. But I didn’t investigate. I backed out of those woods in a hurry.
Nothing has described the feeling I had quite like Gretchen Primack’s poem, “The Dogs and I Walked Our Woods,” which appeared in Riverine: An Anthology of Hudson Valley Writers, edited by Laurence Carr. Gretchen didn’t back away. She wrote one of the fiercest, boldest, must unnerving poems I’ve read. I admire it tremendously, while I’m still scared by it.
The Dogs and I Walked Our Woods
and there was a dog, precisely the colors of autumn,
asleep between two trunks by the trail.
But it was a coyote, paws pink
with a clean-through hole in the left,
and a deep hole in the back of the neck,
dragged and placed in the low crotch
of a tree. But it was two coyotes,
the other’s hole in the side of the neck,
the other with a dried pool of blood below
the nose, a dried pool below the anus,
the other dragged and placed
in the adjoining low crook, the other’s body
a precise mirror of the first. The eyes were closed,
the fur smooth and precisely the colors
of autumn, a little warm to my touch though the bodies
were not. The fur was cells telling themselves
to spin to keep her warm to stand
and hunt and keep. It was a red
autumn leaf on the forest floor, but
it was a blooded brown leaf, and another, because
they dragged the bodies to create a monument
to domination, to the enormous human.
And if I bore a child who suffered to see this,
or if I bore a child who gladdened to see this, or if
I bore a child who kept walking, I could not bear
to live, or to feed that child, so I will not bear one.
* * * * * * * * * *