“Homage to John Clare” appears in the Winter 2020 issue of the Michigan Quarterly Review. A recording of the author reading the poem is available below.
Homage to John Clare
In scarcely fifty years the foxes turned by increments to dogs. A matter
of engineering the proper traits:
floppy ears, less prominent tails, a slightly smaller brain, a willingness
to lie on their backs
so the breeders might rub the foxes’ bellies. On YouTube,
a Vladivostok doctor in a lab coat
is doing just that, endearments uttered to the fox, who has also come
to understand some Russian.
The bewildering human urge to fashion tools, be they fluted
or generations of selective breeding to DNA—
here used as a verb—
a fox to seem doglike. That toolmaking can therefore encompass
not only a minute
sable hair brush used to render the chubby red face & broken capillaries
of an inn patron depicted
by Frans Hals, but also a bump stock attachment allowing a rifle
to be fired in full automatic mode,
thereby permitting the deaths of six dozen outdoor concertgoers,
shot from a hotel window
a quarter mile away. The tools required for the forced sterilization
of the feeble-minded
& mental patients in the back wards of Virginia & North Carolina
state hospitals, circa 1930,
are relatively simple & require no paperwork, court orders,
or notification of kin.
Prometheus bears a torch, which he places in the hand of a distant
human ancestor, who has
no language to express his awe & gratitude. The process
has been set in motion,
no reversing it. The shepherd in John Clare’s sonnet slings
the dead fox
over his shoulder, his dog having cornered & worried it to death.
The pelt will make
a serviceable hat. But then, “to his dog’s surprise / the dead fox
started from his dead disguise.”
The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog. The quick brown fox
jumps over the lazy dog.
“He up and snapped and bolted from the hedge.” Bygone. Nevermore.
Null Set. The doctor holds
a bit of sausage in her hand. The fox then sits upon its haunches,
knowing its reward is soon to follow.