Wednesday, May 09, 2012

The Possum Poem

So Gerald Stern wrote a poem
about road kill, a poem
everybody seems to know,
but I wonder if everybody thinks
about it quite as often as I do.
His poem is about an opossum
with a hole in its back “and the wind
blowing through his hair,” dead
on the road. Stern says he will
“behave like a Jew” and touch
the opossum’s face, stare into his eyes,
and pull him off the road.

After dark, after I’ve locked
the front door for the night,
after the outside cat has retreated
to her cozy shelter, I hear her
food dish banging on the porch.
It is pushed, flipped, slid, and flipped again,
its stainless steel racket pulling me
to the front door knowing
what I’ll find.

I turn on the light and lean against
the glass to see an opossum with its nose
in the dish—eating, or pushing it in a last-ditch
effort to extract every morsel from this
civilized meal. Sometimes the animal
is intact, and sometimes I see
the one whose back has been scalped.

I once knew a man who raised
baby opossums rescued from the pouches
of road-killed mothers. He explained
that opossums seek out macadam
because it retains the day’s heat.
Opossums have cold feet.

My feet get cold, too. I go through
boxes of foot warmers every winter.
I’m lucky. I can slap them on my socks
and walk around the house without fear
that two tons of metal will run me down
in my kitchen. But there she is,
the possum mama, nourishing her babies,
trying to get comfortable
in the only way she knows how.
And along come those bright lights,
that big noise, but her movements
are slow, way too slow
for 300 bullying horsepower.

I don’t know where Gerald Stern lives,
or how many opossums he has seen
on the road. I live in the country,
and see them on almost a daily basis.
Maybe it’s because there’s rarely room
to pull over, or maybe it’s because I’m only
one-quarter Jewish, but I’ve never
moved a dead opossum out of further
harm’s way. I like that he did, though.

But for now I set out a clean food dish
on the porch every morning,
wash the possum bathtub
I used to call the water dish, and keep
the cat food coming. When I lean
against the glass and see the one
with the skinned back, I tell her I'm glad
she survived to enjoy these meals.
We each do what we can.