I’d never heard of the poet Timothy Murphy until reading about him in the Prufrock newsletter that mentioned him after his passing. He specialized in poetry about hunting, something I’ve accumulated an amateur’s worth of experience in over the years. Intrigued, I checked out his book of poetry Hunter’s Log: Field Notes, 1988-2011 from the library and stumbled upon the following poem “The Blind”, which I found to be a beautifully bittersweet evocation of duck hunting.
Gunners a decade dead wing through my father’s mind as he limps out to the blind bundled against the wind.
By some ancestral code fathers and sons don’t break, we each carry a load of which we cannot speak.
Here we commit our dead to the unyielding land where broken windmills creak and stricken ganders cry.
Father, the dog, and I are learning how to die with our feet stuck in the muck and our eyes trained to the sky.
A half-deaf star with promise,
next always to the one who grew into a supernova
and left to shine brightly,
shrinks and stares at the cold abyss.
Then the supernova returns with its light,
to its small town in the universe.
A eucatastrophe to save a life,
For when you want to live again.
Good tidings it brings to its kin,
calling riches into being
for the sake of old times.
How it all comes together in the end:
The machinations of love embodied by
It’s a cacophonous love
that drafts through the doors,
with jubilation and release,
understanding and aid.
A jolly band on parade:
and lovers bringing
peace and wholeness, like you’ve been given wings
for a first-class trip
I don’t remember where I got the idea, but recently I’ve started memorizing poems and posting recordings of me reciting them on Instagram. They’ve been mostly short thus far, 10 to 15 lines. But I aim to take on longer ones as I get more under my belt and feel more adventurous.
Part of this is a memory exercise. I haven’t been obligated to memorize something of value since college (sup, Gray’s “Elegy”), and I know it’s good for the brain to do so. But it’s also because quoting poetry or Shakespeare at opportune moments is a cliche from the movies I think we could use more of in real life. And until now the only poem I could recite was “Advice” by Langston Hughes—a whopping 19 words long.
So far I’ve done “Nothing Is Too Small Not to Be Wondered About” by Mary Oliver, “The Peace of Wild Things” by Wendell Berry, and “Carrying On Like A Crow” by Charles Simic. I found them more or less at random by opening those authors’ poetry collections and paging through until something jumps out. I recommend doing that the next time you’re at the library.
The sunrise, it comes to me
A rippled grace bound for the trees.
Coming and coming, it comes,
sent from the yonder colors, that are
billowed in atmosphere.
What is otherwise clear must contend
with a cloudy obstruction that
gets the best view of all:
A panopticon dawn,
but for me, the mere morning.
The melange, elemental
in joining sky and water into one ink,
Blue-blue to blue-grey to
a hazy picture of contentment.
Sit we, contented, and hope for
emerges from nothing into black embodiment.
Sky-writing by wing,
collectively they greet the shore southward—
and, by my view, into the ghosted sun.
The refrain from Thomas Hood’s nineteenth century poem “The Haunted House” stands out not only because it appears about halfway through Slow West, John Mclean’s darkly funny reverie of a western, but because its final line—“The place is Haunted!”—breaks the iambic pentameter the poem employs throughout the rest of its eighty-five stanzas. Such a break jars the listener out of the steady rhythm they’ve been lulled into and calls abrupt attention to whatever the line proclaims. It’s a fitting reference in Slow West, a film whose moments of flashbang severity disrupt the steady gait of a young man’s westward quest for redemption and grace within a world reluctant to give them.
It’s haunted, the place we wind our way through. The barren plains and pined mountains of 1870 Colorado are unforgiving to Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee), a teenaged Scottish patrician who, anguished in unrequited love and unresolved guilt, ventures through the wild American West for another chance to win over Rose (Caren Pistorius), a commoner’s daughter who back in Scotland had playfully rebuffed Jay’s declaration of love. “These violent delights have violent ends,” she’d told him (quoting Romeo & Juliet) with a smile and a sisterly nudge. But to Jay it’s a gut-punch, and it clearly haunts him when we meet him: lying on a blanket beside an extinguished campfire, stargazing, calling out constellations by name and pinpointing their stars with his revolver. He seems to be harnessing the heavens to his quest. The scene calls to mind the first stanza of Hood’s “The Haunted House”:
Some dreams we have are nothing else but dreams, Unnatural, and full of contradictions; Yet others of our most romantic schemes Are something more than fictions.
This serves as a kind of establishing shot for what follows, both in the poem and the film, where the characters’ dreams of every kind often presage reality like violent premonitions.
Jay trudges on alone through rough terrain and the smoldering remains of torched Indian camps, haunted by memories of Rose and his role in her forced exile. Soon, finding himself in a harrowing spot, a cloaked mystery man—later revealed as the bounty hunter Silas Selleck, himself an immigrant from the British Isles played by Michael Fassbender—relieves Jay of this precarious situation and elects himself (for a fee) chaperone of this vulnerable boy.
So westward they go together on a plodding course, Jay suspicious of Silas’ motives and Silas, a taciturn mercenary, irritated by Jay’s starry-eyed chatter. Quickly the dynamic between them reveals itself when Silas asks about Rose:
“She’s a beauty,” Jay says. “And she does not waste words. They tumble out, wit following wisdom.”
“You haven’t bedded her, have you?” Silas responds with a chuckle.
“You’re a brute,” Jay retorts.
A brute, it turns out, who learns something Jay doesn’t while stopping at a trading post: that Rose and her father have a $2,000 bounty on their heads, dead or alive, for what they fled their homeland for. Perfect fodder for a bounty hunter being led right to his prey.
But along the way the facade of Silas’ gruff exterior, forged by the toil of surviving the West’s hardscrabble life, begins to crack. He grows fond of Jay. Of his innocence, of his willingness to brave a new unknown world for the sake of unlikely love. And soon, after fixating on the pencil sketch of Rose on her “Wanted” poster, he grows fond of her too, or at least the idea of her and the idyllic life she could represent.
The movie’s odd-couple dynamic shines brightest in the darkest moments. More than once Silas stares down a gun pointed at his head while maintaining the tempered serenity of a man very familiar with death. Jay, though highly determined, lacks the weathered wisdom of a gun-for-hire like Silas, and is often victimized by the desperate circumstances around him.
We see this in a scene of the pair curving through an eerily quiet forest considered by the locals to be haunted. The sun creeping through the canopy, Jay, perhaps in a bout of superstition, recites from Psalm 91:
Thou shalt not be afraid for the terror by night; nor for the arrow that flieth by day; Nor for the pestilence that walketh in darkness; nor for the destruction that wasteth at noonday.
Silas, considerably less pious, cuts in with a timely invocation of the refrain from “The Haunted House”:
O’er all there hung a shadow and a fear; A sense of mystery the spirit daunted, And said, as plain as whisper in the ear, The place is Haunted!
They couldn’t have been more right. What happens after that sets the stage for a climactic set piece that’s at once a wryly fatalistic conclusion and a searing, clear-eyed accounting of all the loss and destruction Jay’s mission—and by proxy the wild west itself—had wrought.
The occasional showy shot aside, Slow West is exceptionally well-crafted, deliberate in the best way, and concerned about portraying its humans as such, and not as plastic figurines in a cowboy-themed Playmobil set. They are flesh and grit, have dirty fingers and often die ingloriously. They’re brazenly self-serving, out to make a buck or get ahead at any cost, or just survive. Even our young protagonist Jay, with his nobleman’s comportment, is impertinent and brash, prone to bouts of high-minded hauteur at poorly chosen times.
The music in Slow West, composed by Jed Kurzel, accompanies the action only when necessary and is as spartan as the film’s running time. Maclean savvily weaves in the throbbing strings beneath key moments, but also allows other moments to unfold in the harsh, spare silence of reality. Despite what we’ve seen in countless westerns, real shootouts aren’t underscored by an orchestra or a triumphant brass theme. The whip-crack of the revolver’s hammer, the whistle of an airborne arrow, the thud of a bullet into flesh, the crackling of a destructive fire in a soft wind: these are the sounds of death in the West, and Maclean wisely let’s them tell a lot of this story.
Other reviews of Slow West have called attention to its stylistic similarities to more well-known filmmakers like Wes Anderson and the Coen Brothers. At times it did remind me of the best parts of the Coen Brothers’ rendition of True Grit. But I’ll happily take Slow West on its own terms, unbeholden to its predecessors. It’s good enough to stand on its own, and it deserves to.
I ran here for the sunrise.
I ran here straight down a concrete corridor, a road
slippened by snow,
past a corner store where coffee and pie
rise to life in manifest alchemy.
With my breath steaming in locomotion
I approach the boulderow, a stone sluice
of Sisyphean resolve—bulwark against the lacustrine,
but this morn
like poppy seed cupcakes: ice-glazed
My feet wedged, bracing and expectant,
I behold the firmament: a mailslot in the sky
flooding upward with milky amber-beams.
An atoll of ice-chunks,
particles scattered and fractal
from the shoreline, reflect the nascent dawn—a chessboard
—king’s to me today.
A man with a coffee mug and no gloves
comes beside me with a camera to capture the departing show.
‘I’ve been all over the world,’ he says, ‘and
this is right in our backyard.’
Revelers, we. Comrades in delight.
We drink our daily cup: mine today
A mighty evergreen near us guards the shore,
still wearing its Christmas lights.
Remember, remember, the fifth of November,
When Doc bumped his head and made it so tender;
He could not recall his singular sight:
Capacitors fluxing and time circuits alight.
Calvin the sailor with life jacket steady
Inquired, ‘Hey Doc, are you now ready
To freeze space-time in the tower-clock?
Banish the thought of paradox.
Not now, you see, but hither they come,
Your days on the continuum.
Composed on the occasion of November the 5th, not in honor of Guy Fawkes Day but for Doc Brown Day.
I kill with the earth, that with which I line the walls of my room. With a paint brush choked with white diatomaceous earth-powder, I dab and fluff along the crack where the walls meet the floor to discourage the passage of bedbugs into my abode. The powder floats up and down through the sunrays that beam through the window. A Latvian choir sings vespers from my speakers and scores the moment. A lively moment, indeed, killing satanic creatures with the very earth they inhabit, or rather inhabited. I wear a white mask because microscopic charred rock isn’t great for one’s health or throat, at least as great as it is at killing them silently.
Here in late October, as an Indian summer day seizes, I’m in shorts when I should be figuring out layers. This interlude makes for curious thinking; I’m thinking about the weather and how strange it is when I really should be thinking about autumn in its usual path, from green to gold and red to dead—or so it seems. Then again when is weather ever not weird here? In Chicago, in the Midwest, things are best when they are on the move, the future blocked from view with today askew and only tomorrow the chance to weather things anew. The truth is, the world isn’t dead at the end of autumn when clouds set in and the cool air cocoons us for months; it’s only hibernating. All that dies die will be back again, if not exactly as it once was. It will be close enough, and hard for us humans to tell the difference. Can you tell one year’s sunflower patch from another?
I kill preemptively with the earth, diatomaceous powder that lies in wait, white and benign, until whatever crawls through the walls slides its thin belly over it. It doesn’t strike down its victim there, but in a moment, after the pitiful, pestilential creature’s exoskeleton has been thrashed through and exposed with the microscopic shards of ground-rock. It dies not of inhalation or poisoning, but of exposure. It bleeds out, bleeding the blood of its nocturnal victims. But this gruesome death that I cheer (good riddance) is not a death, only a hibernation. That bug is dead, but the others live. Those spared a diatomaceous death can live for years dormant, biding their time in verily anywhere, the vermin. The trap that I set in this interlude of an Indian summer is an interlude for them too. Whether they climb to my room or not, or whether they’re already here and laughing at my efforts, they will bide their time like the bushes and trees, who sleep the winter dormant but not dead, and wait to show their faces again, when they must. Dust to earth to dust, and again.
The dust of fallen leaves and rock ground into the ground floats in my air now as diatomaceous earth. It speckles the sunlight and makes it known. The choral vespers hover in the air too, a lullaby to a future-timely death of pests whose time has come. Say your prayers, parasites. The dust lying in repose waits for a bedbug to cross over it, not on this faux summery day but after, after the dust has settled and the winter has arrived for another hibernation. Will the living that die live again?