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“Pursuit from Under” by James Dickey (1923 – 1997)
Often, in these blue meadows,
I hear what passes for the bark of seals
And on August weekends the cold of a personal ice age
Comes up through my bare feet
Which are trying to walk like a boy’s again
So that nothing on earth can have changed
On the ground where I was raised.
The dark grass here is like
The pads of mukluks going on and on
Because I once burned kerosene to read
Myself near the North Pole
In the journal of Arctic explorers
Found, years after death, preserved
In a tent, part of whose canvas they had eaten
Before the last entry.
All over my father’s land
The seal holes sigh like an organ,
And one entry carries more terror
Than the blank page that signified death
In 1912, on the icecap.
It says that, under the ice,
The killer whale darts and distorts,
Cut down by the flawing glass
To a weasel’s shadow,
And when, through his ceiling, he sees
Anything darker than snow
He falls away
To gather more and more force
From the iron depths of cold water,
His shadow dwindling
Almost to nothing at all, then charges
Straight up, looms up at the ice and smashes
Into it with his forehead
To splinter the roof, to isolate seal or man
On a drifting piece of the floe
Which he can overturn.
If you run, he will follow you
Under the frozen pane,
Turning as you do, zigzagging,
And at the most uncertain of your ground
Will shatter through, and lean,
And breathe frankly in your face
An enormous breath smelling of fish.
With the lungs staining your air
You know the unsaid recognition
Of which the explorers died:
They had been given an image
Of how the downed dead pursue us.
They knew, as they starved to death,
That not only in the snow
But in the family field
The small shadow moves,
And under the bare feet in the summer:
That somewhere the turf will heave,
And the outraged breath of the dead,
So long held, will form
Unbreathably around the living.
The cows low oddly here
As I pass, a small bidden shape
Going with me, trembling like foxfire
Under my heels and their hooves.
I shall write this by kerosene,
Pitch a tent in the pasture, and starve.