“Let’s start by whispering the names”


I woke just before 2 a.m., wondering about Ukraine. Wondering. Rather than going downstairs in the dark to sit in front of this screen, doom-scrolling, I listened. And what was that? A single coyote, quite near. We didn’t hear the courtship this year, which made me wonder. Maybe the pair we hear most years has become too old to mate. Maybe the young have gone elsewhere. Maybe they’re wondering, What’s the point, with some development happening over on Sakinaw Lake Road, encroaching on the woods there that become our woods a little further north, with the noise of the excavators clearing and preparing ground for a huge telecommunications tower at the gateway to Ruby Lake, courtesy of the resort owners (they call themselves dedicated environmentalists). Why should we breed. So a single coyote singing a brief and beautiful song—a keening howl followed by a series of yips. Coyote, said John, sleepily, and Yes, I hear it, I replied. Maybe on the bluff beyond the old swing set? The cat leapt up from sleep, trembling. Beyond the window, trees outlined by a little moonlight.

The most difficult, of course, is
to talk to
the trees —
it’s like you don’t owe them anything
but here you stand in front of the pines,
averting your eyes.

This morning, news of continued invasion. So I turn to poetry. W.H. Auden famously said that, “poetry makes nothing happen: it survives/In the valley of its making.” It’s an account, though, an act of witness, and I turn to it over and over. Like coyote song, it arrives in the night, it makes its music, it settles in my mind and blood, and I hear it as I go through my days, look for it for its dark messages.

Let’s start by whispering the names,
let’s weave together the vocabulary of death.

To stand and talk about the night.
Stand and listen to the voices
of shepherds in the fog
incanting over every single
lost soul.

The passages of poetry are from Serhiy Zhadan’s A New Orthography, translated by John Hennessy and Ostap Kin.

4 thoughts on ““Let’s start by whispering the names””

  1. Coincidences again, dear Theresa, as I have Auden’s collected works from the library and will now be keen to dip into them. I love your coyote photo; what a knowing face. The poems you quote here remind me of the Spell Songs written in collaboration with Robert Macfarlane and inspired by his “Lost Words” and “Lost Spells”. I hope you’ve discovered them, especially ‘Thrift’ and ‘Blessing’ which are on YouTube and which are hugely soothing and encouraging both. I’ve been thinking of you and your connections to Ukraine, and am glad to see your beautiful embroideries are out where they may shine and spread hope.

    1. That coyote is a pup who visited most mornings over about 10 days some years ago. It would amble around below the deck where we were having coffee and once it went into the dog house (left from our late Lily) and sat in the entrance as though wondering if it might move in. It would pull down stems of salal and delicately nibble the ripe berries.
      Yes, I do know the Lost Words and Lost Spells. They are haunting. Poetry has deep function and provides courage and solace but will it help with Ukraine? I hope so. It feels important now to read the words of Ukrainian writers, to listen to the music.

  2. Nice photo. I recollect Ian Tyson honoring the coyote, “lives in the North at 40 below and in Malibu by the sea.”
    Sorry to hear they are going ahead with the communications tower near you. Especially as this seems obsolete technology. Ukraine’s internet, knocked out by the Ruskies, has been restored by some billionaire relocating a lot of communications satellites.

    1. Hi John,
      Yes, lots of coyotes in Ian Tyson! I’m quite fond of them though I might feel otherwise if they actually nabbed the cat. Mostly we see them from a distance — sometimes I look out my study window to see one trotting by the edge of the woods — and I love their songs. An essay in my book Euclid’s Orchard, the title essay, thinks about them in terms of family structures and music and math and it made me really quite grateful to have the occasional sighting of them.
      The tower. Ah, it seemed for a time that it wouldn’t go ahead, with lawyers for the ecological centre (and its patrons) writing sternly to the owners of land with the shared driveway to the centre. But their lawyers responded and the work has resumed. It’s always interesting to me to see what people will do to make a few bucks, in this case a month stipend paid to the owners (who also own a resort they bill as an eco-resort) for the use of the land.

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