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Recorded for Poem-a-Day, June 23, 2016.
About this Poem 

“‘Animal Prudence’ began with two notes I found in my pocket: one that I could explain and another that I could not. I’ve been working this year on poems engaged with multiple levels of perception and predation. Perception itself is a predatory act, and to make poetry, I feel, attempts to keep fresh the wounds of the prey.”
—Kathy Fagan

Animal Prudence

Mice drink the rainwater before dying by
the poison we set in the cupboard for them.
They come for the birdseed, and winter
is so grey here the sight of a single cardinal
can keep us warm for days. We’ll justify
anything—and by we, I mean I, and by
I, I mean we, with our man-is-the-only-
animal-who and our manifest destiny, killers
each of us by greater or lesser degrees.
Instead of a gun or knife in my pocket
there are two notes. Unwhich the//
dandelion, reads one. I don’t know what
it means but cannot throw it away;
it is soft as cashmere. The other says:
coffee, chocolate, birdseed. I should be
extinct by now, except I can’t make it
on to that list either. Like toothpicks
made of plain wood, some things are
increasingly hard to find. Even when he was
a young drunk going deaf from target practice,
my father preferred picking his teeth
to brushing them. My mother preferred
crying. They bought or rented places
on streets named Castle, Ring, Greystone—
as if we were heroes in a Celtic epic.
Our romanticism was earned, and leaned
toward the gothic, but lichen aimed
for names on gravestones far
lovelier than our own. It seemed to last
a long time, that long time ago, finches
pixelating the hurricane fences,
cars idling exhaust, dandelions bolting
from flower to weed to delicacy,
like me. Egyptians prepared their dead
for a difficult journey; living is more
—I was going to say, more difficult,
but more alone will do, imprudent—
unlike art—always falling below or rising
above the Aristotelian mean. In France,
a common rural road sign reads:
Animal Prudence. Purely cautionary,
it has nothing to do with Aristotle,
but offers sound advice nonetheless.
These days, I caution my father more
than he ever cautioned me. He hears
his aural hallucinations better and shows
greater interest: sportscasters at ballgames,
revelers at the parties he insists on.
He’s got all his own teeth, so toothpicks
must do the job. His pockets fill with them.
There are always half a dozen rattling
like desert bones in my dryer. I think
of the mason who chiseled his face
in the cathedral wall; he couldn’t write
his name. The yellow bouquets I’d offer
my mother by the fistful also got their name
in France: dent de lion, meaning teeth of the lion.  

Copyright © 2016 by Kathy Fagan. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on June 23, 2016, by the Academy of American Poets.

Copyright © 2016 by Kathy Fagan. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on June 23, 2016, by the Academy of American Poets.

Kathy Fagan

Kathy Fagan

Kathy Fagan is the author of Sycamore (Milkweed Editions, 2017). She lives in Ohio.

by this poet

poem

after Encounters at the End of the World by Werner Herzog


With booms & chirrs seals
speak under the ice of an ocean
frozen over.
Stationary ocean. Electrified song.
Color: snow day with autumn
leaves inside it, 
glassene sheers of cantaloupe &