Cougar

by Thomas Davis

The cougar, tawny shadow in the rocks,
Moved stealthily toward the maple grove.
Lake water glinted as the noisy flocks
Of geese stormed from the shelter of the cove.
The blinding sunlight still allowed the moon
To sail, ghost-white, into the dying afternoon.

Far out, a dozen miles from land, the swells
Of rocking waves beneath the tiny boat,
A man begins to celebrate and yells,
Emotions unaware of how remote
He is from land, the glistening chinook
Caught by the white bone of his hand-carved hook.

The winter’s done, he thought. At last it’s done!
He reached down for his paddle as a haze
Crept from the north and dimmed the western sun.
He felt a change inside the rolling waves
And saw how far he’d traveled from the trees
That shivered from a sudden, chilling breeze.

The cougar tensed its body on a ledge
Above a trail deer followed to the lake.
All day it fixed its eyes upon a hedge
The deer would file around, the bloody rake
Of claws in deer flesh promised in the way
It waited patiently throughout the day.

Clouds scudded black into the evening skies
As choppy waves began to spray the wind
Into the man’s cold face and reddened eyes.
At last his mind began to apprehend
The danger in the darkness of a night
Directionless without a hint of light.

A doe and fawn came through the hedge and stopped.
The cougar did not move. Time froze. The doe
Kept staring at the ledge. At last ears dropped.
The cougar watched the fawn, its cautious, slow,
Small movement made toward the cougar’s claws
Retracted, still, inside its twitching paws.

The mother snorted at the fawn. It flinched
Toward a maple trunk. The cougar sprang,
Its body twisting in the air, jaws clinched
As doe and fawn leapt through an overhang
Of cedars as the cougar hit the ground
And filled the silent woods with snarling sound.

Inside the rhythm of his paddling
The man began to dream of children’s eyes.
Outside the wind was constant, rattling
The thick bark walls he’d built, the haunting cries
Of winter deprivation in the breath
Of little ones too young to face their death.

Hours passed. He fought the waves. The shore
Somewhere inside the darkness beckoned him.
He dug into his tiredness, past the core
Of who he was, his perseverance grim
Enough to face the dance of spirits howled
Across awareness where disaster prowled.

Then, suddenly, the boat hit land. It threw
Him backwards. Lying still he felt life surge
Its song into his beating heart, the brew
Of wind and waves no longer like a dirge
Of doom, the willow basket full of fish—
Fulfillment of his family’s anxious wish.

The cougar’s eyes were fire. The man had placed
The basket on the pebble beach and pulled
The boat above the water when he faced
The cat, its eyes and crouching body bold
Beside the basket with the fish, it’s ears
Laid back, it’s growling stirring ancient fears

Of children, grieving with their mother, left
Alone inside a wilderness, the man’s
Life gone, their futures suddenly bereft
Of all the dreams he’d fashioned from his plans.
The cougar’s eyes were suns, a universe.
The man waved arms and shouted out a curse.

The cougar turned and grabbed a fish, the night
A darkness swallowing a shadow bled
Into an emptiness devoid of light.
The man stood frozen as the cougar fled.
At last he got the basket, climbed the hill,
The cougar in his life-force, tense and still.

17 Comments

Filed under Poetry, Thomas Davis

17 responses to “Cougar

  1. As if entranced the reader feels the night
    Alive with menace; waits with bated breath.
    The skillful rhyme has dropped down out of sight
    Stretched taut, unbroken chain of … life or death?
    Sudden, the snatched fish seals Nature’s bargain.
    Released, he breathes easily once again.

  2. Thomas, I must always print longer poems out as I can’t sit at the computer for more than a couple of minutes. Will read this, savor it, and be back with comment soon!

  3. I wish I could write like this.

  4. Ina

    ! I always thought a cougar was a woman who liked younger man. 🙂 Love this poem.

    • In New Mexico cougars were one of the more dangerous animals. They lived not far from our house, and on occasions we could hear their yowling at night. They are big, and one did kill a man once in the Bluewater Lake area up the mountains from where we were. I have never heard of cougar being used as a word to describe an older woman who liked a younger man. On the other hand I am not the most sophisticated person in the universe, so I only know about real cougars, also known as mountain lions.

  5. Like Betty, I bookmark your poems so that I can read them when all other distractions have faded. They are to be savoured and absorbed slowly, so that I can best appreciate the pieces you have crafted. As ever, a beautifully crafted poem, Thomas.

  6. You knew I’d love this, didn’t you, Tom? Beautifully crafted, of course, and with a deep, atavistic quality, like shadows on the cave wall and firelight in the dark. Powerful, visceral and engaging, but also completely natural and unforced. The swing of iambic pentameter, and the rhyme scheme, give it a timelessness: it sounds fresh and contemporary, yet could be an ancient story handed down over generations. Wonderful work from a great poet; a privilege to share it.

    • I am always excited when you make a comment, Nick. Thank you for this, but I was hoping you would look at the couplet poem I posted today. I need to know if the couplets really work. I appreciate your craftsmanship enough to be brave enough to ask for some help. I am glad this poem has the quality of shadows on the cave wall and firelight in the dark.

  7. The cougar was as the jackal; only wanted the already caught prey.
    This poetry captivated this reader, breathless…

  8. extrasimile

    Yes indeed, Thomas, ‘The Cougar’ is a first rate poem. That nice, natural iambic line, the seemingly casualness of the rhymes, together with a whopping good story—and those shifting perspectives—makes this poem something a wonder. Also something of a text book in traditional poetic practices—and I think a good place to wonder about them. So, if you’ll indulge me here, I’d like to raise a few questions: To what extent does the use of a ‘precut’ model affect the, um, verisimilitude of the poem? Does this feel natural to you or is a bravura piece of craftsmanship? Or is this a false distinction? [Or a false ‘bravura’?] If so, then where do these rhythms come from? I know the traditional answer to these questions centers, on the one hand, on timeless things like the breath and the heartbeat and the body walking. All good answers, so far as they go—but, on the other hand, their very timelessness prohibits them from explaining why poetic practices change. The other hand must hold things like ‘cultural differences’ and ‘historical change’, ‘advances in technology’ and so forth. Of course that second hand must also be holding an individual with his perceptions, education, experiences etc. Consider: Christopher Smart, Stevie Smith, ‘[Not Waving but Drowning’ is one of my all-time favorite poems.], and John Milton: how different can you get? And finally let’s not forget the subject matter. One ought to take care to use an appropriate form. Heroic couplets for a poem about walking the dog. Ugh. [or ha-ha.]
    Now to your poem: let me suggest this line as central: ‘The man began to dream of children’s eyes’. This is a nicely constructed; the rhythm helps the sentence; it is a sentence: it leads you right to ‘children’s eyes’. That has to be its point. This is as good a line of iambic pentameter as one would hope to find. A thing of beauty is a joy forever. And of course it ties it to its rhyming bedfellow, ‘the haunting cries’ which pulls you into the next line. Indeed this is poetic craft at it height. And then: ‘the cougar’s eyes were fire.’ What is going to happen next? He steals a fish. The heroics of nature’s great brawl reduced to petty theft—which of course happens all the time. ‘Nature red in tooth and claw’ indeed. Skulking off with a purloined fish.
    As I look back at the first paragraph, the word ‘verisimilitude’ pops out—and not just for its pretentiousness. Karl Popper used it to as an end/ goal for scientific method—truth-likeness. Yet science has proceeded by moving away from the subjective; this may be the elusive flaw in scientific method. May the cougar in both characters enjoy the deep wilderness in this poem. And may that wildness protect our consciousness.

    • Hmmm, Jim. Thanks for all the praise of the poem, but the questions? Does using traditional meter and rhyme, with the limitations they impose, affect the verisimilitude of the poem? One of my favorite sonnets has always been one by Wordsworth:
      Nuns fret not at their convent’s narrow room;
      And hermits are contented with their cells;
      And students with their pensive citadels;
      Maids at the wheel, the weaver at his loom,
      Sit blithe and happy; bees that soar for bloom,
      High as the highest Peak of Furness-fells,
      Will murmur by the hour in foxglove bells:
      In truth the prison, unto which we doom
      Ourselves, no prison is: and hence for me,
      In sundry moods, ’twas pastime to be bound
      Within the Sonnet’s scanty plot of ground;
      Pleased if some Souls (for such there needs must be)
      Who have felt the weight of too much liberty,
      Should find brief solace there, as I have found.
      I am not sure I am a fan of nuns, though I have no objection to them, but lately, after having gone through a period of writing free verse, it has seemed to me that by straightjacketing myself I give myself permission to search freedom and thus live freedom.
      The truth is that I have to work at meter and rhyme. It does not fall from the pen. But the work makes me struggle for meaning, metaphor, clarity, story, simile, and the double and triple meanings below surfaces that I find so appealing in your work, Wallace Stevens’ work, and the work of several other poets I read, including Shakespeare, Seamus Heaney, Chaucer, and so many others. The craft of following Frost’s old advice to fashion music out of the clash between meaning and form has seemed to me, lately, to be worth doing. Is that verisimilitude?
      Another thought, and then this ends. When I wrote a double sestina–the idea of writing a double sestina sounds absurd. Why would anyone do that?–Ethel asked me what sane person would choose to climb an Everest like that? Do those who drink from Hippocrene’s deep well court sanity? Where Pegasus has stamped his foot are layers of spirit that can never be unpeeled. That’s probably why I read so much work on the Double Simile site. I know I’m not up to that task, but I do it to do it.

  9. extrasimile

    Thomas, if I am guilty of being needlessly provocative—and I am—it is perhaps only me who is being provoked. Your answer is of course correct—working a traditional craft is indeed a kind of provocation to force one’s self to go deeper into the language. I guess I still puzzle at the ‘line’ and its genius—how it cross organizes with the sentence—and how it is ‘measured’. Prose poetry has always seemed to me to need a very special occasion to justify it. Still I feel traditional [and we mean an iambic foot here, do we not? Surely everything grows out of it.] line construction something of a straight jacket, and to put this vaguely, in opposition to the rhythms that we are surrounded with—how they can stifle or engender expression. I really do think the rhythms found at the dinner table are as important as those found as those found in Dickinson or Wordsworth. The poems of everyday ought to sit next to the masters.
    A brief story about nuns. I was around them often as a child. One time my grandfather, mother and I were taking two nuns to a convent out on the east end of Long Island I must have been six or so. In those days nuns always dressed in the full habit and always traveled in pairs. We got a flat tire. My grandfather thumped to the side of the road. I have to think changing a flat tire was the last thing he felt like doing. The two nun stopped him as he got out of the car. Don’t worry, we’ll take of it .Huh? They got out of the car. They stood along the highway for maybe thirty seconds. A car screeched to a stop. A twenty something man rushes from the car. ‘Can I help you sister?’ Another car screeched to a stop. Another guy gets out of the car. Then a third. ‘Sisters, what can we do for you?’ Three minutes later the tire was changed and we on our way. A thing of beauty is a joy forever. Nuns were very much revered in the good old days. And of course they spoke perfect iambic pentameter. Thomas I’ll try to keep my polemics to myself. Happy spring,

    • The rhythm of speech around a dinner table is as important in poetry as iambic, Jim. Even more satisfying, at least to me, is the storm of words conjured by writers like Walt Whitman or Theodore Roethke. Poetry is by nature a chameleon art, at least in my estimation, metamorphosis in the center of what it is and is not.
      I love your nun story. I actually founded College of the Menominee Nation with Sister Verna Fowler, a Menominee Indian nun, who is still one of the persons I deeply admire. Both my daughters are Catholic, but Catholicism, even though this current Pope is a breath of fresh, Jesuit air, comes with mixed feelings whenever I think about. There has been a long, often troubled, history. I don’t think I’ll be buying any relics from a pardoner anytime soon.
      I hope you don’t keep your polemics to yourself. Otherwise their churning my upset the inner balance that makes you such a marvelous poet.

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