Narrative poetry has its special challenge: how does it differentiate itself from prose? David Mason’s story of his family’s relation to a dying fawn does this in several ways. First there’s the iambic pentameter beat carrying us along. Then wordplay, beginning with the opening line: “The vigil and the vigilance of love.” There’s the internal rhyming of cracked… black… back in the description of the dying fawn on the kids’ garage floor: “And there, quick-breathing on the cracked concrete, / a wounded fawn’s black eyes looked back at us.” There’s the alliterative “b”s in “Our father brought a blanket from the house, / a baby bottle filled with milk…” There’s the return, toward the poem’s end of “The vigil and the vigilance,” encapsulating the meaning for the poet of this childhood incident. There’s the condensed account, in the poem’s two penultimate stanzas, of the family’s later falling apart, captured in the brief images of his parents separating as “desert and woods.” Finally, there’s the pensive philosophy of the final verse: years as “a winnowing of lives”; the remembered togetherness of feeling, around the dying fawn, “the silence intervene like weather.” All in all, “The Fawn” is a poem I treasure as a narrative reflection on the poignancy of life itself.
The vigil and the vigilance of love.
Sitter to three towheaded, rowdy boys,
the spoiled offspring of the local doctor,
our cousin Maren came north for a summer
and brought us stories of the arid south—
cowpokes and stone survivals.
she summoned two of us to the garage,
a leaning shed with workbench, vise, and tools
stood up between dark studs and logging chains.
A cobwebbed window faced the windy lake
and let in light that squared off on the floor,
and there, quick-breathing on the cracked concrete,
a wounded fawn’s black eyes looked back at us.
Maren told how a neighbor’s dog had caught it,
showed us the wheezing holes made by the teeth,
the spotted fur blood-flecked, the shitty haunch
where it had soiled itself in the lunged attack.
Don’t know where its mama got to, Maren said.
Poor thing’s scared. Don’t touch it. Run get a bowl
When I came back she made a bed
of tarps and grass. Our tomboy cousin had hauled
that wounded fawn down from the neighbor’s field.
Now she nursed it until dusk. Our father
stopped by with his satchel after rounds
and Maren held the fawn so he could listen.
Shaking his head, he sat back on his heels,
removed the stethoscope. He called the vet
who told him there was nothing they could do
but wait it out.
I don’t know, our father said.
Sometimes you shouldn’t interfere with nature.
A mean dog isn’t nature, Maren said.
Well I’m not blaming you for being kind.
Our father brought a blanket from the house,
a baby bottle filled with milk, and he
and Maren shared the vigil for the fawn,
leaving a light on as they might for a child
sick in some farmer’s house.
———————————Three days—a week—
and father backed the car to the garage
to carry out the dead fawn in a tarp
and bury it in some deep part of the woods,
unmarked, and later unremarked upon
with summer over and our cousin gone.
If I tell you that was 1963
you’ll know a world of change befell us next,
but maybe it was ’62. I know
it was before the war divided us
and more than that, before our parents grew
apart like two completely different species,
desert and woods, cactus and thorny vine,
before the nation had its family quarrel,
never quite emerging from it. We boys
had sprouted into trouble of all kinds,
three would-be rebels from a broken home,
and when I next saw Maren, a rancher’s wife
in Colorado, she was all for Jesus,
getting saved and saving every day
in some denomination she invented.
We gave up calling and we never write.
The vigil and the vigilance. Our troubles
happened, but were smaller than a country’s.
My older brother died at twenty-eight—
an accident in mountains. Our mother sobered
up two decades later. Father died
so far removed from his former sanity
I struggle to remember who he was.
The years are a great winnowing of lives,
but we had knelt together by the fawn
and felt the silence intervene like weather.
I’m still there, looking at that dying fawn,
at how a girl’s devotion almost saved it,
wet panic in its eyes, its shivering breath,
its wild heart beating on the concrete floor.
David Mason’s books include The Buried Houses, The Country I Remember, and Arrivals (all from Story Line), as well as a verse novel, Ludlow (Red Hen). He co-edited Rebel Angels: Twenty-five Poets of the New Formalism (Story Line) and Twentieth-Century American Poetics: Poets on the Art of Poetry (McGraw-Hill). His work has appeared in Harpers, The New Republic, and The Nation.
Above image by Popo.uw23, used with permission under a Creative Commons License.