The mastodon grins with all the ferocity
of a ballroom dancer. Frankly, the giant’s
smile unnerves. It’s caught a punch line
that has passed me by, a wise-crack
tongued in a forgotten, lost language.
Ancient Greeks believed these big bones
the cursed remains of titanic Kyklōps,
Neptune’s unfortunate spawn fallen on ill-luck.
Sub-arctic hunters share even stranger tales
of gigantic mole-like creatures who tunnel
in earth only to croak in open air & sunbeam.
Was this ragged beast the American enigma
that eluded the guns of Lewis and Clark
— two boys sent out West by Jefferson
to bring back this fabled Incognitum?1
In a future warehouse of the ancient,
our tribe’s metallic, electronic spawn
will perhaps come to display our own bones
beside yours. We will join you as spectacle
on the raised scaffold to let others marvel.
Maybe then we will laugh together.
1 Obsessed with mastodons, Thomas Jefferson firmly believed that this “incognitum” still existed, hiding somewhere in the west of the continent. When President Jefferson commissioned Lewis and Clark to find the most navigable passage across the continent, he also tasked the expedition with tracking down this elusive beast.
Questions and Answers
Is there a specific moment that inspired you to pursue poetry?
While I’d toyed around with writing poetry during my undergrad, I found I had to put that aside as I pursued a Ph.D. and then the academic job market. I love the analytical writing that the academy demands, but it does limit creativity. Over these years I’ve had to quell my poetic impulses. Ideas for poems would pop into my head, and I’d have to quash them in favour of more academic writing.
What broke these bounds and strictures, strangely enough, was the physical act of putting my daughter to bed in the evening. As an infant, she wouldn’t fall asleep unless she was resting on top of my chest. Often, I was stuck under her for hours before she fell into deep sleep. Finding myself bodily constrained, I started playing with verse lines and rhythms inside my head. Later in the evening, I’d jot down anything that had come to me. During the day, I might play and doodle with what I’d written until a poem fell out. Gradually, enough of these poems accumulated until I had enough to send out as a manuscript.
What inspired or motivated you to write this poem?
I often take poetic inspiration from my day-to-day experiences of being in the world. I was touring my debut book, The Bone Weir, in Toronto. Before my evening reading at the Pivot Reading Series, I had time to visit the Royal Ontario Museum. I was in their Pleistocene exhibit looking at the fascinating display of fossilized mammoth, mastodon, and Giant Sloth skeletons. I was struck by how utterly bizarre this practice of displaying the remains of extinct species is. I began to think of a time in the future when humanity might be extinct. If some form of future intelligence inherited the earth, what would they think and do with our own remains? Would they too feel compelled to dig up, curate, and display our fossilized skeletons? The whole notion of the spectator becoming spectacle intrigued me and led to the composition of this particular poem.