A Poet in the Biosphere

Theme Essay by Kathryn Winograd

Disjunctions of Lichen




Of course I love the names: dog pelt, hooded bone, blistered rocktripe, shadow ruffle. What poet’s soul named them before their Latinate? Who thought to feed the wolf the poisoned one mixed with splintered glass, to tip the killing stone arrow with it, to name it wolf bane?

I meant to write of lichen today, to do the math that separates its Devonian fossil of 400 million years with our Quaternary fossil of 200,000 years, to confess the eight I blindly stepped on, sat on, stood on, this hundred years’ welding of wedded fungus and algae. Unwitting disperser, I have broken from brecciate rock delicate powder, ruffled leaf, hollow tube smaller than the cuttings of my fingernail, released them to the endless wind and never known it.

But there are great migrations here⎯our mild winter at fault, my Mephistopheles husband reminds me again. In winter, the animals and I live so vicariously, so segmented. I know so many only by sound⎯elk bugle on a far rise, owl hoot stoic in the pine.

Or I know them by scat: lumps of hair and bone fragments; the curve of field mice teeth enclosed in an owl pellet; the long twisted tubular cords of waste gray with the hair of what the coyote has eaten; round mule deer pellets dark and fresh beneath the snow.

Or I know them by what they cache: the frozen rabbit, partially eaten in the snow at the base of a tree, a mountain lion’s catch that the dainty poodle keeps trying to choke down whole as I hang onto a bloody thawed foot, thinking the whole time of the snake I watched in Ohio on my father’s farm swallowing before my eyes a toad whole, whole body of the snake distending, muscling the toad through, and the toad, word, dissolving.

This morning, in every aspen tree, hang the white tents of caterpillars that will eat the leaves from the stems, and I batter them to the ground. What killing is this? The seasonal cluster flies my husband swears I’ll soon bite out of the air and spit between my teeth? The skeletal nestlings I found in the winter wren house I hung from a branch, all spring the wind knocking their frail bones to death?

Caterpillar on Aspen

Last winter, I walked out into it, snow in the woods, clouds moving up from the valley, Nipple Mountain, the trees, me in shrouds, and only the yellow grass visible⎯the snow falling into it. A car horn sounded far off, honking one beat at a time, and I wondered if someone had slipped into a ditch; it was clearly a calling out. Birds roosted in the thickest fir trees: sparrows and the small winter wrens I had killed, and I heard a hollow knocking high in the trees, a half branch somewhere split off and hanging. But I couldn’t see it, though I looked and looked, stood still in the snow, listened for quiet everywhere.

Last night I slept beneath the wings of Noctuidae⎯miller moth, owlet moth, army cutworm moth drawn through the window cracks to my reading lamp. Not just one or two but dozens, erratic, fevered by light.

I plucked them one by one from air, tossed them diapausal, eggless, back into the night, more and more descending out of the shadows, twirling above me like dreams or words, nouns and predicates I understand I might never speak, witch’s hair, ragged paperdoll, until finally there was nothing but darkness and sleep to give into, my tired poet hands, all night, slick with their wing dust.


Art Information

  • "Lichen" and "Caterpillar on Aspen" © Kathryn Winograd; used by permission


Kathryn WinogradKathryn Winograd, a poet and essayist, is the author of Air Into Breathe (Ashland Poetry Series), winner of the Colorado Book Award in Poetry. Her newest book, Phantom Canyon: Essays of Reclamation, will be published by Conundrum Press in the fall. Her essay “Bathing” (published in Fourth Genre) was named a Notable Essay in Best American Essays 2011. She has been nominated for three Pushcart Prizes.

Recent or forthcoming publications include Fourth Genre, River Teeth, Hotel Amerika, Puerto del Sol, r.kv.r.y. quarterly literary journal, The Florida Review, and Literary Mama. She teaches for the Ashland University low-residency MFA program.


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