Guest Poetry Blog # 9 – Entering the Wild – American poet Todd Davis Features American poet Anne Haven McDonnell – Part Two of Two

American poet Anne Haven McDonnell. Photo Credit: Split Rock Review.

Shadow into Wolf

On the long low-tide of seal spit, I studied just beyond
the horizon
of sight—a dark twist of driftwood, black against the sandy bank
and shag
of cedar. Thought it’s just like my mind
to make
a branch a wolf snout, profile with two ears pricked
our boat where you load waterproof bags and I rest
a flash.
I backed away from the killdeer’s broken wing dance,
her nesting space, found this water-worn cedar log to sit
a spell.
And like a dream swims up to waking, I saw that branch rise and
all at once
become an actual black wolf watching you load our boat.
it’s just like a wolf to sit beyond the horizon of sight, to shapeshift, to
the mind towards what it fears or yearns for. And just like a wolf to stand up
in bodied toothy fact, cut a hole in the forest, all the gathered
and shadow, turn back to trees and leave me
what I saw and how I might tell it.

Anne Haven McDonnell from Living With Wolves, Split Rock Press, 2020


For several semesters in environmental studies classes at Penn State where I’m a professor, I taught the poems that comprise Anne Haven McDonnell’s Living with Wolves. It was a good way to introduce the debates that surround the migration or reintroduction of wolves, to have students—most of whom had never had a lived encounter with a wolf—to explore a range of viewpoints on the subject.

But at the heart of why I taught the book was the simple fact that I wanted Anne to tell the story over and over about how these wolves swam to an island off the coast of British Columbia, how they colonized and lived among people, a story primal and primary, something we might have heard over a fire a hundred or a thousand years ago.

The epigraph poem above is the last poem in Living With Wolves. I so appreciate how it is crafted. Anne places us in the scene, allowing it to unfold, a living metaphor of driftwood changing into wolf. How different this narrative moment is once that driftwood becomes “an actual black wolf watching you.” The wonder the speaker in the poem is left with at such an encounter, the question of how to tell it, and isn’t that what we struggle with as writers: How to tell it? How to frame it? Where to begin and end the poem, because poems don’t ever actually end, except on a page. Outside of the page they continue to take on lives of their own.

I read this poem years ago but continue to be visited by it, “all the gathered / shade /and shadow” dwelling in my mind, in my body, and the trick not only of metaphor but metanarration, breaking into the space beyond the page.

The poet wonders “how I might tell it.” At least one telling already exists as we come to that final line: this very poem, a gift for all her readers.

McDonnell lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and teaches at the Institute of American Indian Arts. In addition to Living With Wolves, she’s the author of the the full-length collectio, Breath on a Coal, which won the 2021 Halcyon Award for Poetry. She also recently was awarded a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Poetry.

Anne loves wild spaces, longs for them, and most years makes pilgrimages north to Alaska where she earned an MFA from the University of Alaska Anchorage. Just this past summer she traveled a road north by herself and was gifted encounters with moose and bear and a man who has developed a deep relationship with lynx, who as he walks his path home is followed by them and plays a game with them, throwing his hat for them to retrieve.

I think the reason I was so taken by Anne’s poetry is that she consistently explores the borders of wildness and culture, respecting both the wild and the domesticated, embracing encounters with other-than-human animals, imagining how those encounters change human animals and these other living beings, often using metaphor to accomplish the always unfinished task of such meditations and mediations.

Living with Wolves begins with “Prologue: A Creation Story,” and, of course, creation stories are not only rooted in myth but in metaphor, in trying to express a beginning point, the sacred act of birth and rebirth. We are told that “There was a loneliness / spread so thin / that no one named it.” Abstraction made physical, turned into a substance that can be spread, manipulated. And then the ravens, who “remembered all the dead,” flutter into the frame.

They tried to tell her, chortling
their watery croaks from telephone poles.
She only answered with more questions.

And so the woman in the poem continues to journey north, continues to listen to the ravens, to the “old trees who have seen all,” until “she looked up / as the wolves looked up, / and something old was born.”

There’s something ancient and wise about McConnell’s poetry, and I think that’s because she drinks from the oldest of wells: the greater-than-human natural world that existed before we, as a species, entered and will exist long after we depart.

I’ll pause for a moment and allow Anne’s poem, “The Woman Who Married a Bear,” which begins Breath on a Coal, to speak of such things:

The Woman Who Married a Bear

I’ve never seen a bear bared
to air, skinned to a pearled
blue—the color inside
shells or secrets. I’ve heard
hunters shudder—how human
they look, hung there upright.
It reminds me of the bear who roamed
New Jersey with mangled feet,
lumbering on hind legs like a person
in fur, holding those poor
paws to his chest. Bipedal,
fans called him Pedals, and cried
when a hunter shot him.

All the ways a distance
can collapse or be crossed.

Everyone wants to see a bear,
warm and alive and running
away, like I saw one,
her heavy curved rear,
pelt rippling as she plowed
uphill, putting the earth
between us. Her body dark
and round like the hole underground
where she curled, suspended, gathering
the braided medicines of sleep
and earth. In the old stories, people
who cross over never quite
return. Once I dreamed
my body was enveloped
by warm dark fur. It wasn’t a symbol
of you, or him, or the love I always
wanted from her—it was new—
dank breath and cool seeps
in the cave, wrapped by that
bear as if sleep there could carry
me back where I belong.

Anne Haven McDonnell from Breath on a Coal, Middle Creek Publishing, 2022

Anne and I became friends through our poetry, but it was what stands behind our poems—a deep, abiding respect for the wild spaces that remain and the living beings who make their homes in such spaces—that deepened our bond.


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