~This poem was previously published in 32 Poems (2012).
Winchester .351 High-Power Self-Loading Rifle
from an ad in The American Field, 1909
It was the love which the hunter has for living things,
and which he can only express by aiming his gun at them.
Who doesn’t dream of a heart with all sights
attached, all moving parts enclosed? A love
that can shoot through steel? See how the cougar eyes
the bold word Winchester—its jagged rush—
his body, whisker-close against the cliff, unflinching.
Already he’s prey: his muscled legs like roots
too deep for springing; a pendulum stilling
for the chime of fate. Who wouldn’t lose
this skin for an instant of lightning—one
flash from the lightest, strongest, handsomest
repeater ever made? Who hasn’t gone
to a ledge like this and waited? The scent
on the wind that draws them: lover or devil,
the heart reloading even as it recoils.
THE STORY BEHIND THE POEM
When I wrote the first draft of “Winchester .351” in 2011, I was two years into a manuscript that began with Sarah Winchester, Victorian heiress to the rifle fortune, and architect of the 6-acre house in San Jose, California, that—according to legend—she designed to appease the ghosts of everyone killed with Winchesters. I have a longstanding fascination with ghosts, old houses, and the Victorian era, but I’m also a lifelong vegetarian and pacifist, who knew very little about guns. I knew I wanted to get, in some ways, at our country’s relationship with guns, and the history of the “Gun that Won the West,” but I also didn’t know how to get inside the material enough to write something complex and undidactic. And I was frankly scared of approaching the subject: including all that I didn’t understand on a technical level. Very fortunately, when I started researching the Winchester Repeating Arms Company, I found the Buffalo Bill Historical Center McCracken Research Library’s online archives, and their historic gun ads. The combination of images like the cougar facing the jagged word WINCHESTER, and the archaic, enthusiastic ad copy, gave me some grounding for engaging with the Winchester mythology. When I read—for unrelated reasons—Italo Calvino’s The Baron in the Trees, and discovered what became the poem’s epigraph, I had a further entry-point: some mutual attraction (which I couldn’t really imagine, but which fascinated me) between hunter and prey.
I started versions of a poem off and on for several months, and finally got a draft, which included Admiral Peary’s use of Winchesters in the Arctic and ended “wholly possessing what cannot leave us whole.” My poetry group in San Francisco thought the images at the beginning were engaging, but that the poem needed to go somewhere else, and I agreed—though for more than a year, I couldn’t figure out where. I was actually finally motivated to revise thanks to desperation: in the summer of 2012, I had applied for and gotten a small grant to research and give a reading at the McCracken Research Library. In my proposal, I had talked about having written poems from the online gun ads, but none of these poems was actually finished. So I decided to return to this poem, and when I finally faced the revision, I realized the problem: the epigraph was more interesting than the poem. I hadn’t really explored what it would mean to have the sort of love a hunter has for his prey (or, I began to more fully imagine, vice versa). And once I hit on the idea of heart as gun—and on integrating more of the language from the ad to speak to this—the poem started unfolding.
I drew on several images from the original draft (such as the pendulum), but the central questions were new. I also realized the poem needed to be a sonnet—echoing the tradition of love sonnets, and using the very slanted rhymes to propel and shape the language. For instance, devil led me to recoil, which got at an idea of repulsion and return that intrigued and surprised me. What most ended up in engaging me about this subject was that I knew where I thought I stood, but I also wrote my way toward seeing it as more a complicated, and of course metaphoric, relationship than I’d considered. Whereas my first draft had been somewhat tongue-in-cheek, the new draft was laughing at aspects of the ad, and exploring the implicit darkness, and implicating itself (and its speaker and listener) into it.
I don’t do much drafting in my head, and what I know when I first go to the page is that something resonates with me—usually for reasons I don’t fully understand. It’s only through trial and error (sometimes, as in this case, more than a year of it) that I hit on the angle or line or pattern (or all of these) that will help me move forward and figure out more of what I’m trying to say (or the poem is trying to say). Throughout this project, language from sources has ended up being a generative force for many of the poems. The slightly off (to a modern ear) and often highly enthusiastic language has a tendency to bend the other language in interesting directions, much as rhyme can do. And I enjoy the challenge—in terms of syntax and tone and other elements—of interweaving my own language with fragments from sources. I’m also interested when sources I wouldn’t expect to go together—like an early 20th-century gun ad and Italo Calvino’s magical realist fiction—interact. When I read this and other poems at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center, one of the staff of the Firearms Museum was in the audience, and I was sure he was going to call me on all sorts of factual mistakes (which may well still be there). But instead, someone told me later that he’d said he wished he could quote parts of the poems on the museum displays. I love imagining that continued, slightly odd conversation between the curator’s explanations, and Calvino, and the cougar and gun in this ad.
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