with critique by Jendi Reiter
She lives in the urban park, the fox,
The little vixen, with no shelter for her head
Under the sooty trees, in the scraggy grass,
The daily roar of a great city in her ears,
And the shouting of boys flinging cans in the dark.
She feeds from the boxes discarded around, finds
Scraps of food, laps pink-tongued from puddles,
And sleeps curled up, thick tail over her nose,
Her coat ruffled by wind and wet in the dark,
At the side of a bench with her old name carved.
Think fox, and you think thick red fur, bright eyes,
But she is dull and matted, and somewhere she knows
That once she was loved, but it comes and goes.
At times she feels that her hair was long and groomed,
That her eyes, once blue, shone from out a smooth white face,
That her teeth, now stale-breathed fangs, were even,
And smiled at crowds as she swanned serene.
But her foxy brain blurs and the memories fade,
Glimmers come seldom as she sinks with age.
What was it that passed, in a cast-off life,
That caused her to sink and die, fighting for breath
In the bright waters of a far-off land?
She remembers being pushed and thrown through stars
From across the world on the racing jet stream,
Impelled tumbling and breathless, to find her home,
Falling into this forlorn beast with the russet fur,
Hair the same shade as hers. They set this bench
As memorial for a dead girl, her friends,
And here she will live until one morning,
One of too many mornings of winter chill
Will leave her stiff and gone, again.
Davies says of the origin of this poem: "I read a short article in The Sunday Times about a young woman, a minor celebrity, who died in a boating accident in South America on holiday. Her friends erected a bench in the park opposite her home as a memorial, and suddenly a little vixen has taken up residence next to the bench. Could it be?"
Copyright 2008 by Liz Davies
Critique by Jendi Reiter
The human being who is also an animal figures prominently in fairy tales and ghost stories worldwide. Male shape-shifters are often princes in disguise, needing a woman's civilizing love to scrub off their beast nature. Animal-women tend to appear more seductive or sinister, as in the legend of the Selkie, or Korean folktales of fox-demons disguised as beautiful girls. Mystery both allures and frightens us. One way to express our anxieties about the elusive, emotional feminine is to depict a woman who is literally a fox, a cat or a bird—a stealthy predator yet also a fragile, delicate creature compared to man.
Like a small animal, a woman is vulnerable to falling through the cracks of urban life, as Liz Davies' poem "The Fox Woman" illustrates. Whereas the image of a man going feral suggests aggression and inspires fear, a woman in the same plight can inspire the reader's sympathy, even admiration for her ruined beauty.
Davies' successful strategy in this poem is to first build our rapport with the main character as a fox, letting us feel what she feels, through direct sensory description without commentary. We barely register the shift from a naturalistic depiction to an anthropomorphized one ("somewhere she knows/That once she was loved, but it comes and goes") because we have already made the imaginative leap of seeing the world through a fox's eyes.
This in turn generates empathy for the woman for whom the fox is a metaphor, the one with matted hair and gaps in her memory, who sleeps on park benches. She is not one of us humans, so we walk past her, or worse ("the shouting of boys flinging cans in the dark"). But an animal consciousness is easier to fall into than we'd like to admit; we've done it just by reading this poem.
Davies suggests that the hardscrabble little fox may be the spirit of a young woman who suffered a premature accidental death. Here, the kinship of human and animal speaks to our common vulnerability to forces we cannot comprehend. The fox is making her way through a harsh city environment that is not designed for her, from which she snatches crumbs of sustenance, and whose larger patterns her brain is not equipped to perceive. Is that really so different from how human beings feel, in the face of the mysteries of life and death?
Superimposed on the image of the fox is the alternate future of this unnamed "minor celebrity". One can picture her as an old woman, losing her grasp on the glittering memories that make up her identity: "At times she feels that her hair was long and groomed,/That her eyes, once blue, shone from out a smooth white face".
Her fate, whichever way it plays out, seems unfair. She was a beautiful girl, loved by her friends: why has she been reborn as a vagrant animal? Is there a message that she has been sent back to communicate—perhaps the message of compassion for derelict creatures as well as glamorous ones? This beautiful, thought-provoking poem leaves the answer shrouded in mystery, perhaps to be worked out in the fox-woman's next reincarnation.
Readers interested in comparing tales of animal shape-shifters from many cultures will enjoy the complete searchable text of Andrew Lang's classic Fairy Books anthologies, available here.
Where could a poem like "The Fox Woman" be submitted? The following contests may be of interest:
TallGrass Writers' Guild Poetry & Prose Contest
Postmark Deadline: February 28
$500 apiece for poetry and prose (stories and essays compete together) plus Outrider Press anthology publication; 2008 theme is "Wild Things"; maximum 28 lines per poem
Writecorner Press Annual Poetry Award
Postmark Deadline: February 28
Writers' resource site offers top prize of $500 and online publication for poems up to 40 lines
Poetry International Prize
Postmark Deadline: March 14
Literary journal of San Diego State University offers $1,000 for unpublished poems
Robinson Jeffers Tor House Prize for Poetry
Postmark Deadline: March 17
Prestigious $1,000 award for unpublished poems; read past winners online
This poem and critique appeared in the February 2008 issue of Winning Writers Newsletter (subscribe free). If you'd like a chance to be critiqued, please email your poem to email@example.com. Please send your poem in the body of your email, rather than as an attachment. One poem per month only, please.
Several of our critique poets have asked me whether their poem would be considered "published", and therefore ineligible for most contests, after appearing in our newsletter. My guess would be yes, but check with the contest coordinator just in case, because some publishers may treat print and online publications differently.