How many times have you seen a carcass randomly on the side of the road? Hundreds of times, right? Here is a heartfelt poem about running across a dead possum – which, no, wasn’t playing possum – and I’m showing it to you, because it made me think of some interesting things. You won’t look at road kill the same way again.
The Lull by Molly Peacock
The possum lay on the tracks fully dead.
I’m the kind of person who stops to look.
It was big and white with flies on its head,
a thick healthy hairless tail, and strong, hooked
nails on its racoon-like feet. It was a full
grown possum. It was sturdy and adult.
Only its head was smashed. In the lull
that it took to look, you took the time to insult
the corpse, the flies, the world, the fact that we were
traipsing in our dress shoes down the railroad tracks.
“That’s disgusting.” You said that. Dreams, brains, fur
and guts: what we are. That’s my bargain, the Pax
Peacock, with the world. Look hard, life’s soft. Life’s cache
is flesh, flesh, and flesh.
When I took a poetry class last spring semester, Professor Fanning told the class that the two themes that have been written about the most – whether it’s poetry or prose – are love and death. These are subjects that never cease to amaze and frighten us. “The Lull” is a fine example; aside from the obvious, you see that towards the end of the sonnet, the speaker reflects on the situation and acknowledges that in a universal perspective, they’re not that different from the possum.
It begins with describing the animal, which comes off grim and nasty since Peacock isn’t using “elevated language.” It’s not a requirement to sound like Shakespeare or Petrarch after all. She talks about how the poor animal has a hairless tail, a “smashed” head (probably hit by a train) and how there are flies gathering on its corpse. I like this, because it makes the image more real. One of the things I’ve noticed about older poems is that they sound so strange, like from another world. When a poet talks like the readers would talk, it’s easier to place themselves in the scenery.
My favorite sentence is, “In the lull that it took to look, you took the time to insult the corpse, the flies, the world, the fact that we were traipsing in our dress shoes down the railroad tracks” (7-10, Peacock). I feel like it sums up a typical reaction from anyone seeing a physical form of death. This possum might have nothing to do with you, but if you ponder on it, this carcass really has a lot to do with you and there’s a reason for you to care at least a little bit.
For the most part, this sentence shows that the speaker is disgusted by what they’re witnessing; ‘insulting the corpse’ as they look down upon it, subtly comparing themselves to the possum. Here they were, taking a stroll along the train tracks, probably nicely dressed (which I base on the fact that they’re wearing dress shoes), and here’s this ugly dead thing ruining their day. They don’t want to see this corpse, these annoying, gross flies; why does something like this exist in the world? How could it be allowed for a healthy full-grown adult to die like this?
As the speaker goes on, it dawns on them that it could just as easily be them dead on the train tracks: Peacock writes, “Dream, brains, fur and guts: what we are” (11-12). Like the possum, the speaker might be sturdy and adult; we can’t know for sure, only that now, they are comparing themselves to the animal in a different way. As they observe the carcass, they see how broken it is from this violent death (brains, fur and guts), how they didn’t get to live longer (dream). The word dream leans toward the human aspect of the death, which brings me to the conclusion that the speaker’s point of view starts to change. If they were now dead on the tracks, their dreams would have been lost as well, not just their life.
Furthermore, they conclude, “Look hard, life’s soft. Life’s cache is flesh, flesh, flesh” (13-14, Peacock). There’s a lesson in witnessing the dead possum: life is precious. Life is soft like flesh, and like flesh, humans can be ripped apart whenever, wherever. Even though the speaker also says a little earlier, “That’s my bargain,” I interpret that as the opposite. We are dreams, brains, fur and guts; we are soft creatures that die easily, similar how this possum stood no chance against the train. There’s no bargaining with death, so we do the best we can with what we have.