"Killing the Murnion Dogs"
Black Lawrence Press
Joe Wilkins lives in Iowa now, but his origins are in the “big dry” of Eastern Montana, where, as Wilkins writes in a memoir essay, he “had to kill to live.” The poems of "Killing the Murnion Dogs," a finalist for the High Plains Book Award in poetry, take their tone and much of their content from the parched landscape of his home. Though writing of 1985, Wilkins could as easily have been evoking this past summer when he writes, “The mountain’s on fire, the sun just a bright stone in a river of/rippling smoke. I breathe ash.”
Wilkins’ voice is both sonorous and sharp, and through it we see a good portion of an America that usually lurks only at the edges of vision. Here Wilkins evokes characters from a forlorn Mississippi town: “The men down/King Avenue hold paper bags close to their hearts/and stare./There is a grandmother with one eye/who talks to stray dogs — this place is deep/with ghosts.” Wilkins’ emphasis on the visual signals us to take notice lest we diminish our world through our own limited sight and blank stares. We need to see these ghosts, Wilkins insists, and consider the experiences to which they testify.
But the strongest poems in this volume are set in Montana. In the title poem, the narrator recounts a powerful childhood story of the time his neighbor’s seven cow dogs got loose and slaughtered his family’s sheep: “The moon rose wild and red over the gravel/bed of the river as Willie Murnion’s dogs slipped/across Highway 12 and ran the flat miles/north through sage and greasewood.” The results are vividly rendered: “the lambs —/broke clean in half, sheep torn open/at the belly, gray loops/of entrails soft/in the sun.” Wilkins deftly balances the images of violence with descriptions of landscape that suggest the narrator’s tender appreciation of place. Notice how the red moon that foreshadows the violence in the portion quoted above is replaced a few stanzas later as the narrator reflects on the implications of the decimation: “even in my child’s mind/I know this means we might lose/the ranch. The sun rises and the sky/is the blue of ice, then the blue of water.”
"Killing the Murnion Dogs" deserves to be read. Wilkins is a young poet in full command of his art, managing a multitude of forms yet never allowing technique to distract us from the raw content of his subject. On the contrary, Wilkins is right on the mark when he employs the highly traditional ghazal form to both mourn the persistence of suffering and celebrate the redeeming power of love. Here are the final couplets of “Rain Ghazal”: “They wake in the dark, the heat of their sleep between them./She swings her hips over his with the clatter of rain./The road’s a sudden river, trees thunder with dripping,/the sky no longer belongs to itself. All the world is rain.”
Stephen Germic teaches writing and literature at Rocky Mountain College.