American Incognitum

by Lesley Wheeler Issue: Fall 2017 Special Issue on Extinction
Tusk, thigh bone, molars plucked from a sulfurous
marsh by troops en route from one fight to
another in 1739. Back then,
maps of the Ohio gleamed as blankly

as brains of trudging hungry men, meaning
not pure, not quite. Their pockets stuffed with acorns
and desire. Now local streets are blanked out too,
a nearly naked parchment. Snow wants you

to forget the car, your feet. Opacity masses,
conspiring to white-out.
                                            Those molars landed
in Cuvier’s hands around the French Revolution.
Considering them, he invented an idea:

extinction. Acorn-brown, passed impossibly
down. Proof of a world previous to ours.
But he’d reject Darwin’s transformisme.
Animals don’t evolve, he thought. They just

disappear, lumbering free of history.
Giants, mammoths—you reconstruct the past
you need. For Cuvier, bloody overthrow.
For others, fantasies of continuity.

Or coexistence. Imagine mastodons
still shake the valley floor, ahead of hunters,
ice. Calves and mothers browse conifers,
exhale resin. It’s confabulation.

Also, fragrant. Try to recall, while you crouch
in a renovated house, how they crash
along the road, stripping oaks. Listen
through your own bones: subsonic parley.


Lesley Wheeler

Lesley Wheeler is the author of four collections, including Radioland and Heterotopia, winner of the Barrow Street Press Poetry Prize. Recent poems and essays appear in Crab Orchard Review, Ecotone, and Poetry, and her chapbook, Propagation, is forthcoming from Dancing Girl Press, and she blogs at https://lesleywheeler.org/. Wheeler is the Henry S. Fox Professor of English at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia.