Contributor’s Marginalia: Kathleen Winter on “Winchester .351 High-Power Self-Loading Rifle” by Alexandra Teague
I read, admired, and chose to write about Alexandra Teague’s sonnet early in December, before the Dec. 17, 2012, Newtown, Connecticut school massacre. I can’t read this poem now without considering the mass killings by gunmen last year, and our national debate over gun control. And also thinking about the different ways journalists and poets are able to take on issues of deep communal importance.
Of course Teague’s poem, written earlier, doesn’t address December’s events, but it does speak to the fundamental issue of people using guns to take lives. Powerfully, movingly, the poem questions a hunter’s use of the Winchester rifle to destroy a cougar. Teague shapes her critique with the verbal subtlety and sophisticated emotional insights that poets and poetry make time for. The sonnet’s gentle rhyming vowel sounds (love/rush, roots/lose) and rhymes of last letters (handsomest/scent, devil/recoil) keep readers focused on the sonnet’s imagery and syntactically unfolding reasoning, rather than on its Shakespearian form.
The epigraph from Calvino effectively signals the poem’s critical view of a hunter who can only show love for living things by shooting them. The tone in the epigraph from Calvino is sharper than the poem’s delicate irony. Teague achieves a calmly ironic perspective by adopting Calvino’s claim that the hunter is a lover, and adding her own claim that the cougar is a lover as well. The poem’s overriding metaphor is the romantic relationship charged by passion and danger. To bring in the language of romance, Teague weaves in text found in a 1909 advertisement: “. . . the lightest, strongest, handsomest/repeater ever made….” The poet anthropomorphizes the cougar and makes him sympathetic by portraying him as a lover who wants what the speaker and reader also are assumed to desire: “A love/ that ‘can shoot through steel.’ ” The cougar/lover is presumed willing to “lose/this skin for an instant of lightning.” The hunter is both lover and devil, but the speaker’s perspective, and therefore most likely the reader’s, is aligned with the cougar.
The closing couplet is gracefully restrained in its music, but the poet’s choice to close the poem with the word “recoils” suggests an emotional response to the hunter/lover who, at the moment the poem ends, kills the cougar we’ve just been admiring for being passionate, aware, and “unflinching” as he waits. I’m delighted by how Teague’s poem modernizes the conventions of 16th century love poetry, adding found language and social critique to the consistent challenges of writing in a fresh way about the dangers and compulsions of desire.
Kathleen Winter’s first book, Nostalgia for the Criminal Past, won the Antivenom Poetry Prize and was published by Elixir Press in 2012. Her poems are forthcoming in Tin House, Sentence, New American Writing, and Studio (U.K.). Her work has appeared in 32 Poems, AGNI, The New Republic, FIELD, Memorious, VOLT, Barrow Street, Anti- and The Cincinnati Review. Kathleen grew up in Texas and graduated from the MFA program at Arizona State in 2011. She teaches at the University of San Francisco. Her poem,”Noir,” appears with Alexandra Teague’s “Winchester .351 High-Power Self-Loading Rifle” in 32 Poems 10.2.