From The Journal of Kentucky Studies, Fall 2002

Searching for the Truth: In Killdeer's Field


Renea C. Frey


     
   Life, death, and universal truth have been found in, of all places, the hills of eastern Kentucky. Steven R. Cope explores these subjects in his premier collection of poetry entitled In Killdeer's Field (Wind Publications, 2002). 
        Unlike many ponderences of these age-old questions of humanity, Mr. Cope seems to come up with some answers within the text of his poems. There is a primitive wildness in the psyche of his narrative, the voice of a pre-consciousness which existed before language developed and separated man from the totality of nature. In this primal state, there is a rightness or naturalness which language alone cannot describe. This state gets lost both in the individual and mankind as a whole, but if we follow the entire cycle, it can once again be regained. 
        The primal energy of man before he called himself "man" and set himself apart from nature is most apparent in section I of the collection. The narrative voice in the first several poems is that of man as an animal living the way man did before time was counted. The narrator in "Aesop Come to Perch" tells us: 

in the trees we have 
a saying: the surest
way to be killed is 
to finish your banana. (4)

It is apparent that this man in the trees is content with his existence:

we…would not be 
the hairless hunter 
even if we could, 
not give up 
that fear, that 
song that eludes you, 
that betrays you 
beyond your ken." 

        In "Appalache" the narrator explores the idea of being seen as a way of existence. When he moves, "the eyes of an entire forest lift." By being visible to the natural world, the idea of himself is carried infinitely: 

my image is at once in ten thousand places. 
I go out through the land 
in the seized brain of animals, 
my smile in their foreheads. 

Carried in this way, he is transported to both the living and the not yet born: 

implanted, ingrained, 
to their ground-nests and burrows…
to their dark dens and caves…
[and]…impart my visage to the seeded trembling eye, 
to the still-mind of the unborn who dream of me. 

This ancient imparting of information reverberates in modern life and "will come to them like a thought,/ like a dim recollection,/ preceding me through the streets." This "becomes one thought / and that the thought of the earth- / the same thought, the only thought."
        "Communal" explores the idea of species memory, of remembering existing in a time before what we typically call now. A group of people have set up camp in a cave: 

and then the youngest sat up screaming 
that he had been here before, 
in a world back before his eyes, 
that he had drawn with slate 
upon these flickering walls, 
the victory of the hunt, 
the glory of the kill, 
the cold dark beyond the killing dark. (8)

The narrator, who is obviously older and presumably more experienced, has a different attitude about such revelations: 

not knowing who he was 
and, at the time not caring--
until he learned to keep silent 
in the face of these things. 

        "Museum" takes the reader through a place where Native American artifacts have been collected and displayed for tourists. The narrator looks through the "plate-glass-protected encasement / of arrow and spear heads, / tomahawks and knives" (9) while contemplating the label on the display: 

Relics, it is said… 
and in this uncertain light 
there is no better name--
for my life, 
my wife's, 
my child's. 

This here and now narrative is juxtaposed with another voice in italics, a more primitive voice from the past which now returns to the present within the poem. It not only returns, but states its purpose for continued existence: 

conjure this, night watchman, 
and look well into the night. 
We may one day soon howl 
at that white lamb moon 
lying gently above these iron gates…
We are here in this primitive 
waiting for the change. 
We are holding this earth together. 

        The last poem of section I entitled "Ohshon" leaves the narrator standing on an edge with the question "I am of whose kingdom, / whose kingdom?" (20). Having experienced a wide range of existence, he reflects upon the meaning of those events: 

I have tipped the grasshopper wings 
cross-ways in the sun 
and have believed I was a bird. 
I have stretched myself amazingly,
flown wide turns of the soul. 
But it is too much too little… 

        This apparent dichotomy flows into section II, the first poem of which is "The Hunters." Written in three voices, it describes the experience of a boy who is squirrel hunting for the first time with his father. There are things that the boy cannot express to his father, feelings of the connection he has with nature that have not yet been socialized out of him. The boy says: 

I know we could kill them. 
And I know if not kill them 
we could take them into our hands 
and they would know who we are. (23)

But his father "has always gone hunting." The boy is "trying so hard to be him," to be like his father, saying "I won't fail you, Daddy. / Honest, I won't fail you." The boy manages to shoot the squirrel, though with unforeseen complications: 

but it wasn't dead… 
It was writhing, convulsing, 
the blood from its mouth 
painting red the leaves 
and the soft, pale-yellow baby down of its belly. 

There is a "piercing human cry" before he "dug [his] bootheel into its head." He then notices poignantly how the noise of the forest goes on as though nothing out of the ordinary has happened and says "I came back. I saw. / I will not need to look again." 
        This section has undertones of the loss of innocence and reverence so prevalent in section I, a coming of age for both the man and mankind simultaneously. In "The Ritual," ostensibly a poem about playing checkers, we are told:

though we do not play well, 
we play our best at those times 
our lives most depend on it. 
We play beyond ourselves. 
We meet in a holy place. (33) 

It is play on a cosmic level between two brothers, and has the tone of a story not wholly experienced anymore but desperately desired: 

On nights when a prayer 
is not quite enough, 
it is substance we play for. 
Lord, give us this day more than dead images of our past
--let those images live.

        Even nature seems to be tired, to not believe in itself anymore. In "the Birds In My Window," the narrator claims that "the mite-colored crows / have fled the real world" (47) The crows on his window today "look out at nothing." As degenerated a state as the birds find themselves, he will not be the one who hastens their departure from this world: 

I'll not be the one
who discovers them sleeping
who moves them from their perch, 
who lowers them to the ground…
until unnoticed, unremarked, 
they go as gently as leaves.

        Section III portrays an even more civilized and intellectualized view of the world, with references to Freud, Nietzsche, and Camus. The narrator seems in a state of "isness" about the world, not appearing to feel one way or the other about the events which transpire before him. There are images of busses, bars, and office towers where once there were fields and forests.
        "Looking for Boston" begins on Beacon Street but ends back in the landscape of Kentucky where the collection began. The narrator then returns to the place of his origins: 

no richer, 
to the common Kentucky fields, 
no poorer to the music of crows, 
tossing hay above my head as if nothing 
in the world had every crossed my mind of going. (47) 

        There is a sense of return toward the end of section III, a reemergence of the wholeness found earlier in the collection. In "Landover Beach" the narrator returns to a sense of all one timeness which was found in section I. It is possible to "believe everything at once,/ the present, the future, / together" (79). There is once again a connection between the narrator and the natural world around him, and a seeming desire to breath life back into that reality. In "Pastoral" the narrator holds something in his hands "something that spoke another language." He says: 

the thing in my hands 
became timeless, I swear. 
Its last breath 
became my breath 
and I am still breathing and breathing. 

He finds that the thing he holds: 

within his hands 
[is] much more than he expected: 
life he can bleed back into it, 
life he can give back to it. 
That done, he 
will have done everything. 

        Section IV begins with the narrative voice saying "130 years late I show up to die in battle"(91) The Civil War takes place then and now, a crossing over of times and consciousnesses. The identity of the narrative voice is ambiguous, sometimes that of a young soldier taking in the carnage, other times claiming "I am a slave"(92) though later deciding "so I will not be a slave"(98). 
        All dichotomies dissolve by the end, as the narrator watches the historical stage and chooses to not claim a part of any of it. He decides: 

our children were not black, not white, but sun-
colored, well fed, laughing, simply good, the best of all civilizations 
flowering inside them…
all this a perfect garden we were planting with words. (99)

Rather than being of a particular place, they are "of the country of Earth. And no other, if not that." When set free of categories, beings behave in an interesting manner: 

we stand like stage extras in a spinning field, leaning on ourselves, 
trying to understand what it is we are now. In every direction is a 
place we can go, but like suddenly freed animals we still wear our 
cages-some a deer's, some a killdeer's. 

        In Killdeer's Field is much like the Zen koan about the moon reflected on the water--in order to get the most out of it, one must look to where the words point as opposed to looking at just the words themselves. Much of what Mr. Cope is trying to say belongs in the realm outside of words, but he nevertheless leads the reader right up to that land and says "there." In the beginning and the end there is beauty and wholeness, as long as one does not waste a lifetime staring at the finger.


In Killdeer's Field

Steven Cope

Journal of Kentucky Studies

Renea Frey

Wind Publications