The Fire Fox

The Fire Fox from Dave Bonta on Vimeo.

I’ve been working on this poem for the last three days, thinking I could repurpose some video I shot back in March 2008 and only shared in black-and-white form at the time (see Rabid fox). The story has been simplified slightly, but most of that simplification is a consequence of memory’s alembic — I did not refer to my earlier post before completing the video.


The gray fox was sitting in the driveway
when we got up. A blessing, we thought,
returning its gaze from the veranda.
To have found a place in the cool regard
of a creature so at home in the forest
& so seldom seen by day — it felt
like a message: that we belong here
on the mountain, that our presence
is acceptable. We were already
rehearsing the story we’d tell about it
as it got to its feet, that lovely animal
the color of ash & flame, & trotted
up past the garage & out of sight.

We’re still basking in the warm glow
of chosenness when later that day
we see it again, wandering in circles
around the stark sunlit field. Now
it wears a beard of bloody foam
& keeps shaking its head as if
something has it by the throat.
We watch through binoculars
as it sinks into the grass & disappears,
then rises again: undead. Rabid.
What we took for friendliness
is instead a violent kind of taming,
the virus robbing it of every wild instinct.

I get close & watch as long as I
can stand to. Its jaw works & works.
Its eyes close for long moments.
If my presence registers at all, I doubt
I’m anything but one more, minor torment.
The brief convulsion after
the bullet shatters its skull is almost
refreshing to watch — a return to
the expected order of things.
I dig a deep grave between the roots
of a wild black cherry, break the brick-
red clods with the back of my shovel
& trickle the soil over that shining coat.

25 Replies to “The Fire Fox”

  1. That feeling of chosenness is one that I experience almost every time I run across a bear or deer or fox hereabouts. But it feels like a story I tell myself too. I’m not sure what to make of it. This is a gorgeous heartbreaking thing you’ve put together here, the video and the poem. The fire and ash move together in and around each other beautifully. Thanks for this.

    1. Laura, so glad you liked. The first time I blogged about it, people said the video was almost unbearable to watch, but I think the lack of sound may have contributed to that. I wanted to show and acknowledge the animal’s beauty this time, as well as to explore some of our common reactions to wildlife and nature, which may be more self-serving than we’re willing to admit. Rabies ceertainly challenges the notion of a benign, maternalistic nature so prevalent among us inhabitants of the temperate zone.

  2. Beautiful!

    It reminds me of the second koan of the Mumonkan. The fox, the suffering, the release from suffering…

    Shouldn’t “seldom seem” read “seldom seen”?

    1. Hi Adriaan! Didn’t know you were reading. Thanks for catching that typo (corrected), and for the reminder about Hyakujô’s fox. Fortunately, the Wuwenguan is online, so curious readers of this thread can see what you’re talking about.

    1. It is pretty heartbreaking. And two other gray foxes were found dead in the valleys on either side of us, in each case less than a quarter mile from the base of the ridge, within a few days of this. I hope we still have a population of them on the mountain.

  3. Dave, You put it so beautifully–the chosen feeling. I, too, feel it every time I see a wild animal up close, as though I am worthy of being chosen. In the back of my mind, I know I am being far too human and egocentric in my thinking. More like I am lucky to have been chosen.

    You know, on the mountain where my parents’ summer house i, we recently saw what we thought was a coyote run across the road. It looked a lot like this fox, just bigger. Hmm…

    And, by the way, yes, we took the marsh hawk to a rehabilitator. Need to give a call and see how it’s faring.

    1. Coyotes can be pretty handsome, too. They’re not this gray, though, and they’re about the size of a German shepherd.

      I suppose a certain amount of self-centeredness is inevitable, but I try to stay conscious of it and not let it dominate my thinking – for example, by trying to read natural events as signs.

      Thanks for the comment.

  4. We have lots of coyotes round here. That feeling of chosenness always feels presumptuous to me, like I’m splicing a reading of tossed I Ching coins onto a sentient creature or a thunderstorm or the color of the clouds moving across the moon. I suppose the seeing for me has come to feel more localized to my perception, my feelings and wants. It isn’t as if the fox, or the bear, or the coyote, is choosing me in some exclusive way…I’m seeing into a sense of something permeable and accessible to my spirit but discrete from me, if that makes any sense.
    Thanks for putting the Wuwenguan link up, Dave. I only had time to glance at it, but I was thrilled to see it. I started writing a prose poem back in May that it will help me finish.

    1. Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Laura. I hope it will spark some more responses from other readers. (Sometimes I think I dominate the comment threads too much, even though I suppose that’s my prerogative.)

      I imagine there might be other editions of the Wuwneguan/Mumonkan online; I didn’t really take the time to look. But I liked that one because it was bilingual. Glad you found it useful.

  5. This might be one of my favorite poems of yours. It’s shamanistic, almost magical, yet very grounded in the way nature just simply is. Really wonderful. So many fantastic lines.

    And thanks for including my postcard poem on your Smorgasblog! It has made my day. :-)

    1. High praise, Christine — many thanks. As for the smorging, my web-browsing is increasingly limited these days, so I fear I have missed and am missing many good things, but was happy not to have missed that one from you.

  6. I like the way everything serves the narrative, and the way the narrative serves your topics: the fox, our place in the natural order, and our ambivalent relationship with the “message” and its counterweight, “the expected order of things.”

    I love your metaphors and how none of them takes the poem off its game. I remember your admiration for Pattiann Rodgers’s poetry and its “intramural” similes. (I’ve really enjoyed her generations, btw.) You seem to be doing it her way quite a bit.

    1. Hi Peter – I’m glad this works for you. To me, it seems like a competent poem, but a few of the rhetorical moves bore me because it feels as if I’ve made them too often before. I’m surprised and pleased to think I might have been influenced by Rogers, whom I rever. (Glad you’re liking Generations!)

  7. Dave,

    I didn’t see the video the first time around (limited internet and all that), and once I sensed to where the narration was accompanying the video, I almost didn’t watch (“wandering in circles” comes out just as the blood becomes starkly evident in the video). But beautiful. The music unsettles the very first images, actually, so that already I was tensed and waiting for the twist to the story.

    The lines that were hardest for me to reconcile with–not knowledge of that beautiful animal rabid, nor the shots of it mad and foaming–were about the bullet. An action I don’t disagree with at all, but one which I suspect many other people also, like me, have no visceral experience of and therefore would rather ignore. One thing I’ve always admired about your writing is your matter-of-fact inclusion of things as they happen and stand, be it the human body and its habits and longings, the mind and its desires, or the death of a rabid fox. I would’be been tempted to glide over both the disease and the mercy killing.

    By the way, after finishing this poem, I was reminded that Mary Oliver had also written about the death of gray foxes in a recent collection, and went in to find it: “Red” from the collection “Red Bird.” The poem had a rhythmic quality that stuck with me. Howver, in the end the poem, like most of that collection, isn’t a particular favorite of mine. I enjoyed “The Fire Fox” far more. It exposes so many more of the sinews and tendons holding the “us” and “them” of man and nature into a interwoven whole.

    Thank you.

    1. Soen Joon Sunim! This is an honor. Let me brew you a pot of virtual tea…

      It’s really useful to hear in such detail how someone responded to the video. I wasn’t sure the casual fit of words to images worked this time, but I know I’m not too crazy about the popular poetry video style in which the images illustrate exactly what’s being described as it unfolds, so I wanted to avoid that. The soundtrack was a lucky find (there’s not a whole lot of stuff on the free music site that lacks a beat, and most of the tracks that do are annoyingly New Agey). As for the shooting of the fox, as I said in the original post, I had tried to do it myself but couldn’t locate the animal when I went back with my .22, so waited for a friend to arrive with a more powerful rifle, which made for an even more merciful ending. I re-located the fox just inside the woods, sitting in a patch of stiltgrass. And since I’m sort of used to seeing death-fits (we used to raise chickens and ducks), it was, as I say, much easier to watch than the obvious intense pain and disorientation of the disease.

      I’m not familiar with that Mary Oliver poem — thanks for alerting me to it — but I do know that even when she’s not in top form she’s still very, very good. So between you and Peter, I fear I’m running a serious danger of getting a swelled head here.

      Hope all’s well with you. Take care.

  8. Definitely another moving piece — but no thanks to Vimeo! I’ve been having trouble with your videos lately — the visual is jerky, and the audio sounds like you’re underwater.

    1. Hey, glad you liked, and sorry to hear that Vimeo’s giving you trouble. I’m contemplating a switch to, which is more professional, has much better terms of service and offers lots of cool ways to promote its content, but am a little intimidated because they make it clear they expect high production values and the regular release of new material in a thematically unified “show” format. I might wait a couple more months until I’ve amassed more of a backlog of decent material, then try launching a video poetry show with, say, a bi-weekly release schedule.

  9. You`ve honored the fox and helped dignify its suffering, Dave. The poem and video work really well together; I liked your reading of it better than the poem alone. And in fact, it didn`t seem like one of your best poems to me mainly because it felt so prose-like that it read or sounded more like an essay than many of your poems. That`s a not a criticism, but it might be part of what`s contributing to your own lack of poetic enthusiasm for it, while the feeling of what you wanted to convey comes through loud and clear.

    1. That’s an interesting observation. But keep in mind that my own enthusiasm for a poem, or lack thereof, may not always be the best measure of its worth. Sometimes I’ll react negatively because what came out isn’t what I’d hoped for. In this case, yeah, I was hoping for something more lyrical. But maybe the prosey and matter-of-fact style are best suited to the subject, i don’ know.

  10. This is a great video poem but terribly sad. I hate to see an animal such as this suffering. At least it’s at peace now. I understand completely about that chosen feeling too. You can’t help but have it in the presence of a wild animal. Have a great day.

  11. This was real, Dave. I just read the poem, as I prefer to make my own images. The story hurt me more than everyday’s news. I’ll follow your writing. Thanks!

    1. Hi Angelos – Thanks for reading and responding. I do respect your desire not to be influenced by the images in the video; I’m glad I decided to include a transcription. I’ll try and remember to do that with videopoems from now on.

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