Thanks to Margaret Clukey for her thoughts.
Animal Caution (from Poetry Magazine)
Whenever I touch the cairn
marking the summit
of one of my parents,
touch the top stone,
an animal caution comes over me,
sinew and muscle like the brook’s,
a sudden shivering
Soon they will be constellations,
and I a small tower of stones.
Perhaps our journey on life’s way is a trek up a mountain. It makes some sense to define that mountain as what a parent achieved: is the cairn at the summit of the mountain, or at a point on the way up? Taking “cairn” as a sort of living monument, one which travelers continually upkeep, we understand why the speaker says “one of my parents.” One can’t really imitate both properly, or even use two as a standard.
But we are from more than one parent, of course. “Touch the top stone” seems to set off the “animal caution;” our higher yearnings neglect who we are and that rouses our body to alarm. I imagine animal caution as a tensing, like when dogs see someone strange and may growl. Their tails stop wagging; they’re reactive. However, the speaker likens what is tense to a brook, and seems to describe the reflection of a tree in the water. Our human caution has the same basis as the animal caution and may not be differentiable. Our fear is for our growth as we grow; we see ourselves reflected in time imperfectly. The fear is complete. It could be the one parent is an unrealistic standard, the legend that is the mountain. It could also be that we distrust our own perception: we wouldn’t be able to tell truth from falsehood anyway. Are we on the path we set on? (Aside: self-preservation quickly gets out of hand as a basis of politics, you can see. Exactly what “self” are we interested in preserving when we are searching for our identity?)
The genetic forces a resolution at the moment it is realized. Maybe we reached the summit. More than likely, we reached a summit. After all, they will be as constellations. How much higher do we have to go? If the basis of the search was what brought us into being, then time does not merely begin the search but defines it. Only: we will be the pile of stones, the cairn, for yet another.