from The Southern Review, Autumn 2016
Transforming a badger into a raccoon demands a Dremel tool and at least two types of saws. For my second class at Prey Taxidermy—the studio in downtown Los Angeles run by the taxidermist and former Disney employee Allis Markham—I’d signed up for the Sunday workshop called Mammal Shoulder Mounts. Because my creature’s hide belonged to an older male raccoon—a boar—I needed to modify a cast polyurethane badger form to fit the skin, since a standard raccoon form would be too small for my imposing specimen. The goal of the course was to “focus on the intricacies of mammal faces” and involved the arrangement of skinned and tanned hides over commercial taxidermy forms to create busts known as “shoulder mounts.” I’d chosen a raccoon instead of a coyote since the grizzled canines reminded me of underfed German shepherds. I admired a previously mounted raccoon hanging on the wall near the studio’s sink for its subversive whimsy: it was as if someone considered the scrappy mammal a noble trophy, a hunter’s graceful whitetail stag. Instead, the animal, peering down from a wooden wall plaque through its black bandit’s mask, challenged viewers to contemplate the artfulness of California roadkill or the charm of garbage can invaders exterminated by Salt Lake City’s Animal Services.
Tim Bovard, the head taxidermist in his midsixties who works at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, was guest teaching the mammal course at Allis’s studio. He asked the eight students to draw numbers from a bowl so we could take turns picking our hides. (Upon registration online, we’d been asked to check a box marked “Coyote” or “Raccoon” to reserve our preferred species.) Similarly to my first taxidermy course at Prey, a weekend workshop called Birds 101, in which only one of ten students was male, the participants in Mammal Shoulder Mounts were all women: an amateur boxer in her twenties who specialized in anthropomorphic mice, a middle-aged hippie with a brass peace sign belt buckle, a mother and daughter duo from Montana, a blue-haired thirtysomething, a wisecracking Southerner, a quiet San Francisco barista, and a woman with tattooed arms and what appeared to be collagen-injected lips and huge silicone boobs I kept accidentally staring at (she’d gotten the only available bobcat). Tim passed a bowl around the room, and I drew a folded slip of paper marked with the number one, which meant I got first dibs on the raccoon hides. The pelts resembled a stash of hand puppets from someone’s nightmare: eyeless raccoons and coyotes with scabrous lids, slack mouths, and lips like the jagged hems of gnawed-on leather gloves. Because Tim had mentioned that the person who chose the large boar raccoon would need to modify a badger form to fit the skin, I immediately seized the hole-filled hide, its yellowed fur streaked with white. I liked the idea of my animal being a shapeshifter.
A few months ago, my former poetry mentor Lee visited my husband David and me in Venice, California. We’d invited him to give a reading at our university in celebration of his new book. After Lee finished his last poem and the audience clapped, students began raising their hands. One woman asked Lee’s advice for writers who have difficultly writing about themselves. “That’s a rare problem!” Lee joked from the podium, removing his teal-rimmed reading glasses and then pushing them back up his nose. “There is no one self,” he continued, now serious. “We’re always inventing ourselves in poems, so to write about the self is to write about multiple selves. The self is malleable.”
For years Lee dissuaded me from writing autobiographically. He encouraged me to model my work after that of his favorite contemporary poet, Norman Dubie, a writer who often assumes the voices of historical figures or invented characters in the form of the dramatic monologue. Dubie might speak through the mask of an escaped slave, a young woman in a leper colony, or an insomniac racecar driver. The reason why Lee asks young poets to write persona poems, he explained to the attendees, is that “stepping into other people’s skins allows them to realize that when they write about themselves it’s actually a created personality.” “Your own self,” he added, “is one of many selves. We’re not always the same person.”
The adjective personal, from the Latin personalis (“of a person”), has a number of meanings. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, these include: “belonging to a particular person rather than to anyone else”; “of or concerning one’s private life, relationships, and emotions rather than one’s public or professional career”; “relating to a person’s body”; and “existing as a self-aware entity, not as an abstraction or an impersonal force.”
In C. D. Wright’s poem “Personals,” the author creates, through juxtaposition, an assemblage of luminous details that compose a self—multivalent and fragmentary. Wright also slyly subverts the conventions of the genre of the personal ad—its generalizations and idealizations—with her assortment of singular desires, charming idiosyncrasies, strange memories, and intimate confessions. Instead of claiming to like movies or long walks on the beach, Wright’s candid, deadpan speaker announces, as if in the context of a newspaper’s oddest personals column:
Some nights I sleep with my dress on. My teeth
are small and even. I don’t get headaches.
Since 1971 or before, I have hunted a bench
where I could eat my pimento cheese in peace.
If this were Tennessee and across that river, Arkansas,
I’d meet you in West Memphis tonight. We could
have a big time. Danger, shoulder soft.
Do not lie or lean on me. I’m still trying to find a job
for which a simple machine isn’t better suited.
I’ve seen people die of money. Look at Admiral Benbow. I wish
like certain fishes, we came equipped with light organs.
Which reminds me of a little-known fact:
if we were going the speed of light, this dome
would be shrinking while we were gaining weight.
Isn’t the road crooked and steep.
In this humidity, I make repairs by night. I’m not one
among millions who saw Monroe’s face
in the moon. I go blank looking at that face.
If I could afford it I’d live in hotels. I won awards
in spelling and the Australian crawl. Long long ago.
Grandmother married a man named Ivan. The men called him
Eve. Stranger, to tell the truth, in dog years I am up there.
Through accumulation and refraction, Wright’s slivers of personal history in “Personals” expand into a larger social matrix, a collection of artifacts linked to the speaker of the poem, but also to the history and cultural heritage of the United Kingdom and the United States: the tragic figures of Admiral Benbow of the Royal Navy and Marilyn Monroe, the shapeshifting craters of the moon’s face, ominous echoes of an anthropomorphic road sign (“Danger, shoulder soft”), and Bill Withers’s lyrics, warped and eerie (“Do not lie or lean on me”). Wright’s last line directly addresses the anonymous reader of the personal ad (as well as the reader of the poem) through a witty evasion: “Stranger, to tell the truth, in dog years I am up there.” In “Personals,” Wright implies that what makes up a self, body, private life, or personal force is that unique mixture of pathos and humor, revelation and concealment, banality and wonder. She transforms the impersonal character of a simple “lonely hearts” ad into the complex and intimate helix of a deeply layered self.
Madison Rubin, Tim’s apprentice at the Natural History Museum, a woman who grew up in LA’s Brewery Art Colony, told me that she’d modified several taxidermy forms to suit the skins of incongruous creatures. She’d made a llama and an alpaca, each out of a deer form, by elongating the ruminants’ necks. And she’d radically reduced the scale of a fawn form to make a white-eyed baby goat for a Satanic altar.
Before his thirty-year museum career, Tim had worked for a time as a commercial taxidermist, creating trophy mounts for hunters. He warned us that the worst thing a person could do to fishermen’s catch was to mount and return the fish at exactly the same size—he regularly enlarged specimens to buoy the hunters’ pride. But even with enlargement, it’s better to have a slightly smaller form to work with, Tim noted, since looser skin is easier to move around than a tightly fitting hide.
The tanned hides of my classmates’ coyotes smelled like wet dogs and dill pickles. I was surprised that my raccoon skin didn’t give off much of a scent—just the slightest musk of truffle oil or dusty attic. The jumble of polyurethane taxidermy forms the color of old elephant tusks sat on top of the industrial fridge. They had a waxy patina and looked like a herd of phantom animals of indeterminate species, partial-bodied and born without ears or eyes. The angular coyote forms resembled the blond ghosts of greyhounds, and the chubby raccoons recalled small albino seals. In order to turn my fat badger form into that of a slightly slimmer boar raccoon, I needed to slice off the sides of its broad, wedge-shaped skull with a circular saw, shorten the snout with a handsaw, narrow the jowls with a metal file, carve out new eye sockets and define the lip line with a Dremel tool, and sand down the rough edges to give the remade face “flow.”
In order to sculpt realistic expressions while taxidermying our mammals—alertness, curiosity, sleepiness, fear—we needed to scratch the smooth surfaces of the animal forms with a wire brush before gluing down our skins. This way, Tim said, the sticky, purple hide paste (which looked like buttercream icing dyed mauve and smelled like vanilla) would bind more securely to the polyurethane. And a firm bond better enables the skin to “hold the detail” as the taxidermist shapes it around simulated muscles—the bulge of a cheek or upward jut of a chin—making the face expressive, supple, and seemingly alive.
Avoid giving your animal a smile, Tim advised, as we began doing a “skin tuck” with our lip tools, jamming the rough and scabby mouth edges into the carved ditch of the lip line. As the hide dries, Tim warned us, a smile will often shift into a grimace.
Recently I taught Jack Gilbert’s poem “Trying to Have Something Left Over” to a group of creative writing students in my introductory-level poetry course. In the poem, Gilbert evokes the end of an affair between a married American speaker and his Danish lover, who has a young son:
There was a great tenderness to the sadness
when I would go there. She knew how much
I loved my wife and that we had no future.
We were like casualties helping each other
as we waited for the end. Now I wonder
if we understood how happy those Danish
afternoons were. Most of the time we did not talk.
Often I took care of the baby while she did
housework. Changing him and making him laugh.
I would say Pittsburgh softly each time before
throwing him up. Whisper Pittsburgh with
my mouth against the tiny ear and throw
him higher. Pittsburgh and happiness high up.
The only way to leave even the smallest trace.
So that all his life her son would feel gladness
unaccountably when anyone spoke of the ruined
city of steel in America. Each time almost
remembering something maybe important that got lost.
As I launched into my spiel about how Gilbert’s poem explores a nuanced, ambivalent, and very grown-up perception of love (its ebbs and flows, its contradictions and betrayals), I noticed several students making skeptical faces. “It’s both compassionate and complicated,” I continued, referring to Gilbert’s vision of the tender yet doomed affair. A contingent of the class couldn’t believe that the speaker would cheat on his wife if he loved her. The wife had to be dead, one woman argued. He wouldn’t have had an affair. No way. I glanced around the room to see other students nodding. Gently, I pointed out that several other poems in Gilbert’s collection reinforce the circumstance of the affair, including the poem “Infidelity,” in which a man promises his wife he’ll end his affair with a married woman who has a child. “The speaker’s affair with the Danish woman doesn’t necessarily mean he no longer loves his wife,” I suggested. “Sometimes we become different versions of ourselves, different people, depending on the company.” Surprisingly, within the sadness of this fraught time, Gilbert’s speaker makes a final gesture toward happiness as he whispers, “Pittsburgh,” like a shibboleth, into the ear of his lover’s baby. “So that all his life her son would feel gladness / unaccountably when anyone spoke of the ruined / city of steel in America,” Gilbert writes, imagining strange waves of joyous déjà vu for the child, a lifelong Pavlovian response: “Each time almost / remembering something maybe important that got lost.”
Tim told me the story of his piecemeal polar bear as I tucked the edges of my raccoon’s eyelids to form a clean border between the skin and glass eyes. Tim had needed a polar bear for the new exhibit he was to create for the Natural History Museum, which was scheduled to open in two years. He’d submitted requests to several zoos around the country for a specimen (if a captive polar bear died, he’d receive the corpse), but he couldn’t secure one in time. After digging around the museum’s storage facility, however, he managed to find several old polar bear rugs from the 1960s and decided to create from the multiple furs a single, composite animal. Because the hides had been acid tanned, making the skins tight and inflexible, and due to their blunt, square “rug” shapes, he and Madison cut the furs into hundreds of intricate pieces, arranged them over a handmade bear form they’d constructed, and glued down the mosaicked hide. No one could tell the museum’s new polar bear was an improvised patchwork.
As I banged out the rounded triangular shapes I’d cut from sheet lead with a hammer and anvil to make the inner scaffolding for my raccoon’s ears, Tim told me a story he referred to as the “live pig tattoo.” During the sixties Tim knew a pot-smoking pig farmer, who, as a joke, tattooed wings on the back of one of his own prize hogs, in honor of the cliché, “When pigs fly.” The figure of speech is considered an adynaton, a type of hyperbole so exaggerated and ridiculous that it shifts into an impossibility.
Rilke conjures the impossible unicorn—“the creature that doesn’t exist”—in his fourth poem in the second series of The Sonnets to Orpheus, translated by A. Poulin Jr. The unicorn can become a living animal, Rilke suggests, if people love it, if their imaginations are bold enough, if they nourish the mythical beast with the power of their belief. “They didn’t feed it with corn,” Rilke writes, “but always with the chance that it might / be.”
* * *
While raccoons have a reputation for ferocity and brashness, I’ve learned that they’re also surprisingly delicate: they can hear earthworms shimmy beneath the soil and their paw skin prickles and becomes more sensitive when slick with rain. The reason for raccoons’ distinctive black “masks” on their salt-and-pepper coats may be an evolutionary improvement meant to reduce glare and boost night vision, making it easier for the mammals to locate foes in the dark. Most raccoons, whose common scientific name lotor means, in Latin, “the washer,” instinctively dip their food in water before eating it. The meanest trick you can play on a raccoon, a friend and science writer once told me, is to give it a sugar cube. The creature will eagerly scurry to a river or creek to rinse the treat, only to find, as it raises its fingers to its face, that the sugar cube has dissolved, leaving its paws empty.
To my dismay, my raccoon’s softly alert expression had dried into a droopy, demented snarl. His snout sagged and one of his eyelids peeled back, giving him a rabid, snaggletoothed countenance. He looked like the demonic villain in some sort of dark, adult puppet theater or a piece of resurrected roadkill in a bad horror movie. Madison helped me pry the glued-on hide from the modified badger form so I could re-create some of the missing flesh beneath the animal’s muzzle and under the eyelids by sticking coils of clay to the polyurethane. Once the skin was re-secured, Tim bent over to scrutinize my raccoon’s newly supple expression. “The Old Boar,” he said, nodding. Because boar raccoons are so vicious and prone to fights, he told me, their hides are often scarred from scuffles, and sometimes they even bite off one another’s tails: “They look like they’ve been through the wars.”
A few weeks later I returned to Prey for additional “finishing work” on my shoulder mount. My raccoon still wore an old wound in the middle of his forehead—a golf ball–sized patch of bald skin between his eyes. After I shampooed and conditioned his coarse fur in the studio’s sink (I felt like a hairdresser in a salon for discerning wildlife), I removed the bald patch of hide on his forehead with an X-Acto blade, leaving a clean, diamond-shaped hole. I cut a matching scrap from a different raccoon hide—another grizzled old boar streaked with yellow and white—and patched the hole by gluing down the piece of new hide with epoxy. I painted my raccoon’s dried nose and clay “tear ducts” with black acrylic, adding a layer of clear gloss to make the nose appear moist and a single drop of gloss at the edge of his lips to mimic a spot of saliva. I combed the bristles of the old and new hides together, blending the borders of the patch to disguise the seams, and added streaks of white and black paint to align the mismatched patterns.
“Why taxidermy?” a friend of mine asked me during a dinner out. I was visiting her university to give a poetry reading. “Anna,” she said, leaning over the white tablecloth while clutching her glass of Chardonnay, “isn’t taxidermy for creepy dudes who still live in their mothers’ basements?” I laughed and told her she had a point, then described the young women who worked at Prey like Allis and Madison, how our specimens were “ethically sourced,” and how I thought the bodies of animals were beautiful. My friend looked unconvinced.
I’ve asked myself the same question. Why taxidermy? I’ve taken two classes: an avian workshop and a mammal course. I’ve taxidermied a European starling and a scrappy Utah raccoon, but I don’t plan on continuing in the craft. I’m won’t be taxidermying my cat Jellybean when she goes or my friend’s aging Chihuahua. Bringing a dead animal back to “life” through taxidermy—by shaping confident details and lines, by conjuring a fantastic world in which this impossible form might exist—is similar to writing a poem, I think, and, significantly, both modes of art are acutely linked to loss. The lyric moment, frozen in an arrangement of raccoon hide or bird skin or within the precise imagery and syntax of a poem, creates an illusion for the viewer or reader that moves beyond reality: we’re offered a moment that testifies to the beauty, bittersweetness, and gravity of impermanence, and yet, paradoxically, that moment and its inhabitants are no longer mortal. They stand with the other shapeshifters, defiant, outside of time. Like Tim’s piecemeal polar bear, my patched boar raccoon, or Rilke’s summoned unicorn, the lyric moment becomes immortal. Who wouldn’t want to reach out and capture that?
* * *
About the Author
Anna Journey is the author of the essay collection An Arrangement of Skin (Counterpoint, 2017) and the poetry collections The Atheist Wore Goat Silk (LSU Press, 2017), Vulgar Remedies (LSU Press, 2013), and If Birds Gather Your Hair for Nesting (University of Georgia Press, 2009), which was selected by Thomas Lux for the National Poetry Series. Journey has received fellowships from the Academy of American Poets, the National Endowment for the Arts, and Yaddo. She is an assistant professor of English at the University of Southern California.
"Modifying the Badger" will appear in An Arrangement of Skin.
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