The Ozark Mountains of Missouri are symbolic of the hard life of farmers living in rural poverty. Many people living there raise chickens. The narrow mountain roads twist and turn through these hills, so that driving is often a dangerous experience. In “Moonlight: Chickens on the Road.” Robert Wrigley shows a picture of a collision between a car and a truck loaded with chickens on a lonely road through the Ozarks, in which a small boy is apparently the only survivor. Asleep in the front seat, the boy wakes up in the split-second before the crash and struggles through the aftermath.
I do not believe this poem is autobiographical. Biographical sketches of Robert Wrigley report that he was born in East St. Louis, Illinois, and grew up in a coal mining town, Collinsville, Illinois, but the next item reported is his induction into the military at age 20. The absence of any mention of his being orphaned as a youth suggests that he did not personally endure this poem.
While this scene is imagined rather than historically accurate, Wrigley makes us feel what it must have been like on a lonely night in the Ozarks after a collision like this. He begins the poem abruptly, with a forceful verb, “called,” with “pitch” and “screech.” Amid this noise, the mother’s hair appears and is gone into the air. But notice the confusion about the air: it is “still and hurtling.” Still meaning quiet, or still meaning at peace, motionless? Similarly unanswered is where did the mother’s hair go? The images of crashing suggests that the mother has been thrown into and perhaps through the windshield of the car.
Then come the chickens. What does Wrigley mean when he describes them as “bubbling”? Is this a sudden outburst of sound, or something more mundane? The description that follows makes it sound mundane: “the homely racket they make at all speeds,
signifying calm, resignation, oblivion.”
The second stanza of the poem opens with seven lines of description of the accident. The first two lines described the sounds: “slash,” “clatter,” “rake,” shatter.” These words have a harshness, a sound of violence about them. The third line returns to listening, but now to very different sounds: “a blizzard moan in the wind, a wail of wreckage.” These sounds are not to harshly intrusive as the earlier sounds. Then comes two things that are not sounds at all: “severed hoses and lives, a storm of loose feathers .. . ” A severed hose might make a sound, but what sound does a severed life have? The storm of feathers is grouped as a sound, but real feathers settle without sounds. What emerges from this combinations of sounds and non=sounds is an idea. The voice in the poem is that of a child, perhaps too young to appreciate all that is happening around him. In the chaos of the crash in which people, apparently including his own mother, have been killed, he sufferes from a confusion of the senses. Then as the chaos settles, he hears the continuing sound: “in the final // whirl approximating calm, the cluck // and fracas of the birds.”
The child then crawls out of the car, through a windows that has been shattered, “where a window should have been. . . .” He stands up, to find that chicken feathers are everywhere, and are one of the few things still moving.
At this point, the boy narrator takes stock of his position. He is in the Ozarks, somewhere in Missouri. This road does not run straight. As the child describes it, it is a road “curving miles around Missouri . . . “ It is also a deserted, lonely area. He cannot see the lights of any house through the trees. There are no mailboxes in sight, and in the dusk, the boy looks for a mailbox and its distinct, flag-shaped shadow. He cannot even imagine other cars coming past this way. By the third stanza, the child confronts what has happened. He begins to walk around, taking in the scope of the wreck. He indicates that his own family are all dead: “I cried for my family there, // knotted in the snarl of metal and glass; . . .” Similarly, the farmer appears to be dead, having been thrown half way through the windshield. He has his own wound: a broken arm that he realizes will soon hurt. That it is not hurting yet suggests that he is in shock. With nothing better to do, the boy walks, “Through // an hour of loneliness and fear // I walked, . . . “ The sequence of the description suggests the sequence in which details became important for the child as he walked.
Around and around the tilted car
and the steaming truck, around the heap
of exploded crates, the smears and small hunks
of chicken and straw.
Gradually, the child becomes aware that the chickens are following him. Some of them have been shaken by the wreck, others are badly hurt, but those that can follow come after him. As the moon rises, he sees them in the night, and realizes the difference that the wreck has made to them as compared to him. He has lost his family. Wherever he was going, this is worse: to be alone on a deserted road, somewhere in the mountains of Missouri. But for the chickens, it is effectively the opposite. They were destined for slaughter. This wreck has extended their lives at least for the moment.
Here, the boy assumes that the chickens are like him in understanding that the wreck has brought death. The wreck killed some of the chickens more swiftly than they would have died had they been slaughtered. But the birds that survived are following the boy, and he imagines that they feel that he has caused them to survive, looking to him as some warrior or savior who interceded for them on their trip to oblivion.
In realizing that the chickens are following him, with some emotion akin to gratitude, the boy stops crying. He hears the sound of the chickens, their clucking, and that sound reminds him of laughter. Hearing this sound, he finds that it has a cadence, and walks on to the cadence of the chickens’ clucking, a boy “towing a cloud around a scene // of death,” but not thinking so mch of death now, finding images of life in this: “like a dream, or a mountain road, // like a pincurl, like pulse, like life.”
This poem covers a wide range of emotions, from the crashing and shattering of the wreck, through the child’s becoming aware that he and some of the chickens have survived, to his reverie leading them in his march around the wreck. There is originality in the uses of language. He describes the road as “curving miles around Missouri” and has the chickens seeing him as “some savior, some highwayman // or commando.” His walking in the night could not have gone on indefinitely, and the poem suggests that help arrived after an hour of so.
Over the course of the poem, Wrigley is able to gradually move from truly immediate images, to more general ideas. In the opening lines, he creates fragmentary images that give a feeling of the stark suddenness of a crash on a highway. As he moves through the poem, the images become more generalized. He does not describes the chickens individually. Indeed, he barely differentiates between the healthy and the injured birds. The final images, “like pulse, like life,” are universals, and the imagery at the end is almost of a camera slipping back away from the scene.
From the biographical sketches, I believe that Robert Wrigley did not endure a tragedy in which his mother died in a collision with a chicken truck. But through his poem, he takes us through the emotions of a child surviving such an event.
“Award-Winning Poet Robert Wrigley On Campus Thursday.” DePauw University News. Mar. 3, 2003, accessed Jan. 11, 2007. Available at <http://www.depauw.edu/news/index.asp?id=12529> Internet.
Schmall, Kevin. Robert Wrigley. Undated, accessed Jan. 11, 2007. Available at <http://www.ncteamericancollection.org/litmap/wrigley_robert_id.htm>. Internet.
Wrigley, Robert. “Moonlight: Chickens On The Road.” poetryfoundation.org. 2006, accessed Jan. 10, 2007. Available at <http://www.poetryfoundation.org/archive/poem.html?id=177086> Internet.