In Claire Millikin’s poem we see the speaker in those semi-delirious days of new motherhood finding that an abandoned house and a family of porcupines become figures that can carry some of the mysteries and emotions of her new life. Larry Levis, in an essay called “The Gazer Within,” says that when animals appear in poems they are often emblems for what is deepest and often beyond language. Crying porcupine babies, their quills not yet hardened, empty house, the winter night’s cold and hunger—all this feels deeper and richer than language and rational explanation can reveal. And yet, mysteriously, or magically, the poem does reveal. Another question the poem explores is what we can and cannot protect. Against the fluidity of the speaker’s world, there is the damaged war veteran for whom dreams have become nightmares and whose house must be made impermeable.

Claire Millikin is the author of several books of poetry, including Dolls (2Leaf Press 2021) and the forthcoming Magicicada (Unicorn Press 2024). Claire teaches for the University of Maine system.

Betsy Sholl, MAJ Poetry editor


The Porcupines


We never learned how it slipped

into abandonment, the house behind ours,


wounded by sunlight, half the frame sinking like a misstep.

Maybe the porcupines found in its pantry a stash


or only shelter that winter, a mother and her brood

settling into the abandoned place that met our backyard.


At night I dreamed of the mother porcupine,

a new mother myself I understood


how hungry she was—

her two babies, porcupettes, crying.


I wondered what porcupines dream.

Turning in REM through snow’s memory


our dreams met in cold and hunger

and I thought how dark it must get at night


in her house without language.

In parturition’s half-mourning,


I’d retrieve

my mother’s image delicately,


not staying long in that mirror

as she could never save herself, or me either.


That year, it snowed heavy,

like the snow knew the interior


of our house, the places we are tender.

Nursing her infants with their stiffening quills,


the mother porcupine ate the trees between us,

a narrow boundary of forest,


and the tall gnawed pines began to fail and tilt.

At last, we paid a hunter to lure her and her young


with peanut butter sandwiches into traps,

take them into deeper woods for release.


In spring’s luminous parallel rains


I watched for the family to come back,


but no one returned

until a daughter of that abandoned house


arrived from the second Gulf War, damaged,

tore down the old place


and with her disabled veteran compensation built

a domicile of sealed metal, impermeable to dreams.



Image at top: Dora Maar, Père Ubu, 1936, gelatin silver print 24.13 x 17.78 cm (9 1/2 x 7 in.) National Gallery of Art, Washington © 2020 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.