The Poet's Perspective: 'Prairie Dogs' imagery hints at hate crime

January 31, 2011

Robin Becker, the 2010-11 Penn State laureate and professor of English and women's studies at the University, is sharing several of her poems via video during the 2010-11 academic year, aiming to engage people "in the deep pleasures of poetry -- language crafted and shaped from words, the 'ordinary' material we all use every day," to explore how and why poems move us.

"The Poet's Perspective" is a weekly poetry video series scheduled to appear during the fall 2010 and spring 2011 semesters on Penn State Live and in Penn State Newswires. Prior to each poem, Becker offers her thoughts about what inspired her to write the piece, then poses a question to consider. Below and in the video link of "Prairie Dogs," Becker uses imagery depicting an injured, immobilized animal to allude to the incident of a tortured, murdered college student.

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Watching an animal suffer on barbed wire fencing brought to mind the torture and murder of Matthew Shepard in 1998, near Laramie, Wyo. Because he was perceived to be gay, Shepard suffered the brutality of his assailants. Following his death, many individuals supported a bill to expand the 1969 federal hate-crime law to include crimes motivated by a victim's actual or perceived gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability. The Matthew Shepard Act was signed into law by President Barack Obama on Oct. 28, 2009.

Question to consider: Think about a time when you observed an unusual "intervention" during an unfair or unjust action or activity. What did you feel and why?

Prairie Dogs
                         for Khyber Oser
                         and in memory of Matthew Shepard

They tenanted the far high school field,
the dispossessed Lotaburger lot, the dog run.
Shifty, sometimes rabid, they dared to stand

upright, almost human, and stare. I feared their deft
hands, the shrug of shoulders before they spiraled
underground. That day one hung panting on a twist

of barbed wire; front paws scored the dirt.
A ripped haunch, roiling and bloody, flashed,
and I turned away, yanking the dog behind me,

when my young cousin whispered what’s
, and groped for a stick to free the leg,
and when that didn’t work, he knelt in the trashy

run, his face close to the scrabbler, fingers
plying the greasy, furred gash, the entrails
glazed with flies which might have deterred

someone else, but he sat, now cross-legged,
unwinding the wrecked limb the way the hands
that lifted the boy in Wyoming must have worked.

"Prairie Dogs" originally appeared in Prairie Schooner, Summer 2009.

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View Robin Becker's schedule of appearances at online. To read or watch videos of previous poems in the series, click here. To listen to an occasional podcast series where Becker and a small group of students and faculty discuss one of her poems, visit "Liberal Arts Voices."

  • To watch a video of Robin Becker reading 'Prairie Dogs,' click on the image above.

    IMAGE: Penn State

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Last Updated March 21, 2011