William Irvin: Gun lessons from a poet

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PITTSFIELD — The unrelenting barking of a neighbor's dog puts me in mind of Billy Collins' poem, "Another Reason Why I Don't Keep a Gun in the House." First he closes the windows and turns up the phonograph, typical reactions if you can't just shoot the dog. But when the barking intrudes on the Beethoven, Collins does not get angrier; instead, he assimilates the sounds, imagining the dog sitting in the oboe section. He not only becomes reconciled to the barking, he celebrates it.

The poem incorporates Collins' humorous conversational tone with a slight twist. But it also suggests that not having a gun in the house not only prevents the poet from an impulsive action; it allows him to integrate his experiences. Now that is something to contemplate. Could it be that a gun isolates the possessor? Is one of the attractions of gun ownership the assertion of the self, a rejection of the push to be assimilated? Is a loaded gun an empty symbol of self-reliance?

We do have guns in our house, four to be exact. My wife and I enjoy target shooting and have joined a local gun association. And although gun ownership is a very recent phenomenon for my wife, my family has always had guns. At one point the collection was extensive: two revolvers, two automatic pistons, a rifle and a shotgun.

Perhaps the presence of all the armament evoked a strong sense of individualism in me, but I don't really think so. For one, I never was really very interested in hunting, even though I grew up in a culture of avid hunters. As a boy, given the choice of shooting squirrels and rabbits or targeting bottles thrown into the Arkansas River, I preferred the bottles.

Target shooting, at least for me, is not about isolating but connecting: here I stand, and farther away is the target. The experience is more analysis than emotion, a problem in geometry. How do I get the bullet to go from this point to that point?

The few times that I did hunt, or, to be more accurate, the few times that I actually killed something, my reaction was to feel even more strongly the difference between me and the animal I had killed. My imagination immediately reverted to the moment before the death to consider the two individuals who were separate and alive. That was always followed by regret.

Not a real substitute

I tried to develop the Faulknerian sense of absorbing the life-spirit of the animal whose life I had taken. But I was no Ike McCaslin hunting the bear, not did I wish to be. I understood what Hemingway was asserting when he described the matador as becoming "one" with the bull at the moment the sword penetrates, but I never could accept that symbolic conjoining as a substitute for a real one.

All of these approaches to a killing were epitomized for me with Cooper's "Leatherstocking Tales," when Natty Bumppo, the "Deerslayer," became a man only upon killing an Indian. This was not just an assertion of power, it was a paradoxical imposition of self and assimilation of the other at the same time. At the moment the bullet entered the other, the shooter was the most important person in the world to that other (at least in the mind of the shooter). Like a cancer, this feeling exploded the integrity of the self and destroyed the healthy interplay of self and other in society.

The ownership of guns has become an especially controversial topic. The National Rifle Association has worked very hard to instill fear in as many people as possible. That organization's shift from an emphasis on the sport of shooting to personal protection could be interpreted as a cynical move to sell more guns. There probably is truth in that accusation, but there must also have been a large public which was already afraid.

I imagine that fear can be portrayed in the same way as the NRA magazine illustrates the misfits and criminals about to attack our wives and daughters — never photographs (too specific) but vaguely drawn male figures in shadows (are the shadows to suggest "not white"?).

The mythic justification of killing found in the works of Cooper, Faulkner and Hemingway, which celebrated the foundations of a way of life, has been reconfigured into a mythic fear of our changing society, a desperate assertion of the self and a search for a more homogenous if not intimate community. We have all become target shooters, but some of us have misjudged the target.


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