Thursday, December 11, 2008

The Possum Sonnets

As she enters her ninth decade, our remarkable mother is sustained not only by the pretty garden she cultivates at 20 Denham Place in a leafy suburb of Melbourne, but by her titanic, ongoing struggle against the local possums, from whose nocturnal depredations no fresh green shoot, no bud, and no unformed fruit or flower is safe. This enterprise evidently keeps her full of vim and vigour.

Ably assisted by the redoubtable Pauline McOboy, her trusty amanuensis of at least thirty years, Helen has investigated many ingenious methods of discouraging the possums, most recently pursuing through the Royal Melbourne Zoological Gardens and the Healesville Sanctuary the exciting rumor of a commercially viable synthetic approximation of dingo urine, which, discreetly sprayed, will apparently cause the possums to scram. In the meantime she continues to experiment with a large plastic owl, and constant vigilance.

If Helen has ever sensed that her four grown-up sons and their families did not take her possum problem seriously, the following sonnets ought to provide her with some reassurance. And our concern is certainly not disinterested, because upon her success we her children depend for a steady supply of excellent homemade cumquat marmalade—fragrant; not too sweet, not too tart; not too lumpy, not too runny, just right.

The common brushtail and ringtail possums are among the largest of at least sixty-four species of arboreal marsupial native to Australia, New Guinea, and regrettably long since introduced to New Zealand. They are extremely well adapted to largely non-native, suburban environments and, though modest in scale, when at night they skitter over corrugated iron roofs they sound as though they are wearing football boots. Their call is a tedious and unattractive guttural hiss.

As indigenous animals, possums are now protected, except from legitimate Aboriginal hunters—these are thin on the ground in Melbourne, and to Helen’s knowledge no enterprizing person has yet thought to hang out a shingle on this basis, and it is doubtful whether the relevant laws would allow it anyway.

Although concerned gardeners were once permitted safely to trap and, with the aid of Peter the Possum Man, to remove them some distance, this too is no longer lawful. The ingenious householder must therefore seek more devious methods of conducting what is essentially a form of psychological warfare.


“Beneath the moon, along the wooden fence,
I dance the subtle tango with my love,
Exchanging gifts of blossom, cumquat, scents
And pheromones, our hearts entwined, your grove
Our bliss, an Eden,” sang the possum in
Mum’s tree. “That may well be, but what he fails
To note, and what revolts me more, has been
The awful harm, the damage this entails—
My ravaged shrubs, the fruit trees stripped so bare,
Their frightful depredations. Where I sit,”
Said Mum, “their songs of love may fill the air,
But what remains apart from possum shit?”
To this there is no answer from the tree,
And Helen’s bigger love will set her free.


These wars on terror, strategies of surge,
Embedded agents, gasses, guns and traps,
Too little far too late if they converge
On enemies like possums, or perhaps
A different tactic might achieve your goal?
Bring me my broom, fetch Pauline right away;
Bring me my Possoff, make the hose to spray
Each furry vandal, Taliban, and Goth!
No doubt you’d soon make progress if the White
House garden echoed with lewd possum songs,
The East Lawn wrecked, the roses shredded right
Below your window. What’s the use of throngs
Of bold Marines thrown up against this foe?
The way of stealth is all that possums know.


Guermantes, Saint-Loup, Odette and Albertine,
Enervated boulevardiers,
You nibble on your cumquat madeleine,
And Denham’s gilded salon then appears
Much as it was when Bill and Audrey Reid,
Old Mrs. Gregory, and Mr. Sim,
Their fruit trees first began to grow and feed
Your glamorous
république troisième.
But gifts of
liberté and all the rest
Geranium champagne, parfumerie,
Those nightly balls, the supple furs, suggest
That Sodom and Gomorrah’s lemon tree
Awaits a higher judge, long overdue:
Hélène! À la recherche du temps perdu!!!


Disordered possums, each a complex case,
Repressed, psychotic, faulty super-ego,
Await analysis in Denham Place.
“Your dreams cast light on zis absurd libido,”
Says Dr. Helen, patting on her couch.
“Here, Little Hans und Dora, Wolf Man too,
Subconsciously you’re yearning for ze pouch.
Come, Anna O., hysterics make you poo.
Through free association, Rorschach blots,
Ve probe ze id, ve treat your strange repression,
Fixation on zose leetle round cumqvats,
Zese fetid drives, dat lemon tree obsession.”
In her Vienna possums may harass
mutter, but the doktor uses gas.


I wonder if the way to lift this yolk
Is not to harness the diversity,
The neighbourhood’s eclectic
Of subtle ethnic persons, different folk,
Encourage all to find within themselves
A fund of useful knowledge to combat
In unison this scourge, this rapine, that
Around the prudent matron still revolves.
One thinks of those whose ancestry devolves
From China’s earth, the dynasty of Ming,
With all that scholarship and everything,
Because I’ll wager on their lacquered shelves
There is an ancient scroll, adorned with blossom,
Containing secret recipes for possum.


Before this court pronounces sentence, do
The Prisoners have anything to say?”
A hush descends on Denham’s Court and, through
Th’interpreter, those possums fat and grey
Get up and put their furry headphones on:
“My Lord, with due respect, we didn’t know,
Or tasty cumquats we’d have long foregone,
And taken care those blossoms not to throw,
Nor sing our ballads, dance the possum samba;
Learn to heed the warning of your owl,
And chillies, mothballs, dormant plastic mamba;
Better spots we’d choose to moue and prowl.”
Lord Justice Helen’s merciful restraint
May balance her legitimate complaint...


...However, on the ground of laws, not men—
And Denham’s constitution clearly states
That possums may not trespass with their mates,
To thieve and vandalize, then thieve again—
The judge must temper mercy and maintain,
Protect, uphold blind justice, which equates
The punishment and crime, yet deviates
In special circumstances only when
The sentence serves a greater common good
And benefits the wider neighbourhood.
Near Justice Helen’s precious jurisdiction,
McMansions beg for this affliction,
So the possums’ sentence she commutes
And banishment for death she substitutes.


At Little Big Horn Custer took his stand
Against Chief Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse,
Whose Cheyenne warriors defended land
They arrogantly called their own, with force
Augmented by resourceful, cunning Sioux,
And slew the seventh U.S. cavalry.
Now Little Cloud and Hissing Possum too,
Emerge from hostile wigwam, nest, and tree,
While Shitting Moon, and furry Hiawatha,
Besiege brave Colonel Helen and her boys
But, calling on the spirit of their father,
She vows to fight these ruthless Iroquois.
Although outnumbered, Helen’s fort survives
For this time she’s the one with .45s.


We’re told it’s best to think “outside the box”—
Although I hardly know what that phrase means—
And stem cells plucked from chicken, pig, and fox
Can heal the sick, develop new vaccines.
So, ruminating further on Mum’s scourge,
To Walter and Eliza Hall one might
Refer the present problem, and emerge
With novel uses for this naughty sprite:
A cure, perhaps, for Alzheimer’s or Rickets;
Remove the need for bio-engineers
To clamber in the bush, and comb through thickets,
In search of small, reluctant volunteers.
These possums to the scientists she’d lease,
And maybe win the Nobel Prize for Peace.


The stem cell option may require some work
Lest human patients start to nibble leaves,
Climb fences, grunt, or simply go berserk,
Their instincts switched from homing to the eaves.
If so, an interim solution comes to mind,
For if it can be shown that possums learn
As fast as they can gobble lemon rind
Perhaps their tightrope-walking skills might earn
The baffled housewife agent twelve percent
Commission on a deal—no reason why
They can’t adapt their pole work to a tent—
And circuses some acrobats supply.
Thus Swifty Helen’s problem she may fix,
But only if the possums turn new tricks.


The common brushtail possum’s formal names
Trichosùrus and vulpècula.
The first its furry-tailed aspect proclaims,
The second from the Greek vernacular,
Means little fox, a deftly chosen word,
For never did a term so well suggest
The qualities on possums thus conferred
By nature: sex-mad, greedy little pest.
There was a time, before the Hunting Act,
When gentlewomen proudly rode to hounds,
And flushed the coverts, vermin to extract,
Cut off their subterranean compounds.
But Master Helen needs a shrewder pack
Of bats, not dogs, her quarry to drive back.


Diatomaceous earth is soft and light,
The fossilized remains of hard-shelled algae,
Chalk-like, porous, natural, and white,
Absorbent and abrasive, powdery,
Used in fertilizer, kitty litter,
Insecticides, and clotting agents too.
Should troubled Matrons seek a heavy hitter,
Improvements in the garden to pursue,
A smallish bag, so reasonably priced,
Is good for many household purposes:
A cup of earth, some cables neatly spliced,
Egg-timer, string, suspended near the roses,
Allows the patient housewife to ignite
An anti-possum charge of dynamite.


Escoffier’s extravagant cuisine
Was built on culinary alchemy:
Rich sauces, subtle flavours, gelatine,
The rarest produce of the field and tree,
But Helen’s
Tour d’Argent attained new heights
With perfect drop scones, lightest apple snow,
Lemon delicious, apricot delights,
And other recipes learned long ago
At Invergowrie’s homecraft oracle,
Whose Vestals looked within, and not to France,
Learned self-reliance, how to bake and pickle.
Miss Kirkhope said “Girls, don’t retreat, advance:
To deal with household possum problems, we
Discreetly lay a charge of TNT.”


Those lessons stand the housewife in good stead,
The armature of pragmatism furnish,
Whilst Invergowrie’s fundamentals burnish
Helen’s stove, her board with plenty spread,
Creating from the heart cuisine of head
And hungry Nick and Simon, Angus, Hamish
Feed with biscuits, pudding, chops, and fish,
Their palates charmed by ways with homemade bread.
Miss Kirkhope’s ancient cookbook may relate
Such skills as doughty gardeners require
To come the greedy possum in between,
Deprive him of the fruits of their estate.
So read that Delphic tome, and there admire
Her recipe for nitroglycerine.


So strong were the vibrations he emitted
That Peter’s passion for the cabaret
Through time and space to Paris were transmitted
And lured the restless ghosts of Charles Trenet,
Édith Piaf, Sablon, and all the rest,
With spectral trunks, an orchestra as well,
To Denham Place; the possums they possessed,
Put on their furs, checked into Mum’s hôtel,
Broke out accordions, danseuses apaches,
Reduced her garden to a mere hors d’œuvre.
This unintended possum–spirit clash is
An able gypsy medium’s preserve:
On table-rapping then must Helen plan,
And mutter “
Nous ne regrettons rien.”


Yves Montand and Lucienne Boyer
Prove hard to shift, though not at all to reach;
The séance just emboldens them to say
Madame, votre légumes sont assez riches,
Les fruits superbes; encore de Beaujolais!”
The challenge, then, is carefully to hint
That younger, richer audiences pay
Far more in francs, a veritable mint,
If stadiums they work, not cabaret.
Arcati-like, Mum’s argument gains strength;
Ambition leads the possums to convey
Their willingness to relocate—at length—
An exorcism deftly finished when
At last they set off in Dad’s Citroën.


Embattled matron, seek your inner possum!
Draw strength from theirs, and bring it to your game.
If clubs are trumps, then think of them as blossom;
The cards are different, strategy’s the same.
At night you try your crafty hand at patience,
But have you noticed that when four, not one,
Resourceful ladies gather for a conference,
And focus on what bidding might be done,
The psychic energies that radiate
From every round, each devastating play,
Your small opponents’ powers abnegate
And send them cringing to their nests, at bay?
With possums, then, consider being chummy
As long as you make sure they’re always dummy.


Improbable though this may seem at first,
And mindful of the Stockholm syndrome risk
When enmity to friendship is reversed,
Consider as the possums swing and frisk
Supplying them with nicely chosen treats—
I do not mean two halves of a banana
Concealing pills which, when the possum eats,
Amusing symptoms suddenly may garner—
No, the clever matron’s new approach
Might be to proffer sickly sweets and honey,
Make inroads on their diet and encroach,
Engender trust, and save a lot of money
By thus distracting them from shoot and bud,
Supplying stronger sugars to their blood…


...And if by making friends you get them hooked,
Accommodate their greed, and make it bigger:
Replace with lassitude their former vigor,
Step up the carbohydrates—raw and cooked—
Leave no harmful fatty acid overlooked;
Feed them, give them special fare, and trigger
Something far beyond the fuller figure—
No limit to your kindness shall be brooked—
The possums soon will quiver, sway, and wobble;
The more you feed, the more they’ll pant and gobble,
Overburdened by obesity.
By now he is your craven devotee,
Removing any need for stern entreaties,
Not only fat, but primed for diabetes.

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