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The Barefoot Laureate with Wendy Videlock

The Nature of Coyote: Leaping from Shape to Shape

Elusive and magical, both silent and garrulous, both feared and beloved, Coyote is the ultimate contradiction— an animal associated with wisdom and foolishness, cunning and buffoonery, resilience and fragility, solitude and solidarity, invisibility and ubiquity. 

Celebrated Native author, N. Scott Momaday, tells us, “Coyotes have the gift of seldom being seen; they keep to the edge of vision and beyond, loping in and out of cover on the plains and highlands. And at night, when the whole world belongs to them, they parley at the river, their higher, sharper voices full of authority and rebuke. They are an old council of clowns, and they are listened to.”

In her poem, “Mohave Evening”, Virginia Hamilton Adair closes her beautiful poem of observation this way:

…we know the coyotes are off
into silver spaces,
their eyes coming out to hunt
like all the other stars.

Lois Red Elk, in her poem, “Coyote Invisible”, notes: 

Coyotes prowl the low ground, to understand
the process of potential maneuvers, or how long 
it takes to become a tale. 

Both legend and physical, both light and dark, Coyote, like all myths, stories, legends and poems, remains mostly hidden until we suddenly notice them trotting nonchalantly alongside us, demonstrating an aspect of ourselves we might not recognize.

“Coyotes move within a landscape of attentiveness” says noted adventure writer, Craig Childs.

Indeed, Coyote often walks the crossroads and backroads, stalking us from the desert brush, reminding us of that which we cannot know.  

Joni Mitchell’s famous poem, Coyote, is a splendid example of how the Trickster archetype moves in and out of our lives:

I looked a coyote right in the face
On the road to Baljennie, near my old home town
He went running thru the whisker wheat
Chasing some prize down..

Trickster is found (or not found) everywhere, but seems to throw her voice effortlessly from a ty of various landscapes to  the central character in endless stories, myths and legends.  Contemplating coyote sightings in New York subway cars and in Central Park, Yusef Komunyaakaa writes his poem, “Crossing a City Highway.”Here’s a brief excerpt: 

For a breathy moment, she stops
on the world’s edge, & then quick as that
masters the stars & again slips the noose
& darts straight between sedans & SUVs.

In some Native stories, Coyote has the power of creation, in others he’s a kind of superhero, other times a messenger.  Other times he’s a clown, outwitted every time by the roadrunner. 

In Greek and Roman myth, Hermes, Puck and Pan represent the  archetypal and unpredictable Coyote. In Norse myth, we have Loki. In ancient Egypt, Toth. In chemistry, and in the night sky, we have Mercury. In Hawaiian myth we have Mamala, who appears sometimes as a shark and others as a beautiful woman.

In modern times, a few examples of the Trickster myth are found in the likes of such characters as Bob Dylan, Beetlejuice, Andy Kaufman, The Cheshire Cat, Jack Sparrow, Doctor Who, The Pink Panther and Rumplestiltskin. 

The pseudonym-happy and world-changing Benjamin Franklin might also qualify in large part because above all, Trickster is an agent of change.

But just because a person or character is tricky or sneaky does not make them an archetype of the Trickster myth. There is something entirely more complicated than that going on with the many symbols of Trickster.  The poet William Stafford, at the end of his poem, Outside, notes:

For all we have taken into our keeping
and polished with our hands belongs to a truth
greater than ours, in the animals’ keeping.
Coyotes are circling around our truth.

The shapeshifter myth in Native culture and across continents is often symbolized as rabbit, hare, fox, sandhill crane, raven, crow, joker, alchemist, magician, truth-teller, fool and raven. Most often and most notably, though, especially here in the west, coyote trots across our consciousness as the ultimate shape-shifter, always asking that we think outside the confines of duality and explore the in-betweens. 

These in-betweens are the comfort zone of the poet, so it isn’t surprising that writing the coyote poem is considered a kind of rite of passage for any poet living in the west.  I’ll leave you with one such poem, written by Colorado poet, Art Goodtimes:

 Roadkill Coyote 

sprawls across the centerline
backleg broken * round glazed
eyes glassy as marbles
unwavering * unblinking
as the world rolls by
now unnoticed or maybe
all seen & thus merely
unremarkable * no fudge
or flinch of instinct * just
the cold last look of it all

i turn the car around &
go back to the body * drag her
off the road * steam rises
when i stroke her flanks
the jaw locked open * canine
teeth menacing even in death

i take out my knife * sing
a death song & thanking coyote
i cut off her tail
fur too beautiful to bury
& then pull her hind end
deeper into the rabbitbrush
beside the highway’s shoulder

all the way home * down
the canyon & up Norwood Hill
singing her
back into the mystery.

—Art Goodtimes