The Bull Moose


Down from the purple mist of trees on the mountain,

lurching through forests of white spruce and cedar,

stumbling through tamarack swamps,

came the bull moose

to be stopped at last by a pole-fenced pasture.


Too tired to turn or, perhaps, aware

there was no place left to go, he stood with the cattle.

They, scenting the musk of death, seeing his great head

like the ritual mask of a blood god, moved to the other end

of the field and waited.


The neighbours heard of it, and by afternoon

cars lined the road. The children teased him

with alder switches and he gazed at them

like an old tolerant collie. The women asked

if he could have escaped from a Fair.


The oldest man in the parish remembered seeing

a gelded moose yoked with an ox for plowing.

The young men snickered and tried to pour beer

down his throat, while their girl friends

took their pictures.


And the bull moose let them stroke his tick-ravaged flanks,

let them pry open his jaws with bottles, let a giggling girl

plant a little purple cap

of thistles on his head.


When the wardens came, everyone agreed it was a shame

to shoot anything so shaggy and cuddlesome.

He looked like the kind of pet

women put to bed with their sons.


So they held their fire. But just as the sun dropped in the river

the bull moose gathered his strength

like a scaffolded king, straightened and lifted his horns

so that even the wardens backed away as they raised their rifles.

When he roared, people ran to their cars. All the young men

leaned on their automobile horns as he toppled.

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  1. “The Bull Moose” presents a frank account of a town’s encounter with a moose. Although the speaker of the poem offers no opinion about the events that are being recounted, the poem has a definite sense of right and wrong. Does the speaker side with the moose or the townspeople? Which lines of the poem make you think this?
  2. What animals (other than the moose) are mentioned in the poem? What do these animals have in common? What does invoking them add to the poem?
  3. Contrasting the natural world with the human world is well-trodden territory for poetry (see “The World Is Too Much With Us” by William Wordsworth, or “Sun Bear” by Matthew Zapruder). What makes this poem different? What new images, insights, or associations does it offer?
  4. The poem makes several allusions to the death of Christ (the crown the girl places on the moose’s head, the reference to the “scaffolded king”). What is being hinted at here?
  5. Simple language and a straightforward narrative belie the strong emotions under the poem’s surface. Try reciting the poem as if you are just recounting the facts (as you would, perhaps, to a police officer). Next try reciting the poem with emotion. Are there certain parts of the poem that you believe are better served by a neutral recitation style versus an emotional delivery? Is there a balance to be had between the two recitation styles?
  6. Think of a time when you felt a strong emotion (happiness, sadness, outrage). As Nowlan does in “The Bull Moose,” write a poem where you present images of what occurred without explanation, opinion, or emotion. Nowlan uses the five senses to lend his images immediacy — would this technique strengthen your poem, too?


Useful Links

Watch this National Film Board of Canada documentary about Alden Nowlan (you can see him read “The Bull Moose” at 23:30):

Two-time Governor General’s Literary Award–winner David Adams Richards on travelling to Fredericton to meet his poetry hero, Alden Nowlan, “the only poet in in the country deemed functionally illiterate by Statistics Canada”:

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Bibliographical info

Alden Nowlan, “The Bull Moose” from Alden Nowlan: Selected Poems. Copyright © The Estate of Alden Nowlan.

Source: Alden Nowlan: Selected Poems (House of Anansi Press, 1996).

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