The very first image of the poem is this “last wolf” (repeated immediately after the title, “The Last Wolf”), so we know right away this is a very important image. Our “last wolf” is a metaphor for nature, it is the only living thing in our poem (other than our poet herself), but we understand this metaphor indirectly. The wolf “hurried”, it is “baying”, it is “loping”, we hear it “whine”, it “snuffle[s]”, its eyes “burned” and its eyebrows “quivered”. All this vitality is set against a landscape that is “ruined”, “smashed”, “useless”, and is full of “clutter and rubble”. And so we never need to be told the wolf is nature, we intuit this through the contrast of the wolf’s energy set against an inert and blasted landscape.
Yet the symbol more complicated, too. The wolf is very much like a God so the wolf isn’t just a simple symbol here, it is a real thing, too that the poet interacts with in her home “I watched / he trotted across the floor”. This intertwining of symbol and the concrete helps us understand better how First Nation’s peoples might see the world – a world where Gods can live among us.
“the last wolf hurried toward me”, is a nervous way to start a poem. The first word, “the” is not capitalized and while I’m not sure we’re starting in medias res, it does feel as if our poet was interrupted from doing something else (perhaps dying; see below) when all of a sudden this “last wolf” began hurrying towards her. And this was my clue something was wrong, something bad happened and there is an urgency here.
“through the ruined city” is not typically where we think of wolves running. We already know just by the author’s name that this is a First Nation’s poet with (what we assume) a First Nation’s sensibility and theme, so the unease continues from the first line with this setting being out of (the expected) place. Yet what does a “ruined city” mean? Evoked for me was something akin to Cormac Mccarthy’s The Road where some sort of apocalypse has occurred, where modern civilization has collapsed.
This image of apocalypse (post-apocalyptic) is built up with the words “smashed”, “ruined”, and “useless” but she also adds the implication that there once was energy here by describing the city as a “warren”, as if the people there had all lived cramped in like a billion breeding rabbits. Funny enough, what does a wolf like to eat? A rabbit will do! So now the “last wolf” is like a harbinger, or even the apocalypse or death personified. This made me wonder if this was a death poem for our poet, where perhaps the wolf was like the black figure with a sickle come to take MaryTallMountain away? We eventually learn she had been “in my narrow bed looking west, waiting”. She’s not sitting on the bed, she’s laying in it almost corpse-like, waiting perhaps for the wolf to take her away.
Death is further implied with my favorite image in the poem, “the few ruby-crowned highrises”. I get such a sense of doom from this image as if the buildings are all on fire, but it also hints at the setting sun as it lights just the tips of the buildings one final time. And the setting sun is a straightforward image for things ending.
And death has been hard at work here. The “lighted elevators useless” feels as if everyone left in a hurry – why else would the lights still be on? But I also made the connection between the elevator shafts and the rabbits (from “warrens”). Elevators move up and down, and rabbits breed all day long, so I drew a sexual metaphor here (the up and down movement of sex), but now one of emptiness, where the going up and down has ceased. Life, including the ability to make life is gone.
We get another image of life having left in a hurry since the stop lights are still functioning, and it’s a chaotic image, “flickering red and green”, stopping and going all at once and all mixed up, but also I felt there was a power struggle here between the signs and the wolf. This wolf who has been in motion the whole time is not going to be stopped by a mere traffic sign, so it conjures the image of the traffic light trying – perhaps even begging – to get the wolf to stop. However nature can’t be stopped by man’s signs and pleadings, and so it’s all confused nonsense to the wolf.
And here is where I feel we start to get some answers when we get to the line “baying his way eastward”, a very synesthetic image blending sound and movement. The wolf is speeding not towards the sun, but seems to be heralding news of the ending of the universe. The sun sets in the west and this land is where the wolf is running from. At once I thought of a wolf as a dog whom I’ve thrown a stick to and he’s returning it to me, but also I thought of how the universe might end with the whole universe collapsing back in on itself – everything that had existed out ahead of us is being compressed back in towards us.
There is a shift in the intimacy of the location with the third stanza (“I heard his voice ascending the hill”) – we know the wolf is almost to its destination and that there will be resolution soon, like a dog returning home. This wolf feels very domesticated and not wild anymore with his “whine”, and him snuffling at the door. The wild, nervous movement from the beginning is gone and the wolf is somehow older, and calmer, as if it’s no longer a wolf-God, but more of a companion to sit with our poet as death comes, “he laid his long gray muzzle / on the spare white spread”. “Gray”, and “white” are colors we might associate with old age.
And we get a constricted image here, “in my narrow bed looking west, waiting”. This feels cramped, isolated, lonely, and sad. I thought of an old lady in a nursing home waiting for death to take her, or at least for someone to come visit her and remind her of her youth, of a wildness of years ago, of her vitality, of her long life, a life and energy she once had that is now reflected in the wolf’s burning “yellow” eyes.
Finally we get a very enigmatic ending. The dog has brought a message to our poet, but what is this message. “What have they done” that she knows of? Is it that civilization has reached so far that there is no longer a place for wild things, like wolves (and her younger self), anymore? Or has the world ended in an apocalypse and our poet and the wolf wait till the inevitable end to come? Or perhaps it’s a dream and all the people have been taken off in a rapture leaving the last wild things to reunite at the last moment before they were to expire or be forgotten? Or perhaps it is only our poet who is dying and that all the material things of the world are no longer consequential to her and that they might as well all be rubble. All that matters is her kinship with a “last wolf”, her own last wolf.