As we will see over the course of this month, animals feature heavily in literature and poetry is no exception. We write about animals, about animals and us and use animals as metaphors to say things which otherwise would be very difficult.
Phillip Larkin, 1977, The Little Lives Of Earth And Form
The little lives of earth and form,
Of finding food, and keeping warm,
Are not like ours, and yet
A kinship lingers nonetheless:
We hanker for the homeliness
Of den, and hole, and set.
And this identity we feel
– Perhaps not right, perhaps not real –
Will link us constantly;
I see the rock, the clay, the chalk,
The flattened grass, the swaying stalk,
And it is you I see.
This ties in nicely with the question about whether humans are animals, in this case Larkin is looking more broadly and declaring that humans are a part of nature, not apart.
It has a nice lyrical feel to it and shares a similar message to that of Wordsworth, both valuing nature and seeing humans within nature. It also places value on a simpler way of life, one that is concerned with day to day needs. Like Wordsworth, Larkin draws the readers attention to the little, every day things – the rock, the clay, the chalk – and imbues them with greater significance and meaning.
I enjoyed this poem alongside some of the themes I’ve looked at this month. In particular it chimes strongly with one of the articles I read about humans and nature.
It casts nature in the role of an artist and asks what she would chose to leave out of her masterpiece. Inevitably, whilst Cliff doesn’t answer the question explicitly, the message is that humans would be the ones kept out.
This poem also reminded me of the dingo fence. It is a huge fence in Australia which is designed to keep dingoes out of certain areas. Work on it was started when British arrived and started trying to control the world they found themselves in. Up until that point, Australians had been living alongside dingo and whilst I’m not saying it was an easy relationship, it was one which accepted other lifeforms.
The discussion around the poem in the Independent article probably says most of what I was going to so I won’t! When I first read the poem, I didn’t know that there is a constellation called the fox and that knowledge really helped. It actually features in a collection that is focused on the stars so reading it in context probably adds a lot.
I like the honest humanness to this poem. The starry, sky fox comes down to the earth and so close to our own lives that we could “hit it…with a stone”. But instead of revering it or romanticising it, Armitage tells of the damage the fox has done whilst also emphasising the physical proximity of man and fox. The violent, unforgiving ending, harsh as it may seem to the reader is one which echoes our wider feelings of nature and our impact. We seem to be emotionally disconnected and apathetic towards death of animals and even extinctions pass us by, mostly unnoted or uncared about, with the exception of those animals we deem particularly cute.
This is one of those apparently simple poets which I return to over and over. The premise is that as we get older, the gulf between humans and animals grows wider. As I’ve already mentioned a bit, children’s books are filled with animals and we befriend these characters and they help us navigate the world as we grow up. And then, one day we turn around and find ourselves disconnected from nature.
I read Tempest’s poem with an air of sadness but as I said, it’s deceptively simple, so I can’t point to any words or images which show this, it is just a feeling that comes through the poem. It leaves me with a heavy, regretful feeling. And a longing to return as much as possible to that childhood state.
On being eaten by a snake, Susan Wicks, 1994
I don’t really like sharing poems when I don’t have copyright so where possible I try to link to the poem (except where they’re older poems which are absolutely everywhere). Normally I can find a version somewhere but not this one…
Knowing they are not poisonous
I kneel on the path to watch it
Between poppies by a crown of nasturtiums,
The grey-stripe body almost half as long
As my own body. The formless black head
Rearing, swaying, the wide black lips seeming
To smile at me. And I see
That the head is not a head,
The slit I have seen as mouth
Is not a mouth, the frilled black under-lips
Not lips, but another creature dying; I see
How the snake’s own head is narrow and delicate,
How it slides its mouth up and then back
With love, stretched to this shapelessness
As if with love. The sun stroking
The slug’s wet skin as it hangs
In the light, resting so that even the victim
Must surely feel pleasures, the dark ripple
Of neck that is not neck lovely
As the slug is sucked backwards
To the belly that is not belly, the head
That is merely head
Shrinking to nameable proportions.
This is one poem in a collection about Wicks’s illness and was written during a reprieve, something which I feel really adds to the reading of it. We start with the declaration that the snake is not poisonous, perhaps a statement about the respite from her illness? The start of the poem talks of bodies; she kneels, there is the grey-stripe body, her own body and a formless black head. As someone who has chronic illness, I enjoyed this last image in particular. Illness can certainly feel like a formless thing. Especially if it is undiagnosed or unpredictable or unreliable – you cannot manage or fight with something formless.
And then, the poem pivots. The midline sentence end takes us from what she sees to her realising that what she sees is not how things are. Another parallel with illness – I regularly doubt my own health, thinking I’m not as bad as I am, or seeing through the eyes of depression which do the opposite of rose tinted glasses.
From here, we discover nothing is as it first seemed. She also shapes this image of a snake eating a slug into something sensual and dreamy. There are a lot of s sounds – “slides it’s mouth”, “slugs wet skin”, “slug is sucked” – which add to this sexuality and echo the hissing sound of the snake. The event ends with the “dark ripple of the neck” which feels to me like a metaphor for an orgasm which is followed by the “head shrinking to nameable proportions”. Obviously this has one particular sexual interpretation. But returning to the running symbolism of illness, to be able to name your illness is powerful and to have it in suitable proportions makes a huge difference. The formless, intangible, overwhelming beast has become something you can handle and label.
I found the snake in this poem a fascinating metaphor. Snakes are associated with the medical profession and with healing as well as with change and transformation. There is also an element of the unknown, most of us in the UK don’t regularly see snakes or interact with them.