July/August 2014 Discussion Guide

Animal House

People and Other Creatures in the July/August 2014 Poetry

Animal House

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“Old Ark, / how funky it was,” writes Thomas Sayers Ellis in the July/August 2014 Poetry. “All those animals, two of every kind, / and all that waste, the human shit somebody had to clean up.”

Like that funky ark, poems in this issue brim with animals: Devin Johnston depicts mockingbirds, Orpington chickens, and buff-banded rails; Amanda Calderon mentions polar bears, white whales, brown bears, leopards, and ducks; Timothy Donnelly meditates on stout-legged llamas, stilt-legged llamas, sea mink, heath-hens, and many others. And like that ark, the poems contain plenty of human concerns—“shit,” if you will—as well: they hint that, for all we threaten the planet, the planet threatens us, too.

“You want to touch big animals,” begins Amanda Calderon’s “Werewolf on the Moon.” She continues (implicitly addressing Russian President Vladimir Putin, whom she never names): 

You have the polar bear in Franz
Josef Land, the white whale in the Sea
of Okhotsk,

You have the brown bear, leopard
& Amur tiger in Ussuri, the Far
East, so east, like a talon

it hooks Heilongjiang, claims
that edge of Pacific….

“You have,” “You have”: Putin owns the beasts of his vast terrain; he seems to run the animal kingdom as well as the Russian government. Accordingly, Calderon compares Russia itself to a “big animal”: it is gigantic, stretching to “the Far / East, so east,”; it has a “talon” with which, in an echo of its powerful President, it “hooks” and “claims.”

Putin, we learn, has sunk his proverbial hook into an endangered tiger, shooting the animal at a nature reserve in the name of helping it. He has pledged to visit all endangered species, Calderon writes, and always

to carry an air gun & a satchel
of tranquilizer darts, to shoot, to topple,
to affix the GPS collar, to caress

the fur (in the case of the whale
the skin) & muse to scientists about
the big, sleepy oaf:

Would she remember, or eat you, or both?

With its parade of “to”s—“to carry,” “to shoot,” “to topple,” “to affix,” “to caress”—and its arsenal of benign weaponry (the air gun, the tranquilizer darts), this sentence insists on its protagonist’s activity and power. Putin dubs the animal, in contrast, a “big, sleepy oaf,” a stupid creature tamed by the President’s skill (and tranquilizers).

But “oaf” is more commonly applied to men than to animals, and the term rebounds on Putin, hinting that the leader and the creature have more in common than the former might readily acknowledge. He does hint, however—albeit jokingly—that the animal could eat him if she wished. For all his power, and for all the animals and lands hooked into his domain, he is merely an animal among animals, and not, it turns out, the head of the kingdom.

Timothy Donnelly’s “Hymn to Life” doubles as a hymn to death, a catalogue of creatures that are no longer among us: great auks, pygmy mammoths, Yukon horses, and many more. The poet reminds us how we’ve damaged the environment through deforesting, overfishing, polluting, and other shortsighted acts. And like Calderon, Donnelly alludes not only to human folly but also to human vulnerability. His poem weaves in several anecdotes, including this account of King David’s glimpse of the beautiful Bathsheba. Satan appeared

                                          as a red bird to David who, cocksure
with projectiles now, aimed the stone in his hands at the bird
but hit the screen instead, splitting it in half and thereby

revealing our bather, the wife of Uriah the Hittite at the time
but not for much longer.

Donnelly’s exploration of extinction describes how David’s attempt to kill a bird accidentally reveals Bathsheba—and reminds us that the view of this bathing beauty leads to Uriah’s death. (After the king glimpses Bathsheba, he will send Uriah to the front lines, ensuring his demise.) The effort to kill a bird thus fuses with the effort to kill a man—an association strengthened by the pun embedded in “cocksure,” which links David with a bird. Humans don’t merely overhunt other creatures, Donnelly hints; we overhunt each other, too.

And we’re at the mercy of the environment as well as of ourselves. Later in the poem, Donnelly recounts the tribulations of the Investigator, an English vessel that got stuck in Arctic ice for three years; its crew abandoned ship in 1853. The poet describes the aftermath of the ship’s abandonment, interweaving a quotation from a killer of one of the last great auks:

            the hungry Inuit … trekked up to 300 miles to strip
McClure’s abandoned ship before the ice crushed her completely,
folding her metals into Mercy Bay. “I took him by the neck
and he flapped his wings,” the poacher said. “He made no cry.”
Inuit shaped Investigator’s copper and iron into spear- and arrow-
heads as well as knife blades, chisels, and harpoons.

After trapping the ship, the ice bears down on it, threatening to destroy it altogether. The Inuit bear down on it too, recycling the ship’s materials for their own purposes—a neat reversal of colonizers’ habits of shaping native properties to their ends. And in the thick of this narrative comes the quotation from the auk poacher, which makes the threatened bird a metaphor for the threatened ship: just as the Investigator is seized and crushed, so is the bird. And what do the Inuit create with their found materials? Spearheads and arrowheads, knife blades, chisels, harpoons—instruments to help them trap and kill, so that they can continue to survive.

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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