Death of a Naturalist & The Skunk

For this month’s animal poems post, it is with great pleasure I direct your attention to two by the late, great Seamus Heaney.

Death of a Naturalist” is one of those poems you pretty much just have to call perfect. It’s evocative, its language is wonderful and trips off the tongue, its images are vibrant, the line breaks thrill with their little tensions, the combination of sentimental nostalgia and gross realism delights — you know, perfect.  The love of words underlying it all, and the personality that comes through, the humor and respect for the place and time under discussion. I love especially the words, love saying out loud lines like “I would fill jampots full of the jellied / Specks to range on the window-sills at home” and “All the year the flax-dam festered in the heart / Of the townland; green and heavy headed” and oh I could go on.Continue reading “Death of a Naturalist & The Skunk”

“The Bear”

One of the ways the world can be divided is into people who love Galway Kinnell’s “The Bear” and people who hate it. It seems to be one of those poems that sparks little middle-ground reaction. The first time I read it I found it so very gripping, and moved with the poem. Occasionally on re-reads I admit I get mostly just the intellectual tickle of satisfaction from the last couple of lines, the transformation of the hunter’s transformation into metaphor, but other times, particularly hearing or reading it aloud, the whole thing still works wonders on me.

If you haven’t read it before, please do, and see which camp you fall into. Feel free to comment below. It’s available both in print and this video from 1973 of Kinnell reading it aloud.

“The Sparrows of Iowa” — Laura Jensen

One of the many pleasures possible in poetry is seeing something you’ve seen your whole life in a new way. Such is one of the gifts of Laura Jensen’s  “The Sparrows of Iowa,” published in her amazing (and hard to get ahold of) 1977 book Bad Boats.  From the second of three stanzas:

[…] for the sparrows
of Iowa, listed as if no more exist.
They have long been with all of us,
chattering the bushes, ponderous,
and never been vermin. Their legs
are the dry bit you snip absently
from a houseplant — […]

How exactly perfect is that for a bird’s leg, “the dry bit you snip absently from a houseplant”! This is one of those poems that I won’t be able to avoid thinking of when I see a sparrow hopping about from now on.

Later on in the poem (which is three stanzas, 21 lines total), Continue reading ““The Sparrows of Iowa” — Laura Jensen”

“Look, you have milk”

Whoops! So there went June I guess.

But now back to it — here’s this month’s Animal poem, “Sister Cat” by Frances Mayes (on that Poetry 180 project site Billy Collins did during his Poet Laureate tenure — I recommend exploring, lots of good poems there).

This is one of those enclosed poems, a type of poem that I frequently resist — I tend to like it less when a metaphor’s expansion is too fully explained. But I like it here, I think because such a cat’s cries are both familiar enough to me and strange enough in themselves to carry the burden of such explanations/abstractions.

The human’s firm reaction to the finicky cat, “Look, you have milk. / I clink my fingernail / Against the rim. Milk.” is spot-on, and I like the progression of analogous movements, “the light on / when it is on,” the other Frances, then back to the cat with those lovely short sentences so evocative of a cat’s movement, “She stalks / The room. She wants.” And the ending, back to the cat’s, and therefore ours too, otherworldly and impossible desires, “Milk / Beyond milk. World beyond / This one, she cries.”

That ending, by the way, is a good example of the power of word order. Switched around, “She cries / World beyond this one” just has nothing going for it. The tension of the line break “World beyond / This one” brings the emphasis to both “beyond” and “this one,” and it works so much better to end with the focus back on the physical cat rather than the abstract idea.

“The Work” in Andrew Feld’s Raptor

For this month’s animal poem, “The Work,” from Andrew Feld’s new collection Raptor.

Andrew Feld’s Raptor, which I picked up after reading Pamela Alexander’s review of it in the latest FIELD, is full of poems (which range from the heavily featured birds of prey to folks on their way to Sturgis to Johnny Carson) exhibiting excellent control of language, deft images, underlying but controlled rage, simultaneous emotional closeness and observational distance, and unexpected precise edginess.  Before I get to “The Work,” which along with “Cascade Raptor Center: Capture” and one of the Sturgis poems, “There,” are my favorites of many strong contenders, a couple sample stanzas from “The Art of Falconry,” which follow mention of an analogy of late-life marriage:Continue reading ““The Work” in Andrew Feld’s Raptor”

Tyger Tyger

This month’s Animal poem: William Blake’s “The Tyger”

The first four lines of Blake’s “The Tyger,” or at least the first two, are so firmly rooted in the canon they’ve nudged its way into the common lexicon. “Tyger tyger burning bright / In the forests of the night.” But how quickly after 10th grade English (unless you’re teaching same) do we forget the rest. Or I did at least. But after looking at it awhile again I find “The Tyger” feels very fresh to me, a couple hundred years of being a classic poem notwithstanding. The wondering tone of the questions, the awe, and most especially, that at the end of stanza after stanza of questions, the speaker is still stuck on the first question asked — who could have made something like a tiger? (with one small but important  change).

A teacher told me once that part of the exquisite energy of those first lines is that the last syllable is missing — it should be “brightly.” Instead we bite off the end of “burning bright” and there’s a thudding pause before the next line, that’s matched by “of the night” — we hear the same missing syllable after “night” even though you would never say “of the nightly.” But that missing rhyme holds such force in the ear. “Tyger tyger burning bright, [thud] / In the forests of the night [thud].” Continue reading “Tyger Tyger”

Theory of Beauty (Grackles on Montrose)

February’s Animal Poem: “Theory of Beauty (Grackles on Montrose)” by Mark Doty, from the new section in Fire to Fire: New and Selected Poems (2009).

“Theory of Beauty (Grackles on Montrose)” is a thoroughly satisfying descriptive poem (it is of course redundant to say Doty poem and great description in the same sentence), full of sounds. Not all that many poems have a lot of noises, necessarily. Car horns and dog snoring and through-the-wall radio ads and all the rest — it’s noticeable when a poem really pays attention to them.

“Theory of Beauty (Grackles on Montrose)” begins with a place-setting, “Eight o’clock, warm Houston night /  and in the parking lot the grackles / hold forth royally, in thick trees.” (This, by the way, is what a grackle looks like.) Three lines and the scene is set, complete with the beginning of the birds’ characterization, with “hold forth royally.”

The main delight of this poem is, of course, Continue reading “Theory of Beauty (Grackles on Montrose)”

“Snow Leopards at the Denver Zoo”

For this inaugural monthly Animal Poem post, a look at Snow Leopards at the Denver Zoo” by William Matthews.

It’s a gorgeous poem from his 1973 Rising and Falling collection, which is one of my “desert island” books. The immediate beauty is of course in the largest metaphor — the snow leopards “jump / down and jump up, water being / poured,” a visual image of their physicality that is reinforced, with a heavy emphasis on the endangered aspect of the snow leopard, in the last three lines of the poem (the “them” refers to his children): “I save them whatever I can keep / and I pour it from hand to hand.” But in between that introductory image and the end, man what a lot happens in this 18-line poem.Continue reading ““Snow Leopards at the Denver Zoo””