Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Lives of the Animals

I’ve been reading Lives of the Animals by Robert Wrigley, an American poet who teaches at the University of Oregon. It’s a startling collection, one of the best I’ve read in ages, which combines close observation, an acute mind, a flow of consistently memorable lines, and an ability to move readers (me, at any rate) well beyond what most poets are capable of.

My favourite poem for most of the book was the first one, The Other World, until I reached the penultimate one, Bear Dreams (you’ll notice the text at the link is slightly different from the later version below, which I’ve taken from the book – instructive in itself, as the revisions are all improvements on an already excellent poem).

The poem starts out with a simple scenario – a description of flowers, a bear that looks at “something”.

Bear Dreams

What had seemed to him in June just a few

five-petaled pink wild roses
was in fact a weeks long, slow-moving onslaught

of blossoms. He sees this now, of course,

in September, having come down from the house
to the edge of the deep undergrowth outside his fence,

fence that keeps his dogs inside, fence

the young bear had pushed against just minutes ago, paws resting
on the steel diamond links as it looked

toward something the man couldn't see inside the yard.

At the very click of the back door's latch
the bear bolted away, looked back once

from the narrow gravel road, and was gone.

Nicely done, but nothing remarkable yet, you might think. In a sense, yes. But when you get to the end of the poem, you’ll see how every detail is significant, nothing superfluous. And the “something” that might seem vague becomes central to the poem. It continues:

Beside the man the dogs pant and wait,
and there is nothing else in the world but the song

of a bird he wonders at but will not
seek out, neither in the branches of trees
nor the leaves and plates of the field guide,

preferring to portrait or flight the sourceless singing,
wanting less to unknow some words than their meanings.
The way "rose" suddenly means the bare skin of a girl

ten billion blossoms ago, who'd undressed and let him
look and only look and look at her looking back.
He'd wanted to see the whole soft machine then, all the cogs

and stigmata. She wanted to see him seeing,
and this is what he remembers now, just the half-gone image
of his seeing, not what he saw, though now a twig dangles broken

from the bear's going away, and he sees how
a cool autumn wind sets the whole sprawling rose bush
nodding, and he knows the rose does not love

the bear or the birds or any man,
nor even the early bees that bob inside and pollinate its flowers.

Suddenly the poem drives into a different gear. The speculation on the birdsong leads to a reflection on meaning, and then to the image of the woman who let him “look and only look and look at her looking back”. The reflection on his seeing and what he didn's see snaps back to reality with the parallel image of the broken twig and the absent bear, which draws us back to the roses again. At this point, you might well wonder where he’s going to take this, how can he possibly draw it all together. Well..

What a perfect five-petaled plucked roulette

a wild rose is: started right, she could never love me not.
And though he knows this opulence of hips, this abundance
of fruit and seed, could likely lure another, braver bear,

who'd take the fence and feast to its fill—
which in a bear is almost never—he also knows that
in the long winter's sleep that's coming, a bear too,

even the fullest, most sated of bears, will dream
and see as it could not in the midst of its feasting
all that is no longer there, those seeds of another hunger.

That’s stunning writing, in my opinion. The brave bear would take the rose, take the lot, but even the fullest bear will dream and see what wasn’t there even as it feasted, the "seeds of another hunger."

And then if you read the poem again, all kinds of questions can be asked – “what was the ‘something’ the bear saw inside the yard that the man missed? How does the birdsong (that the man doesn't need to see, preferring the sourceless singing) fit in with all this? How far should we take the rose petals/woman correspondence? What is seen and what isn’t seen in this poem (as ‘seeing’ seems key to it)?

I’m away on holiday for a couple of weeks. So this blog will be on hiatus until I get back. But Bear Dreams is worth coming back to again and again. If you like it, the entire collection won’t disappoint you. There are a few dodgy poems included, but the good ones more than make up for them. Better that than a whole book full of average.


Messalina said...


Thanks for posting this Rob - really excellent writing, as you say. I read this as man refusing to take a step into his real nature - the simpler and purer power of the bear that experiences pleasure (and life) in the moment. Instead of that, he prefers to stay within the fence, think of the rose in terms of a silly game rather than the wonder of its natural beauty, and not to identify the bird. I love that he returns to the bear and observes that it is a rare bear that will jump into the 'false' world within the fence, immediately making the reader think that it is a rare man who will leap outside of it.

My Amazon basket and I thank you :o)

ufukhati said...

I remember Animal Farm (George Orwell) in prose. Animals are all God's creature and sometimes we need to "share" their views and "touch" their minds. I think that is what has been done by many authors. In Malay literature (Malaysia) there are so many stories (in poetry too) depicting animals as human beings.

Paula said...

Just wanted to thank you, Rob, for posting the poem and the link.

pb. said...

Sorry for the unrelated comment;

I am looking for writers' opinions about blogging and the growing social input and collaboration that the web allows. There are a few initial questions in the blog post but any input would be great.

Please pass this on to anyone that you think might be interested.

- thanks for your time.

Aisha said...

Trust you to find a poem like this.
It is amazing.

Thought of you and the lion-tamer poem when I read this on BBC World today:

"Zookeepers in India set up the country's first "care home" for ageing and infirm lions."

Rob Mackenzie said...

Glad you enjoyed the poem, folks, and for your intersting thoughts.
Thanks for the lion story, Aisha - a sad tale in many ways.