Animals in Poems

Yesterday, I started reading Wait by C.K. Williams, while it is too early for me to say whether or not I would recommend the book, for the most part I’ve enjoyed it.  However, there is one poem I going to nit-pick, “Rats.”  Perhaps what frustrated me the most was how much I liked the first section.  There the situation is set up, during a drought two river rats show up who “sallied into the garden/ to snitch the crusts/ we’d set/ out for the birds//But still, who/ knows in what filth/ and fetor and rot/ down in their dark// world they were/ before?”

The conflict between humans and nature is one of my favorite subjects to read about.   This preference maybe in part because I wanted to be a zoologist when I was a child and watched any nature documentary I could get my hands on.  Two of the best poems that deal with this subject are William Stafford’s “Traveling Through the Dark,” and Maxine Kumin’s “Woodchucks.”  In these two poems you have speakers who encounter animals, and this confrontation makes the speakers realize something about themselves and their relationship to said wildlife.

In Stafford’s poem, the speaker comes across a dead deer that has been hit by a car.  The speaker points out, “It is usually best to roll them into the canyon:/ that road is narrow; to swerve might make more dead,” showing that he is concerned with the welfare of wildlife.  But as he is about to roll the doe off the cliff, he discovers that “her side was warm; her fawn lay there waiting/ alive, still, never to be born./ Beside that mountain road I hesitated.”  Ultimately, the speaker is able to do nothing and pushes the doe off the cliff.  While brief, “Traveling Through the Dark,” shows how even those who care about animals may not be able to save them.  It may be dark and fatalistic, but it ultimately shows the complex relationship humans have with nature.

Kumin’s poem is even darker. In the “Woodchucks” the speaker is actively trying to exterminate the animals.  We see the speakers justifications, “They brought down the marigolds as a matter of course/ and then took over the vegetable patch/ nipping the broccoli shoots, beheading the carrots.// The food from our mouths, I said, righteously.”  Kumin does a wonderful job of showing the brutality of the speakers actions from the very fist line, “Gassing the woodchucks didn’t turn out right.”  She ultimately shows how people justify brutality (whether it be against animals or other human beings), and we in turn understand how we ourselves may justify violence.

As I read “Rats,” I recognized similarities to “Woodchucks.”   I was interested in seeing the conflict between the speaker and the rats develop.  In the second section Williams expands the breadth of the poem to a global scale “we’re frightened./ The planet all/ but afire, glaciers// dissolving, deserts/ on the march.”  At this point I’m still with the poem, even excited; as global warming increases animals are losing their habitats and more people will encounter them, and I’m glad that someone is writing about it. Williams mentions a president and CEOs denying global warming, and while I’m suspicious of overtly political poems (specifically when it is used to alienate those that are on the other side of issue rather than to persuade them), in this case it still seemed pertinent to the poem.  Then I read the lines “The rats// rove where they will/ now; shining and fat,/ they appropriated/ the whole lawn.”  Oh, I thought as I read this, the rats are only metaphors for politicians and CEOs.

I couldn’t help but feel that a disservice had been done to the rats, the actual animals.  As Williams establishes in the first part of the poem, the rats are river rats who show up because they’ve lost their habitat.  Humans have driven them to this confrontation.  I think that it is unfair to compare them (or any animal no matter how disgusting one finds them) to politicians. As habitats are destroyed humans are going to find themselves sharing spaces with wildlife, and some of these animals maybe repulsive to us for whatever reason.  I don’t think animals should be condemned due to our preference for other cuter or prettier species.

Of course, part of the reason I being so hard on “Rats” is that I just don’t like when poems conflate humans and animals, whether it be on a psychological or spiritual level.  One of the things that I learned from all those nature documentaries is that human beings cannot know what the internal life of an animal is nor should we judge animals by human moral standards.  It is mistake to give the animal human emotions—it belittles the animal.  The rat is not a thief just because you left the bread crumbs for the birds.

I’ve heard dozens of poems about encounters with deer where the speaker has an epiphany, where that animal’s only reason or purpose for being in the forest is the spiritual enlightenment of some suburbanite on hike.  While these people may love and value the animal, they still have a paternalistic attitude towards it.  They may wish to protect them, but at the same time they feel that the wildlife is there serve them.  The writing about encounters with wild animals that I prefer is when the speakers recognizes that what they feel is not necessarily shared by the animal and questions what effect, even those who care for wildlife, they have on the animals they’re encountering.  We may love nature, but our very presence, no matter how loving or well-meaning, maybe harmful.

As I said at the beginning of this post, this is mostly a nitpick and otherwise I’ve enjoyed Williams’ book so far.  I suspect that I’m being a little unfair here, but I still think rats are far superior to politicians.

Much cuter than a politician.


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