In The Power of Myth, Joseph Campbell talks about the animal as teacher and guide. The ‘animal other’ – as co-existent, strange and intimate fellow-being – can behave as a kind of psychic impulse in mythopoetic work, capable of nudging reader and writer to contemplate the relationship between self and other, human and nonhuman. ‘Whatever the Palaeolithic shaman experienced on entering the caves, is visited by us today, nightly in our sleep,’ says Campbell. The almost 30,000-year-old panthers and bison, bears and ibex are still speaking down there, even though we’ve yet to work out exactly what it is they’re saying…
But it’s by day that birds come to me. As a poet, the animal other (more often than not a bird) performs as a kind of wayfarer on a journey into the dark forest of the 21st-century Western mind. I write ‘about’ birds because I’m not a bird. I write about them because I don’t understand them – their flying lives, their feathered lives – and, frankly, because I don’t have a say in the matter: birds arrive in my poems without my having consciously chosen them. In this era of endings, it seems only natural that they should speak of death and violence. But alongside this, they seem ‘to make visible that which could not be perceived by the ordinary senses, and [to] create a way into the realm of transfigured humanity.’ The animal other can open the doors of perception and invite readers and writers in.
Here are two poems by Susan Richardson (‘Metamorphosis’, Creatures of the Intertidal Zone, Cinnamon Press, 2007) and ‘Blodeuwedd in a Parka’, (Where the Air is Rarefied, Cinnamon Press, 2011); and two poems by me (‘Bird-Woman’, runner up in the 2013 Wigtown Poetry Competition, and ‘Swan’, previously unpublished). All four poems explore ways in which the animal other engages us in the age-old and more-relevant-than-ever conversation about what it means to be human, and what it means to be animal.
To begin with, nothing drastic.
The odd cold bath, air con on max,
the utter absence of shivers.
Then, the skin tingles, each pore forcing
the shaft of a feather forth, like a lid
with a push-through straw.
I go right off garlic, crisps, samosas,
bright red curtains, Gaughin prints.
If I must stay indoors, I want plain
white tiles, a single chilled porcelain sink.
And oh, the fingers. Useless, as if mittened.
And stretched, the tips skimming the floor.
Scissors, chopsticks, forks – all binned.
Breasts blend with belly, waist, hips.
I’m lugging a two-fifty-litre rucksack
in an outsize black wetsuit and wellies.
My tears taste of fish.
Fresh fears keep me from sleeping.
The flecked throats of bull seals.
Ice melt. Oil slicks.
I make a nest from the last
strands in my hairbrush and what I once
knew as pencils, and string.
Soon I must push
this hard new truth between my legs
and hatch it.
Nothing is yet in its true form – C.S. Lewis
The bird-woman is in the field
in her blue dress, small bird
wrapped in a rag of cotton in her hand,
legs like twigs, throat between songs.
The sunlight is squeezing her,
squeezing the field-grass
until her blue dress is a distant boat
and the field is the sea,
somewhere used to slipping boundaries.
Then two men, hands in pockets,
feet sinking into the grey-black of the road.
The sun is hot and high and they wade
into the field, lose themselves
to the waist in straight, green blades.
The bird-woman is scuffing the soft, loose earth,
making a bowl for the body.
She lays the bird
with its broken neck
and covers it with clover,
small red flowers,
When the men capsize her
the pleats of her dress unfurl.
The ground takes their weight.
To curl gracefully
away from people.
To know the silver-lining of the flood at night,
the hidden depths of fields.
To slake all honking at dawn
in a choir of ghost-birds and grass pipes.
To turn the whole world into a synecdoche
for soulfulness and/or indifference.
To have a neck like a Dutch pump,
an albino eel, a Little Miss Uppity.
To have a face like a flag
for someone else’s futility.
To live on white goods,
matchboxes, Valentine’s cards.
To swim stoically, insubordinately – yes, both –
towards the tossed crusts of kids.
To know nothing about bitterness
except sourgrass and apple pips.
To understand white noise
better than any human.
To snap fingers.
To gulp toddlers.
When the year turns she flies in,
lily white amongst the river reeds
and the boys knew to stay away,
her power neck, her mute beak.
The women pace the shore
from first light, feet like eyes,
but it’s dusk before they find them,
clothes torn, skin in tatters,
faces peeled like apples. The mother
only knows them by their hands.
BLODEUWEDD IN A PARKA
i am winterstill
a mountain aven
i am a flirt of white
in the cave of the raven
for the birthburst
of the sun
i am a tease
of roots nudging
the rocks trying
i’m a flutter
of eight lashes
round a yellow eye
at the sky as i seize
and now i am taken
by the shaman,
xxxxxxxxxxmixed with milkvetch,
birch, moss campion
to make petalflesh
I am the wife of Ilukaq.
I stew berries and blubber for him to eat.
I chew sealskin to make soft boots for his feet.
With snow goose feathers, I sweep clean our home.
I carve him totems from the ice-bear’s thigh-bone.
I am another man’s lover,
a man whose touch uncovers
like a caribou licking
up lichen from under the snow.
So what am I to do but harpoon Ilukaq,
leaving him frozen in the only pose he knows –
kissing the lip of the seal’s breathing hole and
xxxxxxxi am xxsnatched
xxxby the xxxxshaman
i hunt rodent dreams,
xxxxxxxxplunder the tundra,
feed them to children,
xxxxxxxxstoke their troubled sleep
i am the famine-owl,
xxxxxxxxa hunger-howl –
the weeping of the people
xxxxxxxxis steepled on my wings
i’m the mood-most-foul
xxxxxxxxof those who fail to claim
the Pole – i’m so mad
xxxxxxxxi could wring my own neck
i am the sadness
xxxxxxxxof the melt –
my featherflecks reflect the eruptions
xxxxxxxxof rock through ice
when i shut
xxxxxxxxmy sundog eyes
i’m shocked to realise
xxxxxxxxthat i’m still here
WRITING ROOT & CLAW: a workshop with Susan and Em
Both write work that is set against the backdrop/foreground of ecological crisis and an awareness of the unravelling of ‘civilisation as we know it’. The workshop won’t engage formally with questions of collapse, but will ask questions about self and other – about the relationship between humans and nonhuman species; about ‘radical intimates’ and ‘strange strangers’ (Timothy Morton). The weekend will be a kind of ecopoetic meditation whereby we don’t just sit inside thinking and writing, but we also walk outdoors, talk round bonfires and scribble notes on the backs of our hands. For more information please visit: http://emstrang.wordpress.com/2014/02/25/writing-root-claw-a-weekend-workshop/
Susan is a Wales-based poet whose most recent collection, Where the Air is Rarefied (Cinnamon Press) is a collaboration with printmaker Pat Gregory on ecological and mythological themes relating to the Far North. Her third collection, skindancing, themed around human-animal metamorphosis and our dys/functional relationship with the wild, will be published in 2015.
Em completed a PhD in Creative Writing (ecological poetry) in December 2013 and is now seeking a publisher for a first collection of poems, Habitude. She is a recent recipient of a New Writer Scotland Award 2014 and teaches Creative Writing in Dumfries prison. She is also the new poetry editor for Dark Mountain.