Monday, July 13, 2009
"The Animals," a poem by Geoffrey Lehmann, caught my attention in a recent publication of The New Yorker. The overall concept of the poem is that we were once animals, so we still have animalistic tendencies and try to abandon some of them. The poem goes through various characteristics and behaviors that we once had when we were animals and then connects how we behave now, now that we are "civilized."
After a little research, I have learned that the poet is Australian, so the choices of animals used in the poem now seem to be quite obvious. I wonder if this helps the reader connect with and understand the poem any better. Here it is.
by Geoffrey Lehmann
A "domesticated bearded dragon $400"
is not my idea of an animal companion.
A calf asleep on a double bed, perhaps,
or a hare with long ears
crouched under a mahogany sideboard,
thumping the floor.
Or a koala that climbed up a four-poster bed
surprising a seventeen-year-old in her nightie.
They were here before us--the animals--
and we were once them.
Without understanding we watched the sunrise
and the coming of night,
registered the changing of seasons
and dew on the leaves that brushed our flanks.
We, the animals,
knew feelings, had a memory,
exchanged sounds and visual cues,
but did not know
what came before
or ask what was to come.
A neighbor sleeps with a wombat in her bed,
and her husband sleeps on the veranda.
Kangaroos watch TV through her sitting-room window.
Bottle-fed joeys get osteoporosis
if the composition of the milk isn't right.
The females make better companions.
With shy brown eyes
they hop along beside you
as you collect mail from the gate at dusk.
We were once them,
and now are their custodians.
They know we are different
and their eyes tell us to keep our promise.
Bill came home after a fortnight away.
Potted plants had been kicked off the veranda,
there was an awful smell,
and the front door was ajar.
Inside the house
chairs were overturned,
papers and cushions trampled on floors,
and in the bathroom,
wedged against the washbasin,
her putrid flesh held together by hide,
Twinkle, a pony.
A tractor winched the body out.
I love how the poet parallels the lives of the animals to the lives of humans. At one point, he almost turns humans into the animals saying that they watch TV and are bottle-fed. We are each assigned different animals as we come from a slew of them, as alluded in the poem.
To go stanza by stanza, the first one seems to show that the poet likes playful animals or those with character. This connects with how he associates with humans too. He doesn't want a flashy one that will cost him a lot of money--one who is materialistic. Animals were not materialistic. They just needed basic things in order to survive. The more primitive (playful and rid of materials) seems to be the most fitting for our poet who seems to be looking for the right "companion."
Next, the poet discusses how we once used to possess animalistic traits that we have since abandoned. We were more in tune with nature, for we had to be in order to survive. Now that we are acculturated, we don't have this connection. We don't watch sunrises or the weather since we are preoccupied with more "civilized" tasks. But still, the animals bask in this pleasure as humans have dropped it long before. The last few lines suggest that knowledge has converted animal to man, and now we must know "why" and what comes next and what happened before. Animals do not take these steps--they simply enjoy the present. Humans are not like this.
The next stanza alludes to animals standing in the place of humans. Again, I think the poet is trying to show how we are similar or how we were once animals. It is easier to see this when animals are doing human-like things.
The next short stanza repeats the author's main point that "we were once the animals" but then concludes that we are their custodians, which is a comical point. We do clean up after them, even their feces. We seem to need to control them and clean them and groom them and place them where we think they should live. Apparently, we now control them even though it might not be our place to. Or is it?
Lastly, the final stanza tells a little story that was subtly introduced at the beginning of the poem. It seems that the woman is sleeping with someone else, here introduced as a wombat. He might be given an animal-like identity since he is acting primitively--he is sleeping with another woman. He has acted on impulse and has abandoned logical thought, a characteristic of animals. The woman's husband, thus, sleeps on the veranda, which is another animal trait. Perhaps men resort to animalistic tendencies when experiencing true, raw emotions (like pain or lust).
Further, a scene is depicted where the house has been destroyed by some kind of beast (obviously man), but those in the house seem to be quite animilistic, yet again. It seems more common that one would come home to a house destroyed by a pet, not a person, unless they are too young to know otherwise, like a toddler. It then seems that the wombat (or the woman herself) has resorted to killing (whether murder or suicide). Killing is another animal behavior that humans often do not resort to. In the animal world, it is merely a means of survival. In the human world, it is immoral and shunned upon. We then need human-made things (i.e. a tractor) to help us clean up the mess. Quite an interesting ending.
I thought the poet used clever techniques to subtly point out the changes humans and undergone from animal to human. I also like how he points out how we are still so similar even though we would never want to acknowledge it. The poet is concise with his message while still allowing for a lot of material and discussion. I think the topic is really interesting and people might have a lot to contribute (as to their own opinions) if this was brought up in some kind of discussion circle. Something to think about anyway.
So, what do you think of "The Animals?"