Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Emily Dickinson: Knowing Animals, I

Some people think it odd that I laugh when I hear about a tourist that's trampled to death while trying to get a closeup of a 2,000-pound buffalo in Yellowstone Park.

But it's okay, because my laugh is general, not specific. It's not the tragic but timely demise of Uncle Henry from Dubuque, Iowa (to cite a recent incident) that amuses me. It's humans' inability to see and respect animals as animals. 

I fully expect my pets -- one well-meaning aging dog, five contemplative cats, and two foster kittens who have pretty much turned into grownups while awaiting adoption -- to act like animals. 

That's why I start every day by getting down on my knees and thanking my dog for not chewing my face off while I slept.

On the other hand, I understand how animals seemingly attach themselves ramora-like to what we call our spirit. I grew up on a farm, and I had "pet" skunks, bantam hens (and a quail adopted by a hen), cows, rabbits, pigs, dogs and cats. I loved them. I suffered when I lost them, esp. when that meant they were off to the stockyard, never to return.

As I write, a foster kitten sits on my desk next to the mouse (even he understands it's not really a mouse) keeping me company. A friend said the little guy was my Muse, so please blame him for the flaws in this essay.
My Muse ponders proteins.
So animals can make us love them or make us their meal, but for now let's give them a little space and look at them from an upstairs bedroom window in Amherst, Massachusetts, a window through which Emily Dickinson saw the world like no one else.

To hear her wry meditation on our relationship with the animal kingdom, please open your Dickinson hymnals to #328 and sing the first stanza with me to the tune of "Yellow Rose of Texas" or the theme of "Gilligan's Island" -- either will work:

A Bird came down the Walk— 
He did not know I saw— 
He bit an Angleworm in halves 
And ate the fellow, raw, 

The sense of the stanza is simply "I saw a bird eat a worm on the sidewalk." But something is just not right. The description is more Gary Larson and Alfred Hitchcock than John James Audubon.

The bird "came down" instead of "flew up," the latter seeming more birdlike. "Came" is a vague, see-nothing verb and doesn't tell us anything about his means of transportation. He wasn't on the walk, then he came down it. That is all.

Furthermore, the bird is on a "Walk," and not in a tree or sky, his more familiar habitats. Walks are for humans.

Line 2, "He did not know I saw," suggests a bit of spying or harmless voyeurism, the way we almost always observe animals. We gaze into their bedrooms, bathrooms and dining rooms and watch while they act out their instincts, and they do not know we see. 

Or we go to a zoo and stare at them through their prison bars, gawking, yes, but also meditating, mesmerized, sensing a connection between our animal selves, maybe even craving that connection. (For a thought-provoking piece on people and zoos, see Diane Ackerman's "Why We Love Zoos.")

In this poem, the narrator is watching from the dining room as the bird enjoys a morning meal. Perhaps you learned in some introductory literature course that eating together in stories tends to suggest a communion, often an ironic one, such as the late night snack in Psycho, which also includes a bird (Marion Crane).

This is no communion. Being watched while you eat (or sleep) is creepy. Furthermore, the bird's meal is repugnant to most humans not currently on some lame TV reality show, one that forces its participants to survive off beetle juice, bat wings and their own urine while a cameraman munching on a melting Sno-Cone looks on.

The bird's entrée, an "Angleworm," is probably an earthworm, esp. as it is used for fishing (angling). The bird seems to have good manners: He eats delicately, cutting the worm in half instead of gobbling it down whole.

Fine. But in line 4 he eats it raw, his animal palate biting back at his human etiquette. Then Emily (the name I choose to give the narrator, if it's all the same with you), names his meal a "fellow." Is the worm the bird's fellow man, a fellow earthling, a companion? Is the worm Emily's?  

Or did Emily use "fellow" to nudge "companion" a little too close to "comestible," inviting us to think of Hannibal Lecter "having an old friend for dinner"?

Then the cozy proximity of "fellow, raw," separated only by an oddly placed comma, a comma that adds stress to already stressed syllables, so that we hear them like this:  "He ate the fellow (pause for effect -- wait for it) raw."

Raw only evokes shock or disgust if we are lulled into anthropomorphizing, i.e., projecting our humanness onto the bird, the way people do when they dress up their cats and dogs as Santa Claus or Lord Voldemort.

(There were no Mack trucks when Emily wrote this, but if there were, I'm guessing she would rather be run over by one than to clothe an animal in human garb. I would. Maybe.)

Before we go on to the next stanza, I'm gonna have to ask you to reread the first one, this time aloud. Notice all those dental and nasal sounds, hard consonants combined with a humming, vibrating n's and m's? 

This somewhat cacophonous alternation harmonizes with the stanza's sense: It's jarring, but not disruptively so, just enough to catch our attention. There has been a misunderstanding, one we can't take too seriously, thanks to the puckish Emily dropping "fellow" into the mix.

Well, that's one stanza. I'm pretty sure the rest of the poem is worth a look, too.

I'll see what I can do.

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