Sunday, October 19, 2008

Predators: a poet's eye view of Gordon Grice's The Red Hourglass

"And what haunts me, is that in all the faces of all the bears ... I discover no kinship, no understanding, no mercy. I see only the overwhelming indifference of nature. To me, there is no such thing as a secret world of the bears. And this blank stare speaks only of a half-bored interest in food." Werner Herzog -- Grizzly Man

"We arrogantly see nonhuman animals as innocents at play in nature's temple, potential victims of evil invating humans. But cats kill for fun, wolves slaughter more than they can eat, and pigs destroy the vegetation they depend on. Many animals are just as intemperate and greedy as we are, though we accomplish more in the way of destruction." Gordon Grice, The Red Hourglass, pp 180

Gordon Grice's book The Red Hourglass covers seven different types of predators: black widows, mantids (mantises), rattlesnakes, tarantulas, pigs, canids (canines), and recluse spiders. He starts with the crackling, brush-fire sound of the widow's slovenly-looking web and its startlingly destructive abilities (it can kill a horse), then moves through the mantid's creepy, mamalian properties (one of the few bugs that hunts by sight, and can swivel its head), and the fearsome size of a rattlesnake bolus – the writhing ball they make before hibernation in their den. Eventually Grice arrives at both the disturbing assertion that "a pig will eat anything" and the outline of our long and troubled history with canids of all stripe. This is a creepy book.

Grice's main intentions seem to be twofold: first, he chooses creature we Americans know, or are familiar with (no lions or sharks) to remind us of the predatory instincts of animals right near us, and second he describes these creatures always in the context of associations with human behavior, refusing to let us see these creatures as evil, or malformed. The pig is dangerous because the pig thinks like us. The mantid is creepy because we can observe in it behavior similar to our own.

I feel like this books fits well as an answer to all of my poet's fictions about walking in the woods, and "reconnecting" with "nature" (where were we otherwise?) Though he was often accused of supporting it, Frost (our last well-known nature poet, I suppose) fought that stereotype as much as anyone. But it persists. The trouble is, of course, that we are just as much a part of nature as the birds and insects that surround us, and pretending we aren't is not much different than the prairie dog believing that her giant den is somehow separate from the rest of the world. Grice makes this point abundantly clear as he shows us animals that both feed on us, and upon which we feed – he reveals human predatory (and canibalistic) instincts by outlining the most gruesome practices of seven of the more gruesome species that inhabit our everyday world.

What's best about this book is that it isn't really about the predators we remember to fear. A visit to the zoo to see leopards and sharks may keep a child up a night or two, but heading out to the farm and accidentally stumbling on a mother sow eating her young will give you the fantods for weeks. It's not because you fear for your life, necessarily (although empathy for the litter is a part of it), but because it's so easy to see yourself in either part of that brutal game. And it's good to be reminded that the game is happening all around us, not just in far away jungles between hunters and pack animals.

Lions are scary, sure, but for most people, especially in the U.S., there's not much chance of running into one that isn't caged, or trapped behind glass. Wander out into your garage, or backyard, and you're likely to find black widows or recluse spiders, or possible a rattlesnake, depending on where you live. You'll certainly see some kind of monster, back in the dark corners of the basement, wrapping a few struggling bugs up in webbing with careful deliberation, delicately biting them, and waiting for their insides to liquefy.

Chances are good you've heard a coyote howl, or have seen a tarantula, or a live pig. And, as Grail makes clear, these are some of the most dangerous and deadly animals, to others and even to us sometimes. They are also amazing and beautiful. Grail's descriptions of the widow up close, or the lean readiness of a wild boar outline just how beautiful nature can make a creature.

Reading this book was difficult. Grail has a sparse, poet's prose, fluid and quick-paced, and his descriptions are beautiful. But the subject matter had me often holding the book by its edges, as if I were afraid it was going to bite me. Descriptions of necrotic lesions caused by recluse spiders, or the pack hunting tactics of even a tame dog had me cringing. And yet. The larger point that he makes – that creatures often brutally torture each other, causing unnecessary pain for fun and species advancement, is a good one to remember. In my view, nature is both beautiful and brutal. Ignoring either one does little justice to the importance of the other. Grail's book is great in that it helps me not forget.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

No Matter What I Write, the Tao is Silent

being sort of a (not really) review of Barbara Sprout's Primal Myths

One of the first myths in my life that I took seriously, that I believed in and made my own was Lao Tzu's Tao Te Ching. The edition I have is an over-sized book, with black and white nature photography, Chinese characters on one side and the translations, by Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English on the other. The form and layout of the book, its mysteriousness on one hand (side), and the sparse, clean language on the other hand (side), are tied up deeply with the content — Tzu's thoughts on mystery and clarity, the habits of water and the methods of kings. This, for me, has become a primal myth, and a centering force in my life. Even now, I have a hard time judging the quality of different translations. They all seem inferior to the one I have read and reread throughout my life, beginning in middle school and high school.

Myths can be provocative. I believe they need to reach us early, or at least during a period of intense questioning, if they are to become important, and not merely "useful" for a writer. When I first read this book, the first lines "The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao, / The name that can be named is not the eternal name." I felt that here was something I needed to keep deep inside me if I was going to understand it. It was not going to be something I could talk much about, or speak with others about. Speaking would, as Tzu says, limit my understanding. For these words to transform me, I had to consume them. I had to read them as if they were the key to understanding the universe (they are), and then I had to bury that key as deep inside me as possible, so that it would affect my entire being (it has). Otherwise, I felt, the words would be only words, written by a fallible human being, and I would have to evaluate them, and look for the humanness, and they would lose all effect. If I began to talk about, or try to explain the book, even to myself, I would not understand the Tao, but only my own explanation, which would never be enough.

Soon enough I began to come across other translations of the book. I started to understand that, as this was a translation, and since even the original was a translation of an experience — Tzu's own translations of his experience and understandings — that my best option would be to read closely, then to leave the book behind, and search for my own experiences of the Way — the Tao. This is, I think, the real, best, most vital effects of myth. Myth points a way to understand the world. But it is only a set of instructions — a guide for a practice. You cannot understand the myth unless you practice it. You cannot be moved by it unless you make it personal. And the practice is the way you adopt and solidify the myth.

Barbara Sprout, in her introduction to the book Primal Myths, makes a case that even the myths we don't literally believe in anymore affect our values — as evidence, she takes the Judeo-Christian creation myth (adam and eve) and shows how the values set forth it in (God giving Adam body and life) affect our western understanding of the body as sacred, divine gift made in God's image. I'm not sure if I would call myself a Taoist, but in this way the Tao has (and continues to) influence(d) my life. My sense of self is of one who is most successful overcoming obstacles through yielding. When I am unsure what to do, I take stock of my surroundings, and then make efforts to "align" myself with my "world" — to allow the universe to direct me, to "attend fully" and "be supple" to be able to do nothing, to receive the heavy winds like a palm tree and still stand. All this comes from a deep-seated sense of the workings of the universe as outlined by Lao Tzu.

And, of course, it follows that this affects my writing in great and terrible ways. On the most basic level, of course, the Tao Te Ching is a book of poems. A book of poems that I read deeply and seriously as a young kid. To say this influenced me to become a poet is to say very little. I don't all my own reasons for doing things but it could well be that I am only still writing poetry so fervently, because of this book. Also, I have a tendency to reach for the great and sweeping wise pronouncement when writing. It's easy to see where this comes from. I search — constantly — to write something as filling, as powerful, as world-organizing, as this book.

Of course that doesn't mean that I am now unavailable to other people's myths. Christian myth figures heavily into my value system (as it does to almost all of us). I remain fascinated by Greek, Roman, and Nordic myths that are always peeking in around the edges of culture. And I'm fascinated by myths that are near utterly unfamiliar to me — African and Vedic myths, for instance. In Sprout's book, which is as complete a collection of creation myths as I've seen, the Dogon myth, with its themes of ruined purity, numerology and spatial arrangement, food distribution and architectural symbolism is fascinating. I'd like to write a poem or several that incorporates some of those ideas. But the ideas feel interesting only at arm's length — like a curious story I would like to read more of. But the stories Sprout collects don't feel, in any sense, real. If I make the decision to use African, or Native American or Vedic mythology when writing, is a choice I can make. But I feel like it will always feel a little bit shoved-in. A little cold. I cannot make the decision to draw on the Tao Te Ching however. It is deeply a part of me. To some degree, it is present in everything I write.

Monday, October 13, 2008


If nests and shells were without significance, their image would not be so easily or imprudently synthesized.

Images that are too clear ... become generalities and for that reason block the imagination.
-- Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard

I can't stop thinking about snails making their homes by rolling over and over in ever-hardening spit. In the mornings, I have allergies, and am often very clogged up. I'll lie in bed, tossing and turning, trying to find a way of resting in which I can breathe. My eyes water a little, and even if I sit up and blow my nose, it comes right back — a seemingly endless supply of snot welling up and threatening to seal off my nasal passages. Maybe I'm part snail. I wonder how the snails make it — what combination of vegetable matter or fungus, or whatever dissolves to create the sticky, thick slime that the snails use to roll up a carapace for themselves. And it's amazing to think that snot from a slug, rolled and dried, can form the delicately patterned, vaguely mathematic-seeming, thin thing of beauty — at once both a protection and camouflage from predators.

I was in Paris once. The particulars aren't important, but I had a lot of time, and more spending money than I knew what to do with. I am an adventurous eater. There, I discovered snail shells as a site for delicacies — little cups of sweet brown meat dowsed in liquid butter and herbs. Like perfect bowls of stew for gnomes. This is a different sort of beauty, but one no less compelling. Part of what is so interesting to me about this is the way that setting changes everything. I had no problem seeing what the waiter set down before me — a platter of tiny shells dribbled in butter sauce, a tiny fork — as food. And in that way, the lightly burnt shells, sweet-smelling and full of food are beautiful. But when I see snails in a garden, I do not think of them as edible in any way. But they are no less beautiful.

The other day, during a walk in the woods, I came across a slug, munching amiably on top of a mushroom. Feeling a little bold, I reached down and poked at the slug. They're surprisingly resistant — given that they look pretty much like bags of slime. They are strong, and do not move easily. When you touch a slug, it does not attack, or release some unpleasant smell to make you go away. It doesn't exactly ignore you either. Instead it stops eating, stops moving, and hunkers down, prepared to resist you to the best of its ability, but utterly unprotected. If I were a bird, it would be eaten already. How has a creature like this not been eaten to extinction?

For some reason I'm always predisposed to like snails. I will pick them up. Set them elsewhere. Let them crawl across the back of my hand. Slugs fill me with revulsion. In the Pacific Northwest, I saw banana slugs as big as a thumb and finger. I have pictures. Is it because they are exposed that I dislike them so much? Being sticky, it's harder to find a clean place to grasp them. They squirm and struggle in between your fingers. It seems like it would be difficult for them to keep clean, but given their habitat — rotting vegetation on the forest floor — maybe that's not a concern. A snail, however, can easily keep clean within its shell. I identify with the values of the snail. Being able to choose, I would spit myself a shell as well.