Thursday, February 2, 2012

A tyrant and a bear in the muse

There is a poem by W.H. Auden which has been the haunt for many a literature student in Papua New Guinea for some years, especially around this time. The poem is so straight forward we get the feeling that it does not say much except that it was written by Auden, a great name in twentieth century poetry.

A closer examination of it surprises us in the manner Alfred Lord Tennyson’s The Eagle does or Salvatore Quasimodo’s Ancient Winter, along with those other shorter and intriguing pieces by Percy Bysshe Shelley and William Blake.

But the thing about Auden’s poem is that it reflects the twentieth and twenty-first centuries so realistically that we cannot ignore it. The poem is simply titled Epitaph on a Tyrant and quoted in full this is how it looks and sounds like:

Perfection, of a kind, was what he was after,
And the poetry he invented was easy to understand;
He knew human folly like the back of his hand,
And was greatly interested in armies and fleets;
When he laughed, respectable senators burst with laughter,
And when he cried the little children died in the streets.

We sense the simplicity of the poem. And that is the dramatic aspect of it all. And the drama of the poem lies in just this one verb – “interest” (line 4). That, of course, makes us feel extra cautious about the whole poem. Even a simple poet may hold some keen interest in mechanical engineering, for example. Reading the poem and then pointing fingers at someone would therefore seem inappropriate as we could be pointing at ourselves in the mirror. And that is the irony, the very substance of the poem.

Yet the tyrant, so-called, is so simple and lovable in appearance we could all move forward and give him a nice little bear-hug.

Talking of nice little bear-hugs the next poem that comes to storyboard’s mind is the one by Galway Kinnell called The Bear (Body Rags, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1967). This poem is a ripper. It has seven stanzas or thoughts to it.

In summary the poem talks about a hunter who wounds a grizzly bear with simple hand-made instruments like fox bones and having thus slowed the movement of the beast slightly sets out to hunt it down, if even he himself dies along the way. In the end, when the hunt is all over, and he is successful, he feels like he must get up and dance but lies still. Both the hunter and the bear become one, as it were.

The whole poem looked at in detail reads as follows. In the first stanza the persona in his stature of civic orderliness notices a certain irregularity (“some fault in the old snow”), so he peers downwards and in doing so senses the odour of the bear, a beastly or bestial presence.

In the second stanza he manufactures a lure consisting of blubber and in it the whittled tips of a fox rib all of which he freezes in the snow and leaves “on the fairway of the bears.” When he notices the disappearance of the lure he knows he has struck luck and he thus sets out after the beast searching for signs that it has been wounded. He does see “the first, tentative, dark splash on the earth” and that sets him running, “dragging [himself] forward with bear-knives in [his] fists”.

The third stanza, which is the key turn of the whole drama of the hunter and the hunted, appears provocative but holistic at once. “On the third day I begin to starve/at nightfall I bend down as I knew I would/at a turd sopped in blood/and hesitate, and pick it up/and thrust it in my mouth, and gnash it down/and rise/and go on running.”

In the fourth stanza, which is the seventh and final day of reckoning, the hunter sees his object of pursuit far ahead, “the carcass upturned, the heavy fur riffling in the wind.” He walks up to it, sees the pathetic little eyes, the somewhat stunned stare and flared nostrils, “catching perhaps the first taint of [the hunter] as he died.” It is a piteous, melancholy kind of encounter for man and beast. The man “hacks a ravine” in the beast’s thigh to eat and drink; he then tears it down the whole length, opens it up, climbs in, shuts it as he would a door after him, for it is cold, and sleeps.

In the fifth stanza, the hunter dreams “of lumbering flatfooted over the tundra, stabbed twice from within.” He too becomes the wounded and the hunted. Even in a dream he notices that he too is splattering, leaving a long blood trail behind him. And he knows that he too will be followed, no matter which way he turns, “no matter which parabola of bear-transcendence, which dance of solitude, which gravity-clenched leap, which trudge, which groan.”

In the sixth stanza he knows he too must fall “on his stomach that has tried so hard to keep up.” Thenceforth, there is the problem of digesting bear blood, bear bone, the lot. Himself so mortally wounded need only lie back and smell the “wretched odour of the bear blow across his sore, tongue lolled into song or screech,” until he thinks he must get up and dance but lies still. And sleep he must. This is the most intriguing part of the poem, which spells out what some philosophers would refer to as “the sleep of the just.”

Stanza seven talks of the hunter’s or persona’s awakening. There is promise of normalcy restored. The landscape of snow country looks as enchanting as ever, with the exception of not just one, but two, three, four, and more, bears, slowly approaching him, licking paws and furs with indifferent looks in his direction, taking all the time there is in the world. The poem ends with the words: “...the rest of my days I spend wandering: wondering what, anyway, was that sticky infusion, that rank flavour of blood, that poetry, by which I lived.”

These are two great poems. It does not matter how we read them to enjoy or be intrigued by. But storyboard feels the key word to keep in mind in the first poem is “interest” – a very simple, innocent sounding human sentiment. In the second poem we go beyond “interest” and enter the realms of “instinct” where the key word we note is “blubber”, denoting fat or meat as lures used on those senses that are less wary, even dormant. The lure or “blubber” also becomes the “fairway” of the persona’s, especially in that intuitive desire to wound in order to pursue and to continue “wandering”, “wondering”, “over the world”.

The second poem is highly metaphorical, and it too has become the haunt for many a literature student in Papua New Guinea.

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