Writing About Animals

by Allison Davis

“It’s too late to raise the soul,
some ossified conceit we use to talk about deer
as if we were deer…”
Ira Sadoff, “The Soul”

“Lest anybody spy the blood And ‘you’re hurt’ exclaim!”
Emily Dickinson, “A Wounded Deer—leaps highest”

“Birds. Figure out what they symbolize, and then get them out of the poem.”
Claudia Emerson, in workshop

In my poem “Summer Contours,” a speaker looks out across his suburban neighborhood at night. He hears crickets chirping (technical term: stridulating) and looks up what they are saying. He crudely summarizes their four calls—the calling song, the courting song, the copulatory song, and the warning song—as “come to me, stay, fuck me, fuck off.” This superimposition of human communication onto animal communication is problematic: humans can’t speak for animals and our experiences aren’t interchangeable. While I researched cricket communication, it is still illogical for my speaker to put words into the crickets’ mouths—I mean, wings. At worst, the speaker exploits the crickets as a vehicle to discuss his own relationship problems—the crickets’ value depends on their human utility. At best, the speaker attempts to connect with the crickets as a lonely person may seek acceptance from a stranger at a bar. Navigating the line between these two extremes—exploitation and connection—is difficult, especially as animals can’t let us know when we’ve crossed that line.

It is easy to accidentally exploit, eroticize, or simplify what we cannot understand, to mistake silence as negative space waiting for colonization. Poems about silent, motionless road kill, for example, often present dead animals as conceits rather than victims. There are so many poems about road kill that I no longer question why poetry is the road less traveled—apparently there are deer all over the place. The speaker in Carol Frost’s “To Kill a Deer” shoots the aforementioned deer and “counted her last breaths like a song/of dying and found her dying./I shot her again because her lungs rattled like castanets.” When the car of the drunken teenager in Jon Loomis’ “Deer Hit” collides with a deer, the driver lifts the carcass “like a bride.” In Mark Wunderlich’s “Difficult Body,” the speaker remembers the deer hit by his father as “the body of St. Francis in the Arizona desert.” And in the granddaddy of all roadkill poems, William Stafford’s “Traveling through the Dark,” the speaker spots the ubiquitous dead deer and, wanting to prevent another accident, flatly notes that “It is usually best to roll them into the canyon.”

Where to draw the line between relating to and learning from the environment and exploiting it for sentiment? In all of these dead deer poems, the death of a deer is used as a “safe,” distanced way to meditate upon human mortality. The deer is the prop, not the point.

Yet I admire all of the poets whose work I cited above, and poetry certainly doesn’t have to be ethical nor a speaker likable. Many canonical poems feature animals, such as “Ode To A Nightingale,” “The Raven,” “The Panther,” “The Windhover,” and the poem that made me start writing poetry, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” Animals are inspiring, and it’s psychologically understandable why poets displace emotions, especially complex ones, onto another specie. But heavy poems need to carry their own weight: to use an animal’s suffering as a convenient, dramatic background for a poem about human suffering is lazy. Romanticism that is at the expense of a suffering thing isn’t romantic—it’s exploitative. I always run dead animal poems through the dead human test—unless I’m dealing with absurdist poetry, it doesn’t captivate me to read “I shot the dead baby again because her lungs rattled like castanets” or “It is usually best to roll dead babies into the canyon.” Maybe I’m not a romantic, but if you hit me with your car, even if you’re a very talented poet, don’t lift me like a bride—call for help.

When writing poetry about animals, I analyze the animal’s purpose. Is the animal literal or metaphorical? Is the poem realistic or surreal? Do I need to research this animal? Am I treating animals with at least the respect that I would give to a person? If I am addressing an animal that cannot speak, am I really just addressing a human audience? If so, can I stop hiding behind the animal and approach my actual subject?

Gretchen Primack directly addresses the relationship between animals and poetry in her collection Kind, such as in her poem “Big Pig.”  The collection considers the dangers of human projection and presents animals as living subjects, not metaphors. Her book makes not only an ethical argument but an aesthetic one: if poetry is going to differentiate itself in a print culture full of gratuitous sentiment, assumption, and tabloid, then poets must have enough skill to respect subjects as much as we use them. Speaking about the work of Objectivist poet Charles Reznikoff, Harvey Shapiro notes “In the precision of his lines, people and objects maintain their own lives. This is a moral point, and Reznikoff is a moral poet.” I would argue that being moral perhaps was a result of being precise—if we acknowledge that we don’t know at least as much as we do—that we write precisely because the world still surprises and moves us—then perhaps there is little difference between writing well and ethically.

ALLISON DAVIS is the author of Line Study of a Motel Clerk (Baobab Press, 2017), a full-length collection about small family businesses and immigration in Northeast Ohio and  National Jewish Book Award/Berru Award in Poetry finalist, and Poppy Seeds (Kent State University Press, 2013), winner of the Wick Poetry Chapbook Prize. She holds an MFA from Ohio State University and fellowships from Stanford University’s Wallace Stegner program, the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, and the Severinghaus Beck Fund for Yiddish Study. She’s pursuing a Ph.D. at the University of Tennessee.

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