Guest Post, Cynthia Hogue: On Ways of Bearing Witness to Animals in Poetry

On Ways of Bearing Witness to Animals in Poetry: The Examples of Gary Snyder and Emily Dickinson

a discursive poem-blog

bee on flower

 

Gary Snyder writes of how artists can “join in the defense of the planet and wild nature.

They can ‘bear witness’ because they have been given, as in fairy tales, two ‘magic gifts’:

 

One is ‘The mirror of truth.’ . . . The second is a ‘heart of compassion’ [that] extends to all

creatures and to the earth itself. . . .  Anciently this was a shamanistic role where the [shaman]

 

became one with a creature. Today, such a role is played by the writer[.] This could be called

‘speaking on behalf of nature’ in the ancient way” (Writers and the War against Nature, 63).

 

Is it the ancient way to call the animal a creature? Is “speaking on behalf of” to “speak for”?

Watching a bee struggle for purchase between “Firmament above” and “Firmament below”

 

by landing on a clover “plank,” Dickinson refrains from putting words in the bee’s mouth.

The plank is “Responsible to nought” and when the “Billows of Circumference” sweep away

 

the bee, the “Bumble Bee was not -” The speaker’s claims to know the bee, hence her careful

tracking of his fate, are belied by the limits of her powers of perception: she can see

 

but not hear him. She does not “bear witness” by speaking on behalf of or for the bee. She

dwells on the surface, reporting the bee’s perceivable movements. An empiricist in method,

 

the speaker adopts a phenomenological diction, and the poem tracks the human watching the

insect trying to find a place to weather the universe, the “Circumference,” which sweeps him

 

at last on his way. She thinks about what she knows she has seen, but not what it means to the

bee. “Freight of Wind” is one vowel tone away from “Fright,” but the latter word’s laden

 

with a human’s reaction to a strong wind. “Freight” is merely material, the wind’s weight.

The event is “harrowing,” but to whom? Nothing is wrung from the bee, no sound not least

 

“A wandering ‘Alas’ –“ The knowledge that the speaker claims, “a Bee I personally knew,”

is ambiguous. How does she “personally” know the bee? Because she watched him

 

“sinking in the sky”? What kind of knowledge is that? The speaker cannot access the bee’s

interiority but only her own. She neither projects her feelings onto the bee nor personifies him.

 

Dickinson feels along the surface of her encounter with the bee. She does not cross physical

paths with him. She doesn’t save and cannot quote him. She does not put a human face on him

 

(although she gives him a gendered pronoun). She supplies the occasion for an imaginative

“Alas” but she acknowledges the word’s status: She’s close enough to hear that she can’t hear.

 

The bee is “not”: not her, not a fellow, not a figure for the writer, not like a human. Not cute.

We do not “personally” know this bee by the poem’s end. That is what she bears witness to.

 

 

This poem-blog was inspired by the study Surface Encounters: Thinking with Animals and Art, by Professor Ron Broglio in the Department of English at ASU, and the author thanks him as a pioneer in the field of literary animal studies. The Dickinson poem quoted is Fr1297.

Photo credit: Sylvain Gallais

Cynthia Hogue

Cynthia Hogue

Cynthia Hogue has published thirteen books, including nine collections of poetry, most recently Revenance, listed as one of the 2014 “Standout” books by the Academy of American Poets, and the forthcoming In June the Labyrinth (Red Hen Press, 2017).With Sylvain Gallais, Hogue co-translated Fortino Sámano (The overflowing of the poem), from the French of poet Virginie Lalucq and philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy (Omnidawn 2012), which won the Harold Morton Landon Translation Award from the Academy of American Poets in 2013. Hogue served as the Distinguished Visiting Writer at Cornell University in the Spring of 2014.She was a 2015 NEA Fellow in Translation, and holds the Maxine and Jonathan Marshall Chair in Modern and Contemporary Poetry at Arizona State University.
Cynthia Hogue

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