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Celebrating the animal encounter in poetry

There is a long tradition of poets celebrating chance encounters with animals, but such meetings are becoming increasingly rare.

When we drive home from the west of an evening, the children in the back of the car, quietened by fatigue or boredom, we have to pass through a strip of dense woodland just a couple of miles from the open fields where we live. Even as a grown-up, I can see that this is one of those magical woods: the trees arching over the road on either side to form a long, halflit tunnel that could bring us out anywhere, hints and winks of silver in the lit, viridian undergrowth and, not a rare event at this time of day, though always a small miracle when it happens, a hint of other lives, swimming or leaping through the greenery, sometimes shying away at the last second and sometimes streaming across the road, two or three or five of them together, panicky, but not too quick to make out – and always, no matter how suddenly it happens, we are all aware of the eyes, of the fleeting, gorgeous exchange of a look, while we shift from the humdrum of a homeward journey into vivid life again, just for a moment, and the boys call out or whisper, wonderingly: “Deer!”

It seems such a small event, yet this animal encounter is an occasion of quiet, if short-lived joy every time it happens, because, like the grown-up I am now, as opposed to the halfwild boy I was in a different, more populousseeming world, my children very rarely see animals in the wild. Even when they do, it is usually through a car window, as we drive to school in the morning through Kippo woods, or on occasions such as this when, half-asleep, they get home wondering if they dreamed it all – and the worst thing about this is that we very rarely know what we are missing.

It takes a true encounter to realise that real animals, wild animals, have all but passed from our lives. I remember stopping my car one morning in early May and getting out to stretch my legs, somewhere in northern Norway: the thaw had begun a few days earlier but then it had snowed again and the land was frozen for miles, which is probably why I saw the fox, its white winter coat just starting to turn brown. Why it didn’t see or sense me sooner I don’t know, but we came close enough to exchange a look and, for a long moment, I felt that same joy my sons feel when they catch sight of something in the woods: a strange joy that cannot be communicated but is real nevertheless.

After a few breathless seconds, the fox turned and wandered away, seemingly unconcerned, but as my excitement and wonder faded, I began to experience something else. Something like grief; or maybe the sense that I was, in the full sense of the word, bereft.

The human ecologist Paul Shepard has said: “We hear much these days about the loss of species and biological diversity, usually in terms of diminished ecosystems, destabilised environments and the loss of unknown physical resources. I suspect that the greater loss is of another kind – the way a local fauna links the concept of the self and the uniqueness of place in different cultures. The loss of non-human diversity erases nuances in identity. We are coarsened by the loss of the animals.” We are coarsened by the loss of the animals. True, we are intellectually aware that species loss is a catastrophe and some of us still feel that it is the most urgent environmental problem we face, but we have yet to understand that it is not only the presence of an acceptable number of specific creatures that matters. What is essential – the one thing that could stop us being coarsened to other lives – is that we feel a great, living wave of animal life all around us, covering the earth. I may know that there are still a few pandas out there somewhere but that sense of being bereft comes from living day to day with the near absence of wild things.

The few exceptions, in my case, are flocks of pink-footed geese in the winter, a few buzzards and hares, the odd frantic deer skittering across a road, a passing fox or badger, a glimpse of weasel or stoat on the road. None of these creatures is rare or particularly prized – there are even official bodies and quangos empowered to decide how many may be killed per annum by pylons and wind turbines to furnish us townsfolk with automatic garage doors and patio heaters. So what hope is there, in such a world, for someone whose heart lifts at the sight of a family of rabbits, grazing on a verge, after a long day at the theme park?

With this sometimes unrecognised sense of a coarsened life hanging over us, nature poetry has become more urgent than ever. In parallel with the coarsening of the past hundred years or so has come a steady growth in animal encounter poetry. When Robert Frost wrote “Two Look at Two” in the early 1920s, he could make it seem the most natural thing in the world that, as night approached, two human beings could stand by a broken wall, gazing in wonder – and at close quarters – at a doe and then a buck deer and it was even possible for them to feel A great wave from it going over them, As if the earth in one unlooked-for favour Had made them certain earth returned their love.

Yet a few minutes earlier, when the buck first appears, he challenges the human beings with a look that seems to say: . . . “Why don’t you make some motion? Or give some sign of life? Because you can’t. I doubt if you’re as living as you look.”

The reader, a century ago and now, feels the discomfort of being caught out, for we are not as living as we look; we are tamed and we have almost lost the common stamp of creatureliness that other animals, arguably even the most domesticated, have retained. What Frost would have us understand here, even as he invokes the possibility that earth returns our love, is that there is so little of the wild in us, so little sign of life that, as dusk falls, we could be mistaken for inanimate things.

As the century wore on, not only did we become less animate but, as we felled old woodlands and cleared the way for new superhighways, we also set out on the systematic destruction of life itself. There is no question, now, that many of us knew what we were doing but we did it for the good of our species – good seeming to consist of floodlit golf ranges, municipal Christmas lights in October and day-long television (on which documentaries about lost wilderness are a weekly, if not daily, feature). More than anything else, good consisted in speeding across the land in trucks and cars, occasionally glimpsing some living creature out in the grey of it all, very frequently leaving said creature behind as roadkill.

In 1956, William Stafford wrote the laconic and unsettling “Travelling Through the Dark”, about finding a dead doe on his drive home – a not infrequent event. Though the road is narrow, he stops, because It is usually best to roll them into the canyon: that road is narrow; to swerve might make more dead.

He is only doing his duty when he gets out to push the deer off the edge of the road and into the river. When he touches the animal, however, he realises that she is pregnant and the fawn is, for the moment, still alive inside her. It should be said that there is no sentimentality here: aware that he can do nothing for the unborn fawn, the speaker of the poem wavers only a moment before carrying on with his unwanted task. He hesitates nonetheless and, in one of the most beautifully dramatised moments in modern poetry, creates a scene in which the only live thing seems to be the car engine, and the man, who is in every rational sense guiltless, becomes complicit with some greater, existential sin, a sin against life to which, as he slowly realises, wild nature is always a witness: The car aimed ahead its lowered parking lights; under the hood purred the steady engine. I stood in the glare of the warm exhaust turning red; around our group I could hear the wilderness listen. No sense here that earth returns our love. The wilderness watches and listens; the man, having “thought hard for us all”, does what he must before driving on.

The animal encounter poem is now so distinct a genre that it would be possible to create a full-length anthology from deer encounter poems alone and many varieties of experience would emerge from such an exercise. Take Mary Oliver’s “Picking Blueberries, Austerlitz, New York, 1957”, in which the speaker recounts a childhood memory of having fallen asleep while out picking blueberries and then, when she woke, frightening a deer that had stopped to nuzzle her. Here, there is a sense of elegy not just for the deer but for a former self, lost when she somehow lost contact with the creaturely (“Beautiful girl,/ where are you?”).

One of the most troubling items in such an anthology would be Brigit Pegeen Kelly’s astonishing “Dead Doe”, from her 1995 collection, Song. Here, from the first, the speaker seems torn between a Romantic or pastoral impulse and stark realism: The doe lay dead on her back in a field of asters: no. The doe lay dead on her back beside the school bus stop: yes. Where we waited. Her belly white as a cut pear. Where we waited: no: off from where we waited: yes at a distance . . . – and that “at a distance” is crucial, because the speaker is afraid of the dead animal, afraid it might somehow rise from the dead and come near, or that she – and the child she is accom - panying to school – might be touched by this otherness. Throughout the poem, Kelly shifts from poetic convention to hard, often proselike qualification, so that a moment comes when the fear seems to have been dispelled and the dead deer, lying on her back, “with her legs up and frozen”, is transformed by wishful looking into a vision of two swans: . . . we saw two swans and they were fighting or they were coupling or they were stabbing the ground for some prize worth nothing, but fought over, so worth that, worth the fought-over glossiness: the morning’s fragile-tubed glory. And yet, in the end, this vision is not as comforting as it seems, given that the transformed creature still eludes the speaker and her child, and even though they are no longer afraid, they should be, as they . . . watch her soul fly on: paired as the soul always is: with itself: with others.

The poem ends with a wonderful ambiguity – “Child. We are done for/in the most remarkable ways” – and yet, even as we linger on the more obvious meaning of “done for”, it is at this point, in what had seemed the most unpromising of situations, that we see for a moment a flicker of creaturely possibility, and while we may doubt, now, that earth returns our love, we are still capable of the loving care that any animal has for its child. This is not enough, of course. Faced with an inarticulate grief at the loss of the animals, however, coupled with a growing refusal to be coarsened by that loss, we human creatures might yet find ourselves not in Eden (that was always a dream and never a very good one) but alive on earth, living truly among the fellow animals we had lost sight of for too long.

John Burnside’s most recent poetry collection is “Black Cat Bone” (Jonathan Cape, £10)

This article first appeared in the 20 August 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Back To Reality

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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis