Thursday, April 07, 2011

"The Beasts You Animated for Us'

At the Houston Zoo we saw a bird Marianne Moore would have loved – the homely but supremely dignified shoebill stork (Balaeniceps rex), known unflatteringly as the whale-headed stork. Native to the swampy regions of East Africa, from Sudan to Zambia, it takes its name from an undeniable resemblance to footwear – say, a men’s size-14 loafer. The bird reminded me of the late lamented dodo.

As a poet, Moore’s sympathies extend to the scorned, awkward, resourceful, and unexpected among animals. At heart, she’s a benign moralist who looked to the natural world for models of wisdom and folly. As a translator she rendered La Fontaine’s Fables, including “The Wolf and the Stork.” She also wrote the best poem about ostriches, “He `Digesteth Harde Yron,’” which concludes like this:

“The power of the visible
is the invisible; as even where
no tree of freedom grows,
so-called brute courage knows.
Heroism is exhausting, yet
it contradicts a greed that did not wisely spare
the harmless solitaire

“or great auk in its grandeur;
unsolicitude having swallowed up
all giant birds but an alert gargantuan
little-winged, magnificently speedy running-bird.
This one remaining rebel
is the sparrow-camel.”

At the zoo we met one of my wife’s former newspaper colleagues and her four-month-old daughter, Auden. The baby was named for the poet though our friend said, “I can’t find a good Auden poem for her. Some of them seem to be about prostitutes and depression.” I assured her that wasn’t exclusively the case, and that I would send her some infant-friendly late Auden. In 1967, he wrote in “A Mosaic for Marianne Moore”:

“…we see you sitting,
In a wide-brimmed hat beneath a monkey-puzzle,
At your feet the beasts you animated for us
By thinking of them.”

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