Friday, March 16, 2012

`Rational, Inexorable Slaughter'

In the short view, which is all that most of us will ever see, the Texas drought has passed. Last week, 4.73 inches of rain fell in Houston, more than fell last year in the months of March, April, May, June, August and September combined. The recent rains, of course, may turn out to be a pleasant anomaly, soon erased from our memory of a protracted dry spell, years or decades long.

In the April issue of First Things, Len Krisak reviews Lines of Flight (Able Muse Press, 2011), a new collection by an American-born poet living in Canada, Catherine Chandler. Her work sounded interesting so I investigated online and found “Drought,” with “(Saladillo, Argentina, 2009)” appended after the poem:

“Above our field of stunted corn and thistle,
a lone chimango circles, scouts, homes in
as sure and swift and savage as a missile,
pins down a leveret, rips away its skin,

“ignores the terror-stricken eyes, the squeal,
devours the pulsing heart. His thirst now slaked,
he leaves the rest for a carancho’s meal.
The land is quivering, crumbling, cracked and caked,

“the stream a silent checkerboard of mud,
the well near dry. I pray this lack of water
won’t leave me stony at the sight of blood,
of rational, inexorable slaughter.”

On one level, Chandler illustrates the predator-and-prey essence of the food chain. The chimango is Milvago chimango, a compact bird of prey in the family Falconidae, native to much of South America. Judging from photos and descriptions, chimangos are beautifully engineered, highly efficient killers. A leveret is a young hare; strictly speaking, one in its first year. (A digression: the Oxford English Dictionary reports the word in the seventeenth century also referred to “a spiritless person”.) The carancho is the crested caracara (Caracara cheriway), “a tropical falcon version of a vulture,” an avian clean-up man whose range extends into the southern U.S., including Texas. Like the vulture, it’s a carrion eater.

Chandler outlines a three-character drama: The chimango captures, kills and partially consumes the levert, and the carancho eats the remains. This is “rational, inexorable slaughter,” and Chandler’s speaker prays her heart will not turn “stony” -- drought-stricken -- at the sight of it. As humans, we dwell in nature but, because we have not transcended it, are not bound by all of its strictures. Our world is not exclusively Hobbesian, though you wouldn't know that from the ongoing events in Syria and elsewhere. Yvor Winters writes in “On Rereading a Passage from John Muir”:

“This was my childhood reverie: to be
Not one who seeks in nature his release,
But one forever by the dripping tree,
Paradisaic in his pristine peace.”

[See Timothy Murphy on Chandler's poetry here and visit her blog, The Wonderful Boat, here.]

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