Monday, April 08, 2013

"Can't You Be Happy to Look?'

For many summers I collected butterflies until three things conspired to discourage my interest. This happened in my thirteenth or fourteenth year, so puberty may have contributed something as well. First, my father made me a specimen case out of unfinished sheet metal. It was inelegant and heavy, and I hated it. The steel seemed like a reproach to the weightless elegance of the butterflies – precisely the quality that most attracted me. Second, I had a biology teacher – a humorless, angry, impatient, unimaginative man -- who turned me against biology, the discipline I had always expected to pursue, along with writing. Third, I could no longer kill butterflies and moths. About mosquitoes I had no compunctions, and still don’t. This was not a conscious moral decision. I didn’t enjoy killing the organisms I judged most beautiful in the world. 

There’s a lesson here. Even our most intense pleasures are mingled with something else, and love can turn silently into its opposite, or indifference. Learning these things signals the end of innocence, and some of us never learn. The emotions are impure, nuanced and contradictory. The English poet Elizabeth Jennings felt enormous empathy for animals, so much so that she published an entire book of poems, After the Ark (1978), narrated by various creatures  (another Catholic poet, Les Murray, did something similar in Translations from the Natural World, 1992). She devotes one to what is perhaps the most common butterfly in the world, the one I think of as the lepidopteral template for all the others, “The Cabbage White Butterfly”: 

“I look like a flower you could pick. My delicate wings
Flutter over the cabbages. I don’t make
Any noise ever. I’m among the silent things.
Also I easily break.

“I have seen the nets in your hands. At first I thought
A cloud had come down but then I noticed you
With your large pink hand and arm. I was nearly caught
But fortunately I flew

“Away in time, hid while you searched, then took
To the sky, was out of your reach. Like a nameless flower
I tried to appear. Can’t you be happy to look?
Must you possess with your power?”

Two pairs of sentences most move me: “I’m among the silent things. / Also I easily break.” and “Can’t you be happy to look? / Must you possess with your power?”

1 comment:

Gary Baldridge said...

Excellent! Many thanks.