Monday, June 29, 2015

`His Cackleophilous Concubines'

My youngest son has a video of me carrying on an extended conversation with a rooster. The bird was strutting behind a fence on the grounds of a nearby grade school, the one he (my son, that is) had attended years before. I cock-a-doodle-doo’ed, the bird, after hustling his hens into the coop, answered in kind, and we carried on a call-and-response for ten minutes or so, until the rest of the (human) family was fed up with the Dr. Doolittle routine. I do the same with squirrels, cats, dogs and several species of birds. Dogs are particularly responsive. The neighbors have a Dachshund that barks with a precisely enunciated “Ruff, ruff,” like a cartoon dog. My accent when barking with him is good, better than my French. I enjoy the illusory sense of intimacy with another species and the total ridiculousness of the whole thing, similar to many conversations with my fellow humans, though I don’t fall for any of that “horse whisperer” crap. In his review of a book titled The Animal Dialogues, Eric Ormsby writes: 

“Conversations with wild animals are always one-sided. If we speak to them, we hear how empty our words sound in the silence between us. If we manage to make eye contact with some startled deer in a forest clearing or with a caged lion in the local zoo, we search their faces for visual clues, but we can't quite decipher the look they give us back. We depend almost exclusively on our eyes, but animals apprehend us with all their senses. They know us by our smells and sounds as well as by sight; the lion may even anticipate the way we taste. For all our wordiness, we are mute in this wordless realm.” 

Note that Ormsby specifies “wild” animals, leaving open the possibility that two-way conversations with domesticated creatures are possible. My cat is not shy about expressing his preferences and aversions. He is laconic, never verbose (expect when purring), and has little use for small talk. Language for him is largely utilitarian, but never less than elegant and eloquent, accompanied as it is by rubbing, paw-kneading and head butting, a uniquely feline mingling of speech and dance. Ormsby’s poems, like Marianne Moore’s, are densely populated with animals, and roosters seem to be among his favorites. In “Watchdog and Rooster,” he contrasts the communication styles of the titular beasts: 

“The rooster, however,
accustomed to the chuckling palaver
of his cackleophilous concubines,
disliked the stolid silence of the dog
who hunched there like a stinkpot on a log
and only uttered small, obsequious whines
about his master's boots at supper-time.”

And in “Rooster” he writes: 

“I like the way his stubby little beak
Produces that dark, corroded croak
Like a grudging nail tugged out of stubborn wood:
No `cock-a-doodle-doo’  but awk-a-awk!
He yawps whenever he's in the mood
And the thirst and clutch of life are in his squawk.”

With that “yawps” Ormsby sneaks in a nice Whitmanesque echo.

1 comment:

Marius Kociejowski said...

'How, unless you drink as I do, could you hope to understand the beauty of an old Indian woman playing dominoes with a chicken?' - Malcolm Lowry "Under the Volcano".