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Listen to This, Listen to That: Animals

by Dan Froid

I was thinking about the divide between humans and animals recently—big subject, maybe, but I was reading Frankenstein and felt compelled to consider where the creature fits in. A classmate in the seminar asked us, Why do we read? We wonder, why does the creature read? Does it transgress against our nature to do so? Although animals lack rationality, they certainly do not lack curiosity—and curiosity could go a long way toward considering why a dog must investigate its surroundings, or why I must read. 

Jeff Oaks talks about taking his dog outside in Episode 15 of Air Schooner, “Animals. Dogs and their owners can rescue each other, he says. On his walks, he gets the opportunity to engage with the world outside of his writing—both firsthand and vicariously, through his dogIn addition, his “Dog at Midnight” discusses the ways walking a dog might legitimize the walker: 

A man walks a dog so he doesn’t look like a child molester when he walks in the wood. Alone and in the woods, a man is a threat. Give him a dog, though, and he becomes a symbol of American individualism. A man living alone is a strange neighbor, but a man with a dog is diffused. The dog gives the man someone to talk to, so he seems not so crazy, when he mutters to himself about the way the world works 

Animals make us, perhaps, less crazymore in-line with our fellow humansboth in others eyes and in our own. I wonder how Frankenstein’s poor creature would have handled an animal companion.  

CocoRosie’s “Animals” has always resonated with me; maybe it’s because I, too, am “just a fall-leaf, something simple and shy like that.” CocoRosie usually pairs frank, and often candidly sad or disturbing, lyrics with bizarre instrumentation (alarm clocks? talking children’s toys?) and childlike vocals. This one’s no exception. Here, I love the plaintive refrain: 

I always knew 
I would spend a lot of time alone 
No one would understand me 
Maybe I should go and live amongst the animals 
Spend all my time 
amongst the animals 

If you lack a dog to legitimize you, you could just take leave of your fellow humans. That’s always a comforting option. 

If you’re ready for some unapologetic wallowing, “Bird Gerhl,” by Antony and the Johnsons, is indispensable. Antony Hegarty’s voice is so knockout gorgeous. The simple lyric speaks for itself: 

I am a bird girl now  
I’ve got my heart  
Here in my hands now  
I’ve been searching  
For my wings some time  
I’gonna be born  
Into soon the sky  
Cause I'm a bird girl  
And the bird girls go to heaven  
I’m a bird girl  
And the bird girls can fly  
Bird girls can fly 

It’s okay: let it all out. Instead of writing anything, I thought about including at this point a string of the sobbing emoji—the one with tears streaming down both cheeks. 

Transformation into a bird is as old as Greek myth, and so is the (literal) flight from trauma this song suggests: Philomela can escape the rage of her rapistTereuswhen the gods turn her into a nightingale. Joy Harjo expresses not a longing for transformation but feelings of identification with the eagle, in her Eagle Poem: 

To pray you open your whole self 
To sky, to earth, to sun, to moon 
To one whole voice that is you. 
And know there is more 
That you can’t see, can’t hear; 
Can’t know except in moments 
Steadily growing, and in languages 
That aren’t always sound but other 
Circles of motion. 
Like eagle that Sunday morning 
Over Salt River. 

 Harjo describes in the episode the genesis of this poem: after a session in a sweat lodge in Arizona, she left the lodge and saw eagles circling above herMaybe the poem does suggest a kind of transformation, after all: you opens yourself—lose yourself, for a time—to what you see, and what you know you cant. In this case, looking up at birds, you glimpse their beauty, and you take in the fact that there is a wide expanse of land beneath them, of which you occupy just a small part. So to watch birds is, in a way, a humbling experience, the gateway to prayer. Dogs are friends, companions, but often birds are ever out of reach. 

For me, the pinnacle of songs about birds is Kate Bush’s A Sky of Honey, a suite of songs—or, if you like, one very long piece of music—that forms one half of her 2005 album AerialA Sky of Honey charts the course of a single summer day, beginning with the chirp of birds and ending, just before the break of a new day, with Bush reveling in the sound of birdsong and longing to join the creatures above her. She, too, seeks an escape in the world of nature. This is projection, of course, but, still, we very often seek authenticity through the eyes of animals, who have nary a thought of the concept. 

Other poets remind us of this: the lack of artifice, and of art, in the lives of animals. I’m going to end with an excerpt from Stacey Waite’s favorite bird poem, Ruth Schwartz’s “The Important Thing.” The poem takes pelicans as its subject, who sometimes go blind when diving into the water for their food: 

We know, of course, what happens, 
they starve to death, not a metaphor, not a poem in it; 

this goes on every day of our lives, 
and the man whose melting wings 
spatter like a hundred dripping candles
over everything, 

and the suicide who glimpses, in the final 
seconds of her fall,
all the other lives she might have lived.

    The ending doesn't have to be happy.
The hunger itself is the thing.