Mole Valley Poets, 6th September 2010
Helen Overell: Taxonomy

Animals can be divided into vertebrates and invertebrates.

Vertebrates can be subdivided into reptiles, birds, fish, mammals and amphibians.

There are several classes of invertebrates, including molluscs, echinoderms and arthropods which contain the categories arachnids, insects, crustaceans and myriapods.

There are a great many animal poems, however finding an animal poem to correspond with each category proved difficult!

The first poems to be read contained a fly, a moth and a spider.

The Fly by William Blake (1757 - 1827) reflects on the life of a fly which can be brushed away by his "thoughtless hand" and compares this with his own life which continues until "some blind hand / shall brush my wing".

Design by Robert Frost (1874 - 1963) considers "a dimpled spider, fat and white" which is "holding up a moth / like a white piece of rigid satin cloth" on a flower of heal-all which is white instead of blue as though all three were brought together by design as though in some witches' broth.

These were followed by a mollusc poem.

Upon a Snail by John Bunyan (1628 - 1688) describes how "She goeth softly, but she goeth sure," and "she makes no noise, but stilly seizeth on / The flower or herb appointed for her food". The journey she makes is short so that "she may endure / Better than they which do much farther go". She travels sure and those who do the same "The prize they do aim at they do procure".

Two amphibian poems were next.

Frogs by Norman MacCaig (1910 - 1996) "sit more solid / than anything sits" the way Buddha does. When frogs leap they are "parachutists falling / in a free fall" and they die "like Italian tenors". When chased in water they always "make stylish triangles / with their ballet dancer's / legs" no matter the panic they may feel.

Toad is also by Norman MacCaig. The toad that has squeezed under the door into the house, is being asked to "stop looking like a purse". The toad's movements are described as "crawling like a Japanese wrestler". When the toad is lifted in an open hand and returned to the outside, he is placed "directly under / every star". He leaves, within the poet's head, a tiny radiance in the dark.

Reptiles were represented in

A narrow Fellow in the Grass by Emily Dickinson (1830 - 1886) where this fellow divides the grass "as with a comb". He is described as a discarded whip lash in the noonday sun which wrinkles when disturbed and disappears. This creature leads to "tighter breathing" in the poet whereas others of "Nature's People" are met with cordiality.

Birds followed,

Sandpiper by Elizabeth Bishop (1911 - 1979) is written from the bird's point of view. He takes the roaring of the sea for granted, runs in "a state of controlled panic". The waves glaze his feet, he watches his toes or rather the spaces between them. He is searching for something, is obsessed. His world of sea and sand can be a mist or can be clear and seen in great detail as when the individual grains of sand are described as being "black, white, tan and gray". Then, in the last line, "quartz grains, rose and amethyst" bring colour to the scene.

Mammals were next,

The Horses by Ted Hughes(1930 - 1998) are magnificent, breathing sculptures "with draped manes and tilted hind-hooves". They are "Grey silent fragments / Of a grey silent world" seen in the hour before dawn. The poet walks on past them to "the emptiness on the moor-ridge" where "the sun / orange, red, red erupted" and the sky "showed blue". He turns and stumbles back down to the woods where the horses are still and "steaming and glistening under the flow of light". They are silent, "Not one snorted or stamped, // "Their hung heads patient as the horizons".

A giraffe features in

Litany for the Treetops by C J Sage in which the relationship between the treetops and the feeding giraffe is celebrated. The interdependence of leaf and hungry calf leads the calf "to blossom, flower, extend."

The evening concluded with

The Ark in the Window by Deborah Greger (1940 - ) where, after forty days and forty nights of rain, a Noah's Ark display appeared in the window of a thrift shop. There is a stuffed toy lion which has lost an ear, a plush giraffe, a patchwork goose and a matted gorilla who "reached long arms overboard // to test the waters, which some god had made / by rumpling a bedsheet into blue waves." There are warthogs, "ceramic horses' heads, / sprouting brushes instead of manes". There is "a gutless hand-puppet" racoon, "an elephant snipped from tin" and "a wooden duck, whose folded wings were the lid / of a compartment too small even for a prayer". Other animals are represented by "tiger-pelt boots" and "fake snakeskin". The poem, written in quartets, ends with the single line "And it repented the Lord that he had made man on the earth."