Sunday, May 25, 2008

"the stories here are the truest of fiction"

I found this great program about literature called Between the Lines. The particular episode I linked to has a reading of the particular poem I want to write about today, but there are plenty of other interesting poems and some fascinating discussion about the nature of poetry in general.

To Help the Monkey Cross the River,

which he must
cross, by swimming, for fruits and nuts,
to help him
I sit with my rifle on a platform
high in a tree, same side of the river
as the hungry monkey. How does this assist
him? When he swims for it
I look first upriver: predators move faster with
the current than against it.
If a crocodile is aimed from upriver to eat the monkey
and an anaconda from downriver burns
with the same ambition, I do
the math, algebra, angles, rate-of-monkey,
croc- and snake-speed, and if, if
it looks as though the anaconda or the croc
will reach the monkey
before he attains the river’s far bank,
I raise my rifle and fire
one, two, three, even four times into the river
just behind the monkey
to hurry him up a little.
Shoot the snake, the crocodile?
They’re just doing their jobs,
but the monkey, the monkey
has little hands like a child’s,
and the smart ones, in a cage, can be taught to smile.

Thomas Lux, The Cradle Place: Poems, 2004.

There's not much critical analysis of this poem online, it's mainly just people saying "hai gaiz, i found dis rly kool pome haylookit." except with better English, and this person who made a little film about it for some reason. I wrote an essay about it as practice for my English exam, so I am happy to share my interpretations with my hordes of devoted readers.

Unfortunately I didn't get such a great mark as he last poem I analysed, but my teacher said he thought my points were right (I don't believe there's such a thing as 'right' ideas - sounds too much like China under Mao - just good ideas, I suppose?), I just needed to expand on them a bit more. And reading over it again, I agree.

It's quite allegorical, like one of Aesop's fables - using a simple, almost childish premise to illustrate something much more truthful and complex. I suppose what it's about is living in a predatory universe - a 'malign universe' (an English teacher trope) wherein the very forces of nature are out to get us, not for any intrinsic evil in ourselves or them, but because we all have to eat, not just hungry monkeys, but crocodiles and anacondas too.

I love the way you get such a shock when you get to "
I raise my rifle and fire one, two, three, even four times into the river" and you think Oh My God! He's going to kill the monkey! Before you get to the next line and see that no, he's just firing into the river to 'hurry him up a little'.

I really liked the structure of the poem, because to me it seems to mimic the events it's describing. It's fast, with much enjambment - sentences continuing over line breaks - and little punctuation other than commas, so the rapid flow is hardly broken. Life is risky? Chances must be taken? Decisions must be made fast? All of this, I suppose. Above all, I think the slightly random structure reflects the nature of life. It's not ordered or structured, there's no use trying to find some sort of significance in what happens. If a crocodile eats a monkey, a crocodile eats a monkey. The fact that it has 'child-like hands' and 'he smart ones, in a cage, can be taught to smile' has no bearing on the situation. All my human smartness is not going to save me from being suddenly and unexpectedly struck by a potentially-fatal brain haemorrhage. I like this because it adheres to the absurdist philosophy which I like to call my "croyance du jour".

My teacher thought I needed to elaborate more on the nature of the 'malign universe' (of course!) and on the poet's choice of narrator. I said the narrator was like God (even his position, high in a tree, reflects God's position in heaven), having the power of life and death over the animals, but choosing not to exercise it. What sort of God would let his children die like that, and how are we supposed to react to such callousness, my teacher asks? Well, I say, our sort of God. The sort of God who sits up there in the sky and does bugger-all. Who does, in fact, even less than the God-figure in Lux's poem. I don't see it as callousness, but as a desire to let natural events run there natural course. This is how I see God. I don't really believe in him, but if he exists at all, he's just sitting there and letting us humans all blow each other up while some of us attempt to learn from our mistakes, like errant children.

Fascinatingly, in the radio program I linked to above, Thomas Lux said that the poem was about parenting, or even teaching. And I was like, that makes so much sense.

ETA: there's little on this specific poem on teh intarwebs, but there's a fair bit on Thomas Lux that's very good. Such as this article and interview, which is really interesting, and this article about his work which is similarly fascinating. I'm going to quote them here, they're so good:

Lux:I pay a great deal of attention to form. Poetry's an art form, a craft. About the lack of stanza breaks: I stopped using them entirely about a decade ago. I came to believe I was using them arbitrarily, to make a poem look like a poem. It most matters to me what a poem sounds like. I think line breaks are incredibly important—they are one of the most important ways one tries to make the reader hear the poem exactly as one wants the reader to hear it. Tone, which carries a lot of the reverberations one is hoping to catch, can really only be heard.

Lux: I like to make the reader laugh—and then steal that laugh, right out of the throat. Because I think life is like that, tragedy right alongside humour.

Richard Damashek: Intensely personal, the poetry of Thomas Lux is tormented and tortured, full of complex and disjointed images reflecting an insane and inhospitable world.

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