Monday, May 12, 2008

Birds of a Feather?

The two most important poets writing in English during the last quarter of the 20th Century--distinctive, innovative, acclaimed, influential--were Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney. I came to revere the careful wit and rigorous thought of Heaney, and the sheer pleasure of his language (not for nothing was one book of his prose titled The Government of the Tongue), but originally I was quite taken with Hughes' early poems, back when he was married to then-still-living Sylvia Plath, and long before he lost the thrust of his work and settled for Poet Laureate honors instead. The Hughes of those first books (Hawk in the Rain and Lupercal) seemed to have immersed himself completely in Nature and to have attained pure dumb animal thought--owls and crows, jaguars and foxes, pike and trout, creatures great and small indeed.

One of my forever-favorite poems is his "Hawk Roosting," which begins "I sit in the top of the woods, my eyes closed..." and ends thus: "I am going to keep things like this." That is one never-to-be-forgotten, egomaniacal bird (like Hughes himself!)--and I thought of him while travelling Down Under back in 1986. Oddly moved by the duck-billed platypus shown at the Sydney Zoo, I read what I could conveniently find on that unique creature of living pre-history, and then cobbled together this on-the-road portrait, a recognition of Nature's bizarre sense of humor (the poem also a distant homage to Hughes' surly hawk). By the way, it's hard to make out, but the color illustration above shows creation of platypus--mammal, then duck, and then down below, a couple of platypi emerging:


I am mocked: leathery bill of a duck
I root with, my flat snout
nuzzling the stream bottoms, shoveling worms
out, gobbling yabbies up from stones and ooze.
Fifteen million years you laugh at—my otter’s fur,
wet, and webbed feet. I live a sleek, watery secret
you would do better not to discover,
with poison spurs on my hind legs, and claws
as needed, aft and fore. Oh, I am other
than you dream of, you with your nippled love
and blood-birthed womb. My young come
from egg, and then seek mother’s milk—
and a hard suckle they have of it with no teat
to grapple. Eons of amphibious battle,
and I am here; with elegant flair
species arrive, then go; I munch larvae
and close my ears to the cries of you brief intruders.
I am monotreme: of beast and bird the sum.
So the meal chews bitter, this life; is yours better--
eggless, dry? I outlive and am free.
Yes, call me Platypus; the name suits. But of us
which is the stranger? whose world more meagre?
I survive my each plunge. Why change?

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