Saprophytic poets

Molds and bacteria feed on dead animals; that’s why the carcasses disappear after a while. But there might be a penultimate stage in the ecological cycle: the poet, notebook in hand, piling up metaphors on the lifeless creature.

I’m talking about the recent run in Slate of dead-animal poems. Dan Chiasson mused on the departed cockle in November. Then, on December 2nd, came Rick Barot’s dead, frozen gull. Barry Goldensohn, not to be outdone, meditated yesterday on toad skin.

I don’t know if this officially counts as a trend, and certainly these poems might have been written months or years ago. But Robert Pinsky, the official poet anointer of Planet Slate, seems to be awfully partial to memento mori.

I wonder why that is. My unfounded theory is that such dissection is a projection of the confessional impulse. I know, thinks the poet, that poetry is meant to plumb the Depths of the Soul, all the rotting-away and disease-unto-death that’s found there – what better objective correlative than an actual-factual animal, just like me, moldering away there where my pencil is pointing?

In the final analysis, thematics are independent of a poem’s quality. Barot’s poem is lovely and lyrical; Goldensohn’s is crude, verging on obscene (“How much of us will last, tough, stiff,/cured by summer sun. Our better towels/outlast our flesh. Are Nazi lampshades/holding up? Shrunken heads? Mummies?/Count on bones. Stone monuments. A few poems.”). But the general trajectory of these poems can be roughed out:

1. Description of the deceased;

2. Connection of the departed to some larger trend (death in general; natural decay; royal purple); and then the obligatory

3. meditation on our own unavoidable passing.

In any case, the next time I read another of these I wouldn’t be surprised if I were to shout out, “For God’s sake, leave the poor animal alone!”

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