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Within the Animals’ Allness: a poetic response to the growing solitary confinement of humans

December 14, 2013

Human-animal interactions and metamorphoses have become quite prominent in my thinking lately. The other night I saw a wonderful performance by the Theatre of the Ayre of Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s mini-opera, Actéon. It concerns the transformation of the eponymous character into a stag, in punishment for his viewing the goddess Diana bathing, and his subsequent death as his own hunting pack attack him. The sense of loss and abandonment to fate conveyed by Paul Agnew’s portrayal of Actéon at the moment of his metamorphosis was palpable and moving.

Actaeon by Parmigianino

Actaeon, 16th-century fresco by Parmigianino at Rocca Sanvitale Wikimedia commons

Perhaps prompted by that and the other magical animal stuff I’ve been writing about recently, my thoughts have turned to a poem I composed, and recurrently reworked,  in my late teens, inspired by a television documentary. The documentary, as far as I can remember, involved John Berger and was concerned with our relationship to animals. I was never happy with any of the versions of the poem, but I’ll reproduce here a version (for information purposes) adapted from a range of crossed-out drafts.

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TOTEMS

Living within the animals’ allness everywhere,

We ran with the panting hounds in the Caledon forests,

And danced around the white mare on the downs.

While Durotrigean tribesmen wore bulls’ horns

And bellowed as they charged into war.

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(We have got past that stage now).

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A skin of civilisation has grown:

As cars speed sleekly on ribbons of hope, a precious liquid coursing through their veins,

Carrying gilt-edged guarantees of wealth from city to city.

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To protect today’s values the nations prepare (just in case)

To unleash blind destruction, which is only a finger’s twitch away

(And we don’t want a return to skins and woad).

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The gold begins to flake.

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In a roadside pasture

A tethered horse grazes spiritlessly.

A paper tiger gazes from a billboard.

In a thousand places now

A leash-bound dog pants down the street –

“Obey your master!”

And weekly visits to the supermarket

Should find bulls enough

In neat little packages stacked on the racks

As till bells ring the sameness.

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The gold begins to flake.

Burghead Bull

In fact, the documentary, Parting Shots from Animals, was broadcast by the BBC in 1980 in the Omnibus strand. It looks at humans – and their growing solitary confinement – from the perspective of animals. Andy Merrifield writes that it would never get made today: it is ‘too satirical, too sombre in mood, too ironical in tone, too ambiguous in meaning for a contemporary television that flourishes through smiley faces, easy answers and readymade solutions’. The commentary ‘is not upbeat, nor is there any happy ending… Berger’s opening narrative is menacing, warning of an apocalypse now‘, giving way to an eerie vision with the sound turned down, as a white horse stands alone in a desolate field, ‘surrounded by bones and giant fossils of his long-extinct brethren’ (Andy Merrifield, 2012, John Berger, London: Reaktion Books, p.113). The poem’s ‘tethered horse’ that ‘grazes spiritlessly’ surely recalls that image.

I don’t want to overburden the slight frame of Totems with a detailed exegesis. Suffice to say, it was written against a discourse of progress that was exemplified by the propaganda of the nuclear industry, which cast its opponents as wanting ‘a return to skins and woad’. While I don’t hanker for archaic forms of hierarchy, militarism or brutality, the immediacy of the bovine bellowing of an Iron Age warband (the Durotriges lived in what is now Dorset) is deliberately contrasted with the mediation of a labour-saving flick of a switch, leading to the deaths of millions. Likewise, the shrink-wrapped anonymity of industrially processed meat further manifests this separation from the life of animals and the animal life of humans, into a confected, superficial  representation of life as ‘consumer freedom’ and permissible choice, ‘never tasted before’.

In an early draft I had written, ‘within the animals’ omnipotence’. The word ‘omnipotence’ – as a quality, usually associated with a transcendent, monotheistic God – had soon after been crossed out, to be replaced by ‘allness‘. It must have been an attempt to convey in more everyday terms the immanence of some kind of animating principle, an ‘ensouled materiality’, something which I’ve since learned can be seen as manifestations of the World Soul or anima mundi.

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Now, as then, the circulation of commodities – the lifeblood of capitalist civilisation – continues to impose itself everywhere over and against the rhythm of life.

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