Sunday, April 7, 2013

Accidental Discoveries, Animal Encounters, and an Unexpected Poet

What do you think of when you think of D.H. Lawrence? Probably not this: 

You know what it is to be born alone,
Baby tortoise!

The first day to heave your feet little by little from the shell,
Not yet awake,
And remain lapsed on earth,
Not quite alive.

A tiny, fragile, half-animate bean.
            From “Baby Tortoise”

A bean! It gets better from there, watching as Lawrence enters into the little tortoise’s bean/being with one tender, perfectly observed detail after another. We see the baby tortoise eating its “first solitary bite,” and making its first way:

You draw your head forward, slowly, from your little wimple
And set forward, slow-dragging, on your four-pinned toes,
Rowing slowly forward.

Through the poem’s 80 lines, Lawrence follows the tortoise emerging into life, a life both ancient and new:

The touch of sun excites you,
And the long ages, and the lingering chill
Make you pause to yawn,
Opening your impervious mouth,
Suddenly beak-shaped, and very wide, like some suddenly gaping pincers;
Soft red tongue, and thin hard gums,
Then close the wedge of your little mountain front,
Your face, baby tortoise.

…and asks the questions we continue to ask in our animal studies classes, our political debates, but most importantly in our own solitary, wondering contemplation by creekside:

Do you wonder at the world, as slowly you turn your head in its wimple
And look with laconic, black eyes?

…Are you able to wonder?

Neither Lawrence nor the tortoise answers – from here the poem turns to the “vast inanimate” that this “little Ulysses, fore-runner/No bigger than my thumb-nail” must “row against,” and although Lawrence never romanticizes the tortoise, he does perhaps inflate its task – but even then, we still see the tortoise inside the mythology: 

How vivid your traveling seems now, in the troubled sunshine,
Stoic, Ulyssean atom;
Suddenly hasty, reckless, on high toes.  

(Yes! On high toes!)

In the anthology I picked out of the bookcase this morning, looking for Thomas Hardy but finding Lawrence, “Baby Tortoise” is followed by “Tortoise-Shell” and its close reading of the animal’s back, the opening lines beginning with religion (“The Cross, the Cross”) and then going on to what Pythagoras saw, making Lawrence almost tipsy: 

The first little mathematical gentleman
Stepping, wee mite, in his loose trousers
Under all the eternal dome of mathematical law…

All the volte face of decimals,
The whirligig of dozens and the pinnacle of seven. 

Turns out there’s a veritable tortoise series*. Next comes “Tortoise Gallantry,” which does seem like more familiar Lawrence territory, as you can tell from the ending: 

We ought to look the other way.

Save that, having come with you so far,
We will go on to the end. 

The anthology also includes an encounter with a less appealing creature, “Snake,” seen at first as the eternal, repellent “other”, but then as something more. Lawrence sums up a dilemma that continues to animate our animal discussions: 

The voice of my education said to me
He must be killed…
But must I confess how I liked him…? 
The last Lawrentian animal encounter in the anthology is “Humming-Bird”, shorter than the others and almost entirely an imaginative flight: 

I can imagine…
Before anything had a soul,
While life was a heave of Matter, half inanimate,
This little bit chipped off in brilliance,
And went whizzing through the slow, vast, succulent stems. 

“This little bit chipped off in brilliance” – a hummingbird exactly. But Lawrence goes further, on to the utter unknowable, what else may beat in this common little bird at our window: 

In the world where the humming-bird flashed ahead of creation…
Probably he was big…
Probably he was a jabbing, terrifying monster.

We look at him through the wrong end of the telescope of Time,
Luckily for us.

Probably. And those last two lines are as good as any I know to capture the pathos and paradox of the human position – a position that poems like these transcend.

On a cold, spring-resisting April morning, when nothing seemed to be stirring in the still frozen ground outside, I stumbled on these poems, D.H. Lawrence observing animals, when what I was looking for was Thomas Hardy going on about mortality. For this I thank the phenomenon of Accidental Discovery, recently written about by Ursula Le Guin (65. Accidental Discovery).

Is there as much sheer delight and essential knowledge in the Lawrence poems as I see, coming on them unexpectedly, with the extra pleasure of finding this (to me) unexpected side to Lawrence? Judging from the margin notes in Chief Modern Poets of England and America, ed. by Sanders, Nelson, and Rosenthal (my friend Margaret’s anthology from her long ago class with M.L. himself), Rosenthal didn’t think so: They weren’t assigned, and didn’t merit a jot. Whereas the more Lawrentian “Hymn to Priapus” gets the margin note “priapic principle directs men to fulfill male role,” (indeed!) and “Gloire de Dijon” (Lawrence’s contemplation here of a more expected sort: “She stoops to the sponge, and the swung breasts/Sway like full-blown yellow/Gloire de Dijon roses”) gets Rosenthal’s own words: “’it was a misfortune of Lawrence’s ear that he was attracted to bad rhymes w/ roses’” (that’s a fun accidental discovery – thank you, Margaret and the joys of marginalia**). FYI: The rhyme a few lines up was “glows as”.

So it seems that the scholars forty years ago had nothing to say about these animal encounters. But in this morning’s happy accident, it is the good fortune of my eye and hand to fall on pages 224-I and ff, and enter into a new fellow feeling with a tortoise, a snake, and a poet.

*Accidental discoveries can be partial and lack context. Following up with an Internet search, I learn that Lawrence wrote not three but six poems about the tortoise, known as the “Tortoise Poems”…Perhaps already a standard part of some animal studies classes?

**Some of the commenters on Ursula Le Guin’s blog post (about accidental discoveries) cite the e-book’s ability to crowd-source margin notes as a point in its favor (vs the handwritten notes of only one or two individuals in an old book). But for me the pleasure – and it is a deep one – is the encounter with an individual sensibility, a style not just of mind but of pen; and if it is a loved one in the act of discovery, the page to touch.


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