With careful observation animated by bright metaphor, this nature study is quite unafraid of anthropomorphism
This week's poem, "Musk-Ox", is from Jane Yeh's second collection, The Ninjas, recently published by Carcanet Press, and deservedly welcomed in a recent Guardian review by Aingeal Clare. Jane Yeh is an American poet based in London. Her voice, to my ear, has a distinctly English quality. Combining fantasy, melancholy, precision and gently-disturbing wit, it suggests at times how Lewis Carroll could have written, had he been a young 21st-century postmodernist.
While Yeh often enjoys letting the various characters in her poems do the talking, her venture, in "Musk-Ox," into third-person narration allows her a fuller focus on externals. This poem gives us the creature's impressively cumbersome, and very hairy physical presence. At first, it's as if he were being filmed on location. Later, although we never entirely lose the more realist view of him, the poem gradually switches over from wildlife documentary to a beautiful animated cartoon, one which allows the musk-ox to morph into the identity of his dreams – that of a salmon "… In the deep green/Water, flashing his iridescent scales".
The clustering of metaphor ("wall of fur", "dry waterfall", "oversized/Powder puff – ambulatory/ Moustache", "a minibus/ Made of hair…") suggests a technical device associated with the so-called Martian school of poets, who, in their turn, were influenced by the technique of ostranenie ("making strange") favoured by the Russian formalists. Yeh, like Craig Raine in his earlier work, favours sensible-looking quatrains, cracked apart with unpredictable, sometimes jolting, line-breaks. The images are not reinforced by the rhythm but consciously disrupted by it, in a further process of defamiliarisation,
Yeh's tone is generally more overtly affectionate, though, than that of the Martian poets. For them, the love was in the close looking and detailed description. Here, there is an added, quirky characterisation. This is where the Lewis Carroll effect comes in. Yeh's musk-ox increasingly seems to become naturalised to the human world. He longs, like so many of us, for a "svelter/ Silhouette". He absorbs our values, our judgments. The tufts of wool on his back are "jaunty", the pair of horns "gamely frames// His long, sad face". This musk-ox is stoical but not entirely happy in his skin. In real life, he'd belong to a herd: in the poem, he's almost existentially alone. And so he points to a hopelessly paradoxical human desire: to meld into conformity, to shine with special beauty.
One of the pleasures of this poem, and of many other animal poems by Yeh, is the guiltless, almost jubilant acceptance of its own anthropomorphism. That stance is also an honest one. How can any mere human begin to relate to the (more) natural world, let alone write vividly about it, without a degree of self-projection? No achieved poetic creature, from Christopher's Smart's cat Jeoffrey to Elizabeth Bishop's moose, is un-coloured by its human imaginer – and we should be grateful for, rather than scornful of, the fact.
One day, I feel certain, science will confirm that most animals possess enough signifier-processing ability to provide them with a rudimentary ability to think, and that they can feel a rich range of emotions. Until then, we have the poets – and, of course, ordinary pet-owners everywhere – to remind us of our kinship with those to whom we once supposed ourselves to be the divinely-ordained superiors.
His impassive side
Is an astounding wall of fur, a kind
Of dry waterfall
Formed of long strands of hair –
The unchecked growth
Of his copious wool hide
Swamps him entirely; somewhere under there
Are four unsightly legs
And hooves, but you wouldn't know it. Oversized
Powder puff – ambulatory
Moustache – through Arctic grassland
He onerously glides, his back
Festooned with jaunty tufts
Of wool. His prehistoric skull barely clears
The dense fur
Around it; a pair of drooping horns
His long, sad face. If he could speak, he'd ask
For a svelter
Silhouette (or at least more
Lichens to graze on). Happiness comes
It seems. His tiny eyes rove over
The rich summer landscape. He lumbers
Up a crest like a minibus
Made of hair, patiently looking for
The next buffet
Of grasses. If he could choose, he'd
As a salmon – sleek as a torpedo
In the deep green
Water, flashing his iridescent scales.