Sunday, 3 November 2019

No 91 - Owls in some southern African poems

A few years ago friends and I turned our car along a road near Beaufort West. It was dawn, a cold Karoo light. Something pale squatted in the middle of the road; a Barn owl. It just sat and looked into our headlights, then even when we turned them off. Not right. Nor did it move much when I approached; dazed, it had surely been hit by a vehicle.  Wary of talons and beak, I got a jersey over it, and scooped it up, hissing. I carried it away from the road into the scrub, and found a sheltered spot, and carefully unfolded the jersey. But the owl just keeled over slowly, and in a moment it was dead. Those extraordinary eyes closed; the feathers of its white breast as delicate as cirrus cloud. I laid it down, to be returned in time to the elements of which it was built.

The encounter seemed iconic of so much of what we humans are inflicting on the wild with our insensate machines. Not just one life taken, but a whole segment of an ecosystem disrupted and deprived. Like wolves or sharks, owls are apex predators, and their removal from a system has disproportionate cascade effects. My own little home locale would surely suffer more rodents and snakes were it not for the Wood owls who drift through the nights and call-and-answer with querying hoots.

According to birders’ bible Roberts, our subcontinent hosts a round dozen species of owl, ranging from the great ‘horned’ eagle owls to the tiny Scops owls no taller than the length of your hand. In their nocturnal discreetness, with their sometimes unearthly calls, it’s little wonder they’ve attracted superstitious awe in many cultures across the world. (Remember Shakespeare alluding in Julius Caesar to the forbidding sign of an owl flying in daylight?) No less so in southern African peoples, amongst some of whom the owl is regarded with fear, if not outright hostility. An owl alighting on a rooftop is often regarded as the harbinger of a death in the family, and some conservationists have deplored what they perceive as the consequent slaughtering of owls. Matthew Zylstra, however, is probably right in arguing that it’s more complex than that: attitudes within any given society are highly variable, and the killing of such animals, though technically at times taboo, results as much from the modern erosion of traditional reverence as from the implementation of ‘superstitious’ fear. 

South Africa’s premier eco-poet, Douglas Livingstone, touches on something of this in an early translation of Shona poet Noel Kashaya’s poem, “Owl”:

When the children are all asleep, all light
extinguished, he starts to wheel
the world: this son-in-law of darkness.

With silent senses, his eyes bambara
groundnuts in a hollow stone, he knows
everything he sees, despite the darkness. [...]

No doubt it’s that eerie silence, punctuated by an unnerving screech or drum-like grunt, and the preternatural ability to navigate and hunt in darkness, that has prompted humans’ unsettled sense that the owl may be wiser than they are, privy to magical knowledge.

Oddly, I’ve found relatively few southern African poems centred on owls, though there may be many more passing mentions, such as this one from a stanza by unfairly-neglected Zimbabwean poet Rowland Moloney (from “Maleme”):

A shooting star zips over the hillcrest,
Trailing smoke. Leopard coughs, owl perceives,
Night snake slides into the leaves.
The prows of kopjes forge through seas of grass.

The owl is always there, penetrating us with those fierce, astonished eyes.  It’s indeed the eyes that transfix another Zimbabwe-resident poet, Noel Brettell, confronting him with himself, his own vulnerabilities and inadvertent cruelty. His poem “Wind and an Eagle-Owl” begins with the poet-speaker riding out into the hills in the wake of a stormy night’s quarrel with his wife, nature itself reflecting his mood, only to make a shocking discovery:

Crippled and craven, the plovers scattered crying
On the shouldering air, peevish, lamentable:
And in a fence, the great bird trapped and dying
With splintered scapulae spreadeagled there.
You luckless fellow of our night of wind,
Who through the breathing solitudes had hunted,
And blindly struck, like us, pinned
And broken on the barbs that we had blunted.

The poet searches for “a stick to kill you with”, and encounters only a terrible hatred in the owl’s “wildwood eyes”.

Though the imagery is viscerally immediate, Brettell’s owl is in a sense subordinated to the marital spat, becoming a symbol of it – unlike, say, Douglas Livingstone’s famous poem “Gentling a Wildcat”, which is wholly about the speaker’s relationship with the dying animal and its fundamental nature. The impulse to utilise the owl as symbolic of an inner emotional life also governs Peter Strauss’s lovely poem, “The Owl and the Moon”, from his 1999 volume of the same title.  The “insomniac” speaker strolls out into the garden, when

                                                an owl
Up in the righthand row of trees
Hears me, and hoots like a bicycle pump,
Protesting – his warning
Quite unmistakeably pointed my way.

Such singling out!
Such ominousness! I should be afraid.

This mythic dread does not quite persist in the “warm” evening, though, and the presence of the owl fades from the poem, as the speaker mulls over his life, feeling an obscure need to “confess” (to what we are not told, though “Venus” might have something to do with it). At any rate, the speaker concludes that his particular demons “are not of the dark”. The poem concludes with a kind of gentle mysteriousness:
By Marie-Lan Nguyen (User:Jastrow), 2009-02-28, CC BY 2.5,

This moon preserves recessions, reserves, profundities,
Secret darkness between the leaves. As if
A woodcutter were working there, the garden shouts and thunks
Like a pulse, like a heart in the ribcage –
An owl calls from the garden, the crickets cry:
My demons are not of the dark.

Not unrelated is the late Don Maclennan’s poem “The Owl of Minerva” – also the title poem of a complete collection (self-published in  2008; republished in the Collected Poems, PrintMatters, 2013).  The owl of Minerva or Athena, most famous from the tetradrachm image dating to the fifth century BC, was traditionally associated with wisdom and perspicacity; an owl flying over a battle formation was interpreted as Athena’s blessing. Maclennan prefaces the collection with a quotation from Hegel: “The Owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk” – meaning, it seems, that we understand things only on the cusp of their disappearance. More revealingly, a second epigraph, by Philip Caputo, reads: “Anyone who does not acknowledge the darkness in his nature will succumb to it.” Accordingly, the poem “The Owl of Minerva” is, characteristically, more about the recognition of our own pretensions and limitations than about either the owl or Minerva.

The signs of his life are
a white mound of excrement
below the tree
of fur and tiny bones,
and gentle, warning hoots
in the gathering dusk.

You cannot see
his predatory journeys
through the dark
to fill his maw with mice
and other lesser creatures,
only the chalky evidence
that something was alive
that thought its tiny consciousness
would last for ever.

Similarly, Wendy Woodward’s poem “Parallel worlds”, from her collection Love, Hades & Other Animals (Protea, 2008), draws on both the mythic and the natural cycles of predation, consumption, and defecation – the influence of the natural sciences making itself evident. In the poem, the poet-speaker, on her way to work, has been listening to Ted Hughes’ vigorous animal poems, then encountering two unexpected “avatars” of his unflinching vision: firstly a disconsolate feral kitten, secondly “a  spotted eagle owl, vigilant”:

The owl and I acknowledge each other
but the small cat muses on,
transfixed, apparently, by the terminal moraines
of the barren garden

After my meeting
the cat has gone from the quad
and the hills and plains of his wet desert

The owl, supreme, has marked the wall
with painterly excrement
white against the liver-dark bricks

If the owl has not already eaten the kitten, it seems only a matter of time...

Easily the most thorough-going use of the owl in southern African poetry is Michèle Betty’s recent volume, Metaphysical Balm (Dryad Press). The bulk of the poems are present-tense brief narratives, incident reports if you like, from the episodic ‘biography’ of a generalised, symbolically-laden “Owl”; the poems bear titles like “Owl’s birthright”, “The baptism of Owl”, “Owl confronts a crisis”, and “Owl’s alchemy”. That this is partly modelled on Ted Hughes’ volume of poems, Crow, is indicated by at least two poems, “Owl encounters Crow” and “Owl and Crow converse”. Betty is clearly offering a riposte of sorts to Hughes’ ugly, bloodied bird-character which, in that first encounter, sends Owl fleeing “in trepidation”.  But in the next two poems, Owl frees herself, or is freed by a “mystical creature” – Owl becomes a re-mythologised vector for addressing “spiritual longing”, for finding a “New Brain”, or Light itself. Betty draws on both modern neurological science and the “legion of old souls” embodied in numerous ancient traditions, from Athena to the Mayans to the Biblical, amplified by literary allusions from Hopkins to Zarathustra. These stories overlap and cross-fertilise, until one can, in a “utopian exhale”, find a kind of acceptance. The poem of that title reads:

Across the expanse
of a twilight sky,
a Sickle Moon
and the Evening Star,
Owl discerns mist
collecting resplendent
in humid air,
weightless as the down
feathers of her youth,
dispersing enigmatically
to settle in solitude,
refracted and reflected,
in puffs and pockets,
on each and every
shadow touched.

Owl becomes, in this view, a kind of embodiment of our kindlier, more spiritual natures. If only those of us who, intentionally or inadvertently, destroy owls or their habitats, would listen more closely.

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