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April is National Poetry Month so I have been trying to think of how best to celebrate an art which is at least as old as writing and as broad as humankind. Should I return to the epic beginnings and feature a Sumerian ode of ziggurats, abzus, and strange gods? Should we fly through time and space to a mountain village of the Sung dynasty and listen to the thoughts of a bearded sage drinking rice wine? We can visit a Greek battlefield, a Roman brothel, a Spanish galleon to watch history unfold–or alternately we could look at ourselves through the mirror of poetry by visiting a contemporary journal to read the works of poets who are still alive and trying to make sense of the turmoil which is the present. Historians record the basic plot of humankind’s doings over the long strange centuries, but poetry provides the life, the character, and the essence of what it is to live.
But to return to the conundrum of which poem to feature for Poetry month, I have decided to look back to my tempestuous teenage years by featuring my first girlfriend’s favorite poem, Goblin Market, written by Christina Rossetti and published in 1862. The work is outwardly a gothic fairy tale about two sisters who are continuously tempted by the sumptuous otherworldly fruit peddled by bestial & obscene goblin-men. What the poem is really about has been a hot topic of debate since it was written. Paradoxically the work is nakedly and explicitly erotic while also completely chaste. It is beautiful while also shockingly ugly. It is sad and troubling with an ending of golden transcendent joy. Before we get into any more spoilers, here are the first two stanzas (which will immediately reveal why any lover of gardens or gothic imagery likes this poem). I am including these lines because it would be a cruel jape to write a post about poetry which featured no actual poetry, but I cannot exhort you strongly enough to read the entire poem here.
MORNING and evening
Maids heard the goblins cry:
“Come buy our orchard fruits,
Come buy, come buy:
Apples and quinces,
Lemons and oranges,
Plump unpecked cherries-
Melons and raspberries,
Wild free-born cranberries,
All ripe together
In summer weather–
Morns that pass by,
Fair eves that fly;
Come buy, come buy;
Our grapes fresh from the vine,
Pomegranates full and fine,
Dates and sharp bullaces,
Rare pears and greengages,
Damsons and bilberries,
Taste them and try:
Currants and gooseberries,
Figs to fill your mouth,
Citrons from the South,
Sweet to tongue and sound to eye,
Come buy, come buy.”
Evening by evening
Among the brookside rushes,
Laura bowed her head to hear,
Lizzie veiled her blushes:
Crouching close together
In the cooling weather,
With clasping arms and cautioning lips,
With tingling cheeks and finger-tips.
“Lie close,” Laura said,
Pricking up her golden head:
We must not look at goblin men,
We must not buy their fruits:
Who knows upon what soil they fed
Their hungry thirsty roots?”
“Come buy,” call the goblins
Hobbling down the glen.
“O! cried Lizzie, Laura, Laura,
You should not peep at goblin men.”
Lizzie covered up her eyes
Covered close lest they should look;
Laura reared her glossy head,
And whispered like the restless brook:
“Look, Lizzie, look, Lizzie,
Down the glen tramp little men.
One hauls a basket,
One bears a plate,
One lugs a golden dish
Of many pounds’ weight.
How fair the vine must grow
Whose grapes are so luscious;
How warm the wind must blow
Through those fruit bushes.”
“No,” said Lizzie, “no, no, no;
Their offers should not charm us,
Their evil gifts would harm us.”
She thrust a dimpled finger
In each ear, shut eyes and ran:
Curious Laura chose to linger
Wondering at each merchant man.
One had a cat’s face,
One whisked a tail,
One tramped at a rat’s pace,
One crawled like a snail,
One like a wombat prowled obtuse and furry,
One like a ratel tumbled hurry-scurry.
Lizzie heard a voice like voice of doves
Cooing all together:
They sounded kind and full of loves
In the pleasant weather.
Hopefully you read the entire poem (or re-read it if you are familiar with it). Critics continue to debate what it is about. Most contemporary scholars tend to view the work as some sort of feminist allegory concerning the unfair treatment women were subjected to in Victorian (and subsequent) society. Other modern critics read it as a (barely) disguised defense of homosexuality. Still other groups of readers have interpreted the poem as a critique of consumer culture and the ubiquity of advertisement, or a story about drug addiction, or an allegory of religious indoctrination. Perhaps it was a work by Rossetti about art itself which, evermore, seems to consist of pursuing sensuous ghosts into a pauper’s grave. All of those ideas are valid and correct, yet there is even more to the poem. As I mentioned, it was the favorite work of my (anguished) first lover back when I was a jejune teenager. When reading the poem it is hard for me not to think of her and her beautiful sister and wonder which was Laura and which was Lizzie. Yet beyond aching personal feelings (which a good poem should stir up) there is an overarching tale about humankind in this poem which is bigger than the individual strands of desire and gender and subversion.
The Goblin Market after all mirrors the story of the fall from Eden. There is tempting fruit and the (near fatal) consumption of the same. It is a shocking tale of being cursed by one’s own desires and appetites and then redeemed by love.
The world is a marketplace. There are always a troop of goblins trying to sell us something which is bad for us–whether it is toxic gender stereotypes, or poisonous religious doctrine, or addictive narcotics, or endless shoddy consumer goods. Celebrate National Poetry month by discarding some of the poisonous habits of thought you have picked up from the disfigured little merchants. Don’t accept fallacious ideas about yourself or what you want! If by some dread mischance you are languishing under someone else’s ideas or impositions you may need a dear friend to break the curse. That person might be a family member or a lover or a close friend, or it might be a strange unmarried Victorian poet who has been dead for more than a century but whose words live on as a glowing antidote to life’s poisoned fruit.
[A Side Note: Rossetti’s religious poetry won her high esteem from the Church of England. She is enshrined in the Episcopalian liturgical calendar with a feast day—today in fact, April 27th.]
It’s the final day of Furry Mammal Herbivore week which has so far featured two different lagomorphs, one rodent, and the enigmatic hyrax. To mix things up a bit we are ending with a marsupial–the stolid wombat. The wombat’s unusual moniker comes from the Eora language which was spoken by the Aboriginal people who originally inhabited the Sidney area. There are three species of wombats and all are powerful burrowing herbivores which are active mostly at twilight and at night. Wombats are marsupials but the openings of their pouches face backwards to prevent dirt from getting inside as they dig. Although wombats are not often seen, their presence can be identified by the many burrows which they excavate and by their distinctive cubic scat which looks like bouillon cubes (you’ll have to look it up on your own).
Wombats are larger than this week’s other herbivores, reaching nearly a meter (3 feet) in length. Although they are preyed on by dingos and Tasmanian Devils, their large muscles and heavy claws give them some protection (as does their tailless haunch which is composed largely of dense cartilage). A predator following a wombat into a burrow is confronted not only with the shield-like flesh of their rear-quarters but also with fearsome donkey kicks from their powerful back legs. Wombats are never far from their burrows since they construct up to 12 at various spots around their territory. Even if they are related to the dimwitted koalas, wombats are said to have a more complicated brain than other marsupials (although their intelligence in no way approaches that of the brilliant monotreme echidna) and they often surprise trappers and zoologists with their clever evasive thinking. Additionally, when hard pressed, they can run 100 meters in less than 10 seconds—impressive when one learns the human world record is 9.58 seconds.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, painter, poet and weirdo, used the wombat to parody the Victorian taste for overly lugubrious gothic melodrama in his sad drawing “The death of a Wombat” (above). The drawing shows a sobbing plump Victorian gentleman weeping for his deceased wombat friend while declaiming the following lament:
I never reared a young Wombat
To glad me with his pin-hole eye,
But when he most was sweet & fat
And tail-less; he was sure to die!
The work might be a parody but I find the poor dead wombat curiously affecting. Fortunately all wombats are now protected by Australian law. However human settlement has caused the two species of hairy nosed wombats to move up into the mountains where their burrowing is less effective and provides poorer defense against predators. Additionally all wombats have been having trouble competing for grazing with cattle, sheep, and above all rabbits. Hopefully wombats will continue to endure–the endearing little bulldozers are an irreplaceable component of Australia and Tasmania.
The paper nautilus, aka the argonaut (family Argonautidae) bears an uncanny resemblance to the majestic nautiloids of yore. This resemblance becomes bizarre when one realizes that the resemblance is superficial. The paper nautilus is no nautiloid at all.* It is in fact an octopus. Its shell is not a true shell manufactured within an internal shell sack (as in other mollusks), but is rather an egg case secreted and delicately assembled by the female. It is as though, instead of having a protective skeleton from birth, you were expected to build one and hatch your young inside of it.
Argonauts are pelagic predators, hunting planktonic mollusks, minnows, and small octopi and squid. Like other cephalopods, they can change colors and alter their shape. They move by means of jet propulsion. Argonauts exemplify one of the most formidable traits of the cephalopod: intelligence. To quote Marcie Orenstein’s Marine Animals of Bermuda, “These animals often form associations with gelatinous marine species, utilizing them for food, locomotion, and protection.” For example Argonauts are often found clutching the top of jellyfish and steering the latter around the ocean. The Argonaut eats through the jellyfish’s mantle into its digestive tract. It can thereafter rely on the jellyfish’s tentacles as a sort of fishing apparatus with which to catch prey (which it takes from inside the jellyfish’s gastral cavity). The jellyfish further serves as a protective shield, for the argonaut’s predators, such as tuna and dolphins, tend to shun such hydrozoans. Additionally the Argonaut gets a free ride for as long as its jellyfish remains alive.
I mentioned above that only female argonauts build shells. The male is a strange armorless dwarf, a tenth the size of the female. One of the male argonaut’s arms, the hectocotylus, is specialized for mating. The Tree Of Life Argonaut webpage describes this process, “At mating, the hectocotylus, which carries one large spermatophore, breaks out of its sac and then from the male body. The free hectocotylus invades, or is deposited in, the female’s mantle cavity, where it remains viable and active for some time.” Georges Cuvier first discolvered the hectocotylus but mistakenly described the organ as a worm parasitic on the female argonaut.
The paper-thin calcareous shell of the female argonaut is truly an egg case. It is shaped in a Fibonacci spiral for reasons which are unclear, however, like a nautiloid’s shell, it contains a bubble of air which the adult female nautilus manipulates for buoyancy. Aristotle wrote that the Argonaut used its egg case and its flattened tentacles to catch the wind and sail, however there is no current evidence of such behavior (although cephalopods travel all sorts of strange ways). When the eggs grow large in the shell case and hatch, the female is pushed out of her egg case and she dies. Marianne Moore very beautifully described the female argonaut’s maternal solicitude in her poem The Paper Nautilus (while additionally cross-referencing the hydra, which we love at this blog). Moore describes the female argonaut as a metaphor for creativity:
for she is in
a sense a devil-
fish, her glass ram’shorn-cradled freight
is hid but is not crushed;
as Hercules, bitten
by a crab loyal to the hydra,
was hindered to succeed,
watched eggs coming from
the shell free it when they are freed
(From The Complete Poems of Marianne Moore. Copyright © 1961 Marianne Moore)
*Of the shelled nautiloids which once ruled earth, which teemed in countless numbers through the oceans of the Paleozoic and the Mesozoic, exactly one species is left–the magnificent pearly nautilus, concerning which, more anon.