Friday, September 8, 2017

'The Animals Reject their Names & Things Return to Their Origins' by Margaret Atwood

{ Nature writings by Margaret Atwood }
An excerpt from The Tent.

" I.
It was the bear who began it. Said,
I’m getting out from under.
I am not Bear, l'Ours, Ursus, Bär
or any other syllables
you’ve pinned on me.
Forget the chateu tapestries
in which I’m led in embroidered chains.
and the scarlet glories of the hunt
that was only glorious for you,
you with your clubs and bludgeons.

Forget the fairy tales, in which I was
your shaggy puppet, prince in hairshirt, surrogate
for human demons.
I’m not your coat, rug, glass-eyed trophy head,
plush bedtime toy, and that’s not me
in outer space with my spangled cub.
I’m not your totem; I refuse
to dance in your circuses; you cannot carve
my soul in stone.

I renounce metaphor: I am not
child-stealer, shape-changer,
old garbage-eater, and you can stuff
simile also: unpeeled,
I am not like a man.

I take back what you have stolen,
and in your languages I announce
I am now nameless.
My true name is a growl.

(Come to think of it, I am not
a British headdress either:
I do not signify bravery.
I want to go back to eating salmon
without all this military responsibility.)

I follow suit, said the lion,
vacating his coat of arms
and movie logos; and the eagle said,
Get me off this flag.

At this the dictionaries began to untwist,
and time stalled and reversed;
the sweaters wound back into their balls of wool,
which rolled bleating out into the meadows;
the perfumes returned to France
and old men there fell sweetly dead
from a surfeit of aroma.
Priests gave their dresses up again
to the women, and the women ditched their alligator shoes in a hurry
before their former owners turned up to claim them.

The violins of the East Coast shores
took flight from the fingers of their players,
sucking in waltzes, laments, and reels,
landed in Scotland, fell apart
wih wailing into their own wood and sinew
and vanished into the trees
and into the gus and howls of long-dead cats
and the tails of knackered horses.
Songs crammed themselves back down the throats of their singers,
and a billion computers blew apart
and homed in chip by chip
on the brains of the inventors.

Squashed mice were shot backwards out of traps,
brides and grooms uncoupled like shunting trains,
tins of sardines exploded, releasing their wiggling shoals;
dinosaur bones whizzed like missiles
out of museums back to the badlands,
and bullets flew sizzling into their guns.
Glass beads popped off gowns and moccasins
and fell on Italy in a hail of dangerous color,
as white people disappeared over the Atlantic
in a whoosh of pollution, vainly clutching
their power tools, car keys, and lawn mowes
which dove like metal fish back into the mines;
black people too, recapturing syncopation;
all flowers were suctioned budwise into their stems.
The native peoples made speedy clearance work
of cowboys and longhorns, but then took off
westward instead, chanting goodbye
to ancestral plains, which were reclaimed
by shaggy mastodons and the precursors of horses
and everywhere
the children shrank and begun to
drop teeth and grow hair.

Well, there were suddenly a lot more flamingos
before they in their turn became eggs,
while people’s bodies reverted through their own
flesh genealogies like stepping stones,
man woman man, container into contained,
shedding language and gathering themsleves in,
skein after skein of protoplasm

until there was only one of them,
alone at the first naming;
but the streetwise animals, forewarned
and having learned the diverse meanings
of the word dominion,
did not show up,
and Adam, inarticulate, deprived of his arsenal of proper nouns,
returned to mud
and mud itself became lava
and lava the uncooled earth
and the uncooled earth a swirl of white-hot
energy, and the energy jammed itself
into its own potential, and swirled
like fluorescent bathwater
down a non-existent wormhole.

I could end this with a moral,
as if this were a fable about animals,
though no fables are really about animals.

I could say: Don’t offend the bear,
don’t tell bad jokes about him,
have compassion on his bear heart;
I could say, Think twice
before you speak.
I could say, Don’t take the name of anything in vain.

But it’s far too late for that,
because you can’t read this,
because you can’t remember the word for read,
because you are dizzy with aphasia,

because the page darkens and ripples
because it is liquid and unbroken,
because God has bitten his own tongue
and the first bright word of creation
hovers in the formless void

Margaret Atwood. "The Animals Reject their Names and Things Return to Their Origins." The Tent. 2006. McClelland Stewart, Toronto.
Hieronymus Bosch. The Garden of Earthly Delights (detail). 1494-1505. Prado Museum, Madrid.
This article was originally published on a retired domain and has been republished for archival purposes.

Join the conversation!

short form

© the repvblic of letters.