Poetic Animals and Animal Souls – Mesoamerican Study on Animals

Mesoamerican Study on Animals

Malamud, Randy. “Poetic Animals and Animal Souls.” Society and Animals, Volume 6, No. 3, 1998: 263-77.

Randy Malamud offers “a critical frame” for appraising positively a “canon of animal poetry” based on Mesoamerican anthropological studies which diverge from negative attitudes toward nonhuman animals in industrialized cultures. In the West, interest in animals generally rings hollow and accords them shallow respect. Animal poetry may counter our “speciesist chauvinism” by presenting an ethos that recognizes “the sanctity and parity of nonhuman animals.”

Mesoamericans live out their belief system as a valorization of animal life. They link individual souls to “the forces of the earth, the cosmos, and the divine,” says anthropologist G. H. Gossen who studies the southern Mexican Chamula, Mayan descendants who believe that everyone possesses a “companion animal.” I. Rigoberta Menchu writes of Guatemalan Quiche culture which resembles the Chamula in affirming animals’ importance for and interdependence with people: every child is born with a shadow-like nahual–a protective animal spirit who accompanies him through life. It is explicitly connected to an external animal counterpart—the co-essence or double–enabling human communication with nature. In Quiche agricultural rituals, farmers ask the earth’s permission to cultivate her. She is the mother of man; Mesoamerican respect for the well-being of all animals contrasts sharply with its absence in industrialized cultures.

Malamud examines three Western poets who attribute dignity and value to nonhuman animals. Marianne Moore features animals whose eloquence teaches her readers to respect them in their own habitats, on their own terms, and not transpose them into Western distorted, artificial constructs. Her attention to and expansive meditation on animal lives suggest she is the rare individual who takes them seriously. In “The Fish,” her animals march to “their own beat”; the poem suggests how animals might really look and act. Her poetry creates “noble, soul-infused animals” that can be compared to those of poets who believe in animal souls.

Gary Snyder imbues his animals with integrity and deeply admires their power. Tragic dissonance is self-evident in such poems as “The Dead by the Side of the Road,” a catalogue of animals carelessly slain by people, and “Mother Earth: Her Whales,” juxtaposing animals’ magnificence with people’s dishonorable treatment of them. Like Mesoamericans, Snyder is intensely attuned to the intricate links between people and animals and exhibits spiritual reverence for them.

Jose Emilio Pacheco shows the variety and complexity of each animal’s life in “An Ark for the Next Millennium.” Like Snyder and Moore, he evokes “an acutely rapturous vision of animals, their quotidian existence far from the range of normal human vision.” In “Octopus,” the poet clearly conveys his belief in the divinity of animals and their importance. Pacheco offers a picture that reflects his sincere fascination with all the other species that exist in our world. He describes the conditions of animals with eloquent simplicity and aspires to inform readers of what is going on in their world. In the prose poem, “Augury,” for example, the animals flee Mexico City’s environmental destruction and death. As in Mesoamerican spirituality, Pacheco’s poetry alerts us to the importance of animals in our biosphere and the danger implicit in their absence.

E. A. Lawrence also argues for special insights of animal poetry. If we aspire to “restore, preserve and enhance the human bond with animals,” we must recognize that this bond “emanates from the same kind of experiences as myth, folklore, and poetry, whose languages are symbolic.” The dynamics of the human-animal bond grants animals potent parity with humanity by acknowledging their spiritual force and equitable interaction with people. Animals crucially matter and embody a spirit and ecological potency on their own terms.

Animal poetry may offer the best hope for embracing a sound relationship with animals and an appreciation of their importance on earth. Malamud contends that their spirituality is quite natural, rooted firmly in the biological order and ecology shared by all life. Animals have all the traits indicative of soul and sentience. If we open our hearts to other creatures, we will find that they have the power to touch and transform us. If we can approximate Mesoamerican metaphysics, we will have ventured closely to the rhythms and workings of the natural world. We may find, or at least approach, our own animal souls through these poetic animals, Malamud believes, and animal poetry may help to create the enlightened outlook toward animals and nature as the one held in Mesoamerica.

Summary by Barbara Beierl

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