Having finally got around to reading the Salt Anthology of Younger Poets cover-to-cover, I’m discovering a number of wonderful writers. One is Miranda Cichy, whose poem ‘Bear’ deftly treads the line between human and animal, and the one between the known and the unknown – or the knowable and unknowable – that lends a frisson of inexhaustible interest to relationships and poems alike.
by Miranda Cichy
We met in civilisation; someone had dressed you
in a suit. Brown hair rustled taut beneath the shirt
and nudged over the collar, I dropped my eyes
as the bear books said I should. Later I walked
to the centre of the woods to find you,
bare, clothes shed beneath the tallest tree.
Some suggest lying on the ground, and passively
waiting for the bear to lose interest. The earth
was fleshy soft, the leaves like damp confetti
as your claws trailed ragged across my back.
In the morning I passed bees like cherries
through your swollen lips, purring black and yellow
lamentations as their tiny bones cracked.
But bears generally lead solitary lives. I backed
away with my palms up, speaking calmly.
I saw you dance just once, with lumbering steps,
circling the keeper whose hands mauled your fur,
the chains looped round your paw and hers.
Bears have a long history of doing duty as analogues for human beings. I think it’s because they stand on their hind-legs; they can hurt us, but they can also dance like us, be hurt like us. The same Elizabethan theatre-goers who first bore witness to Shakespeare’s profound insights into the human character also went in their thousands to see these animals bound to a stake and savaged; and returned days later to the same, or similar buildings, to see Lear and Macbeth be torn apart in near-identical scenographic conditions.
The first two stanzas are two mirrored scenes, in which each protagonist in turn visits the other’s natural habitat. The vagueness of ‘civilisation’ is unable to contain the physical specifics of the animal – he chafes at the restraint of clothing, ‘brown hair… taut’, and this immutable presence induces a bashful modesty in the speaker, the speed of whose reaction is suggested by the quick-fire comma that swings the line along where we might expect a semi-colon or a full-stop to pause the scene.
Throughout the poem there’s a tension between what the bear is supposed to be like in the books, the generic figure held at a safe, italic distance, and the bodily individuality gradually depicted in the second and third stanzas, an opposition supported by Cichy’s pun: ‘bear’ vs ‘bare’, the idea and the exposed example. In his own territory, the ‘earth’ and ‘leaves’ of the forest combine to give the scene the all-embracing physicality that ‘civilisation’ lacks, but the savagery implied by that uncontainable, rustling hair is held at bay; all is ‘damp’, ‘fleshy soft’, and even bees are disarmed, turned into a sweet, soft fruit. While there’s no particular rhyme-scheme to the poem, ‘ack’ and ‘ee’ sounds drift lightly through these two stanzas, a ragged trail that holds them loosely together.
The forest encounter intermingles the dark and weird and the recognisably human – ‘confetti’ suggests a marriage, ‘in the morning’ some kind of lovers’ aubade, but as far as I remember it in Romeo and Juliet, nobody eats any bees. And the bear has a familiar blend of ferocity and sympathetic vulnerability: the light, sexualised pressure of his trailing ‘claws’ hints at their potential for violence against the ‘fleshy soft’ earth, and we hear ‘bones cracked’, but only ‘tiny’ ones. But elsewhere it is the bear we see suffering, with ‘swollen’ lips, ‘mauled’ and ‘lumbering’, a captive figure deprived of elegance.
The narrator, following the bear books’ guidance, anticipates a figure who desires solitude, but the poem belies this prescriptive certainty; there is a third figure all along, the ‘someone’ who dresses the bear in the poem’s first line who may or may not be the ‘keeper’ at the end. While Cichy’s speaker and the reader might want to imagine coercion, the ending is closer to a masochistic contract – the chains are ‘looped’, not ‘locked’, and ‘your paw and hers’ gives the third party an ursine quality, a shared bear-status from which the speaker is excluded and can only observe with an all-too-human bafflement.
I can think of at least two modern songs making mileage of the closeness between bears and humans – this Randy Newman classic, a parable of acceptance, and the much darker approach suggested by the Hold Steady’s raucous take on a lyric from the Game of Thrones series. If you know any other songs or poems that play with this comparison, I’d love to hear about them.