Wilderness by Patti Smith
Do animals make a human cry
when their loved one staggers
fowled dragged down
the blue veined river
Does the female wail
miming the wolf of suffering
do lilies trumpet the pup
plucked for skin and skein
Do animals cry like humans
as I having lost you
curled in a ball
This is how
we beat the icy field
shoeless and empty handed
hardly human at all
Negotiating a wilderness
we have yet to know
this is where time stops
and we have none to go
Wilderness is quite germane to some situation I’m in at the moment. I came across this particular poem as the Saturday poem of the first week of December, in The Guardian Books section. Then, it was about a couple of weeks since I gave up my two cats, and, now, a few weeks back, another two more. Lately I have been having panic attacks thinking about their future. I’m assured of the good placements of the earlier pair, one of them a kitten only a few months old. He is having a great life, I know, because his new owner carries him around everywhere she goes. And his big brother loves to wander around the housing estate, coming back only late at night, preferring to sleep outside the house, in a cat carrier. The other two still worry me as I have no idea how they are getting on, and one of them is the mother to all the other three Toms.
So, Do animals make a human cry, when their loved one staggers/ … Does the female wail/ miming the wolf of suffering ?
You would notice that the lines in the first three stanzas are instinctively read out as questions, even though there are no question marks to indicate them as such. Actually, overall, there is not a single punctuation, of any kind: no commas to help you to pause or to demarcate syntactical groupings, no full stops to signal a sentence pause. You are only aware of the start of a new sentence by the capitalization on the first line of every stanza.
Of the absence of the question marks, the poet is telling the reader that the questions may also be assertions or statements. Yes, she could aver, animals do sometimes make cries that sound human when their young and mates are injured. In the second stanza it is not so obvious if the female here is referring to someone human. But I bet it could well be, when the next, or third, stanza, has for the first line a variation of that of the first stanza. In the third stanza the animal and human elements in pain and loss are brought together, and, closer still, those of the person of the poet or narrator.
We now know the reason she is asking (or stating) those questions. She herself has lost someone, and her pain is so very graphic in the lines with yowled flagged/curled in a ball. These lines have poignance when each verb is read out with such emphasis, without even needing any commas to separate them to slow the pace. The three words utilize the “l” sounds to draw out the reading, much like some ululation; also “ed” helps to put some virtual pauses between the words. You should note that yowled flagged echoes fowled dragged in assonance in the first stanza, also in a third line. These two groups link the pain and loss felt by animals to similar emotions in humans, particularly the poet’s personally.
In the penultimate stanza, even if we can beat the icy field (standing for pain, perhaps) by being shoeless and empty handed (like animals), the poets tells us this is not human in nature. Of mother nature, she instills some human traits, into the river with “blue veins”, and into flowers, with lilies crying out.
In the last stanza nature is invoked again, for the last time, as a wilderness, where we are still not aware of time stopping here. The way the line breaks after wilderness, without a comma we can mistake the next groupings to be describing this wilderness. But, really, reading past “know” onto the next line, we realize those groupings are not qualifying “wilderness”.
The last line, with “none”, can be taken as and there is no more to move into. Or and we have nothing to go to. However, as the preposition to is missing at the end, those interpretations are very shaky. “None” can also be a Roman Catholic service used to be read or chanted at 3pm or before. This is the ninth canonical hour beginning from sunrise. So, we can read this as this is where time stops, when we chant the none.
Again, I could be wrong, as there are no religious motifs to imply none as religious, and the main motifs are all of Nature and rather pagan.
And this is also where the poet appropriately ends her lines and does not pen more.
Note on poet: Patti Smith is famous as a punk rocker in the 70's, with her debut album "Horses". Her latest book of poems "Auguries of Innocence" is out this year from Virago of UK.