Friday, 16 October 2015

Ten bear poems

I am not the only writer for whom bears are their muse, and I'm not thinking here of nursery rhymes, doggerel or poems for children about teddy bears, but grown-up poems about real life, if sometimes somewhat mythical, bears.
  1. Top of the list is Galway Kinnell's 'The Bear' from his 1968 collection Body Rags (and also in his Selected Poems). This is a strange and wonderful telling of a winter hunt of a bear, wounding the animal, following the trail of blood and climaxing when the hunter reaches the bear and kills him. 'I... tear him down his whole length/ and open him and climb in / and close him up after me, against the wind / and sleep.'  And thus there is a 'parabola of bear-transcendence' in which the poet becomes the bear. Extraordinary and totemic. 
  2. There's an echo of the same idea in Margaret Atwood's 'Bear Lament.' in her 2007 collection The Door. 'You once believed if you could only / crawl inside a bear, its fat and fur, / lick with its stubby tongue, take on / its ancient shape, its big paw /big paw big paw big paw / heavy-footed plod that keeps / the worldwide earthwork solid, this would // save you, in a crisis.' This idea of the bear as holding the earth together is so important, the recognition that it is a keystone of our ecosystems and that without them, we are threatened. The poem ends with the cry 'Oh bear, what now? And will the ground still hold? And how much longer?'
  3. Which of Ted Hughes' bear poems to choose? It has to be 'The Bear', from the 1967 collection Wodwo. 'In the huge, wide-open, sleeping-eye of the mountain / The bear is the gleam in the pupil / Ready to awake / And instantly focus.' Here is the bear as our guide from this life into death, or into another life.
  4. Much more recent is the wonderful 2012 collection Ice by Gillian Clarke, throughout which a polar bear is the presiding spirit. Forget some of the trite use of Ursus Maritimus as the 'poster bear' of climate change, here is the real thing, vulnerable and powerful. In the opening poem, 'Polar', she says,  ' I want him alive. / I want him fierce / with belly and breath and  growl and beating heart, / I want him dangerous...'
  5. J O Morgan's In Casting Off (published by Happenstance this year), is another collection with the presence of a white bear hovering in the margins of many poems. It makes itself known, splendidly, fishing in 'Dividing Line', when a leaping salmon caught by a bear 'ceases at once to be shape - becomes fish. // Its sideways thrash about the claws / that have punctured its course, that have drawn it / clear from its universe of water.... The blood / of the fish / becoming / the blood / of the bear.'
  6.  Mary Oliver's 'Truro Bear' (from The Truro Bear and other Adventures, 2008) is a possible bear, seen in the woods by people, 'three or four, / or two, or one.' She hasn't seen it herself, but she's watching out, and 'everywhere I look on the scratchy hillsides / shadows seem to grow shoulders.' Oh, I so know what that is like!
  7. There are lots of bears in Chrissy Williams' 2013 pamphlet Flying into the Bear, and some favourite lines. 'Everyone could use a  bear sometimes, everyone could use a wild bear..' So, to choose just one, it's 'The Invisible Bear', the one you fly into if you lie back at night and look up into the sky. 'There's not much comfort in a bear you can see through, but then / in times of not much comfort, reach out for what you can.'
  8. 'Eliza and the Bear' is the long title poem by Eleanor Rees' 2009 collection. It begins, 'I did not know my lover was a bear', and goes on from there...
  9. I have to include Kevin Cadwallender's Bear and the Elementals, which is online here, and consists entirely of bear poems, my favourite of which is, I think, 'Bear Somnus'. 'In the roll and scratch and snore / of winter, a dream enters .. death calls too, reminding / Bear that sleep is its cousin / and dreams are messengers.' 
  10. Finally, am I allowed to include one of mine? It's in my 2007 collection Castings, which you can get here, and given the time of year, its a seasonally appropriate autumn 'Polar Bear', hanging out in the multi-coloured woods near Churchill, Canada.

    Low-angled sun gleams
    through claret leaves
    and caribou lichens pale green
    in the first skiff of snow.

    A frozen hare watches
    the flight of a falcon
    and spruce fingers point
    where the winds will blow.

    Tamarack needles flutter
    and flurries of snow buntings dart
    over flaming jade, bronze
    and copper-leaved willow.

    Photographers get set to lie
    to freeze-frame your world
    starched, ice-bleached arctic
    whitewashing your rainbow.

    Here you lie in the forest
    a snoozing sumo wrestler
    under trees barely able to hold
    up the sky, so heavy with snow.

     So, which bear poems would you include in the list?

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