David Alexander published the poem “Food of the Gods, a How-To Guide” in The Puritan Issue 33, Spring 2016. Like many of his poems, it’s about chickens.
I’m eating wings at Ethel’s Lounge in Waterloo, 2005. My friend Sonal is vegan, and we’re close enough that she doesn’t mind needling me about dinner. “What kind of pacifist eats meat?”
We became friends as participants in a six-week peace camp pitched on the front lawn of Wilfrid Laurier University in 2003. The camp was our small, symbolic protest against US military “intervention” in Iraq. Ideas about non-violence and political protest infused our reading lists, conversations, and the letters we wrote to Canada’s then-thriving national newspapers.
But what did my newfound commitment to non-violence have to do with eating wings? I was interested in the suffering of people, not animals. Surely there must be laws protecting chickens from undue pain (there aren’t). The animals in my country must live on pastoral farms with kindly shepherds (they don’t). What if we did all become vegetarian? What would happen to innumerable cows, pigs, and chickens if we stopped eating them?
A more compassionate world for animals seemed like a naive daydream. When I caught myself echoing the logic of neoconservative war-makers, I understood the force of her challenge to me. In the decade since, questions around animal suffering and exploitation have become central to my political identity and, after several floundering attempts, my poetic practice.
I started writing poems about chickens three years ago. I experimented with translations, erasures, centos, found poems, and other forms to explore the rich borderland between where chickens exist and where they enter the human imagination. I’ve interrogated fables, mythology, advertising slogans, health advisories, forums about backyard hens, and more. Many of these poems engage with the history of chickens and their evolving cultural meaning—Andrew Lawler’s How Did the Chicken Cross the World? was an excellent resource in this regard.
The most interesting poems have arrived unexpectedly. “Food for the Gods, a How-To Guide” was sparked when a peculiar, archaic movie trailer popped up on my Twitter feed. The film in question promised a prescient look at an ecology gone berserk from the author who accurately predicted the atomic bomb, the moon landing, and ray guns. I hadn’t heard of the 1904 H.G. Wells novella on which the film was loosely based, but the giant chickens in the trailer were enough to capture my attention.
The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth is a cautionary tale about an experimental substance that can massively speed up growth in any organism. Despite its century-old genesis, the story resonates with contemporary anxieties around genetically modified foods and the widespread use of pesticides and antibiotics in modern farming. But what really struck me about The Food of the Gods and its ’70s B-movie special effects was the reversal of the power dynamic between the film’s humans and its overgrown chickens, wasps, earwigs, and rats—animals typically seen as ours to control or domesticate. There was something cutely dark in the way the rats sniffed and scampered in vicious pursuit of the film’s protagonists.
At the turn of the 20th century, when Wells was writing, raising chickens was considered a hobby for women. Poultry farming was integral only to marginalized communities who lacked access to the investments required to raise more lucrative livestock. But with the onset of war and economic depression, chickens, raised in backyards and fed inedible scraps, became part of the war effort. Government sponsored awards and conferences sought to revolutionize chicken farming. By the end of the Second World War, selective breeding enabled farmers to produce vastly more profitable chickens, capable of packing on weight more quickly and laying eggs more frequently than previously thought possible.
By treating chickens to the same assembly line industrialization that transformed North American manufacturing in the early 20th century, chicken farming went from backyards to big business. In effect, chickens have become our most populous contemporary—and paid dearly for that privilege. Mass farming has evolved shorter and crueler lives for these birds, whose beaks, for example, are commonly removed so they can be packed more tightly into battery cages without pecking each other to death.
What is the future of chicken, our most populous contemporary, who owe their proliferation—and degradation—to our playing God?
Twentieth century animal agriculture has taken its toll on human life, as well. The mass production of chickens, cows, and pigs continues to place vulnerable workers in physical and psychic peril. Foodborne illness precipitates mass consumer recalls and the destruction of entire herds and flocks. The ecological toll of animal agriculture accounts for one-fifth of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions and contributes significantly to soil degradation, air pollution, and contamination of marine habitats and groundwater systems.
If the best science fiction reflects on contemporary social and political realities, then the science fiction of the past enables us to revisit historical anxieties and peek back at the world as it might have been. It is striking that by interrogating the scientific progress of his era, Wells hit on a question that has so radically altered the landscape of contemporary animal agriculture, one worth recasting today: What is the future of chicken, our most populous contemporary, who owe their proliferation—and degradation—to our playing God?
As more of us reckon with the reality of life for chickens, cows, pigs, and other animals embedded in contemporary mass food systems, perhaps something like a vegan ethic will take hold and we will look back on meat-eating as the writers of Star Trek: The Next Generation once foretold. Perhaps the best hope for chickens lies in Silicon Valley, where food scientists dream of cheap, synthetic meat. Perhaps the profit motive can yield a more humane system for chickens in this century than it did in the last.
David Alexander is the author of the chapbooks Chicken Scratch (Puddles of Sky Press, 2014) and Modern Warfare (Anstruther Press, 2016). His poems, often about chickens, have appeared in Lemon Hound, The Steel Chisel, CV2, The Malahat Review, Poetry is Dead, and subTerrain. He lives in Toronto.