Tanis’ FaunaWatch updates can be followed on her Twitter account, @PoetTanis.
Tanis MacDonald’s poem, “Animal Passion” appeared in Issue 30 of The Puritan. Here she talks about writing the natural world, creating non-facts, and what happens during the act of “seeing and stating.”
I wrote “Animal Passion” just after reading Rebecca Solnit’s essay collection The Faraway Nearby, and I used a line that appears early in that book—“Moths drink the tears of sleeping birds”—as my poem’s first line. Solnit uses this line in a poetic sequence that runs the length of this prose book, moving through the book at the bottom of the page and looping back at the end. This genre-play in the midst of the essays is fitting because Solnit’s essays about the natural world are full of questions about human-nature interaction, and switching genres is a good way to shift registers of thought. The Faraway Nearby is a terrific read; Solnit is smart and political and interested in the awful details of existence, all of which was good fodder for my own work in the ongoing FaunaWatch Project.
“Animal Passion” is a FaunaWatch poem, part of a series I’m working on in which I look closely at how the natural and constructed worlds collide. I’ve been working with FaunaWatch on social media, making an increasingly snarly “life list” of observations. It involves stating which creatures pass through my gaze in a given time period, and I’ve been writing poems and essays about how that double act of seeing and stating is politicized, manipulated, distorted, and misperceived. A longer essay and complete description of the project can be found in my essay “Bioregion, Biopolitics, and the Creaturely List: The Trouble with FaunaWatch” in volume 30, issue 1 of Studies in Canadian Literature, but I’ll say here that a big part of FaunaWatch has been driven by my puzzling over what happens when we write the natural world.
The cultural assumption—not always but too often for my taste—is that nature refreshes us (like a spiritual wet wipe) or makes us transcend our petty social problems, like a kindly pantheistic therapist. I’m all for going out into nature to reconnect with oneself, or for peace and quiet, but that doesn’t automatically make for interesting reading. I find that thinking of nature as palliative and soothing is a bit blinkered, and that forced perspective misses a good deal of the experience of being outdoors: the discomfort, the oddness, the anxiety, the clashes between urban and rural. Not to mention violence, death, and decomposition. Recently, El Jones noted that white writers talk about “nature” instead of saying “land” because any mention of land echoes a history of colonialism, and she’s right. What about questions of power? Privilege? Gender? Colonization? Speciesism? Plenty of nature writing is not about beauty but about the complex and historical ways we co-exist with and in nature and how we manipulate its familiar strangeness.
The idea that one should be soothed by being outdoors—and worse, the implication that if you’re not, you’re doing it wrong—is embedded in our culture. However it is deeply suspect, particularly in that the whole idea depends upon a controlled and colonized experience of “nature”: one that won’t kill you. Maybe it’s because I’m from the prairies, but I am pretty aware that being outdoors can kill me. Like many urban dwellers, I’m a bit anxious in nature. I’m anxious about seeing animals in the wild, and I like it. I think it has a complex history, especially in Canada, that I don’t want to ignore. The Romantics knew this, and when they wrote about the sublime, that profound unease was a big part of it. There are contemporary writers who are Neo-Romantics, or something close to it, and they work to attenuate that thread between awe and terror. But I’m not really a Neo-Romantic because I’m too interested in satire and too suspicious of describing beauty, which always just sounds like a big lie in my voice. I like to write the smashed-togetherness of things: a cocktail of odd affects and unlikely influences. I’m more like a neo-absurdist bluestocking; what we call the natural world is filled with lived contradictions for me.
But back to the poem: one of the pleasurable things about studying any natural history is the amount of facts—some fascinating, some banal—that will flow by you. When you read enough of them, these facts begin to form a poetics of the wild clothespegged to the string of a list. A list is a demanding form: it asserts that items must be read for similarity and difference; it suggests scientific or empirical truth; it implies order. Every detail is important, and yet every detail strains against its own importance to vanish into the body of the list. “Animal Passion” is a fake natural history list, starting with a real fact and moving quickly into absurd non-facts. I knew that it was starting to work when a writer friend who read an early draft asked “where did you get that information?”. I loved that she was suspicious of my source, and as well she should be, because the “fact” she was questioning isn’t true. I won’t tell you which “fact” she was referring to, but there’s plenty to choose from. That’s part of the poem, too: an undermining of authority by imitating it, and an unsettling of subjectivity and place.
Tanis MacDonald is the author of three books of poetry, including Rue the Day (Turnstone Press). Recent poems have appeared or are forthcoming in CV2, Prairie Fire, PRISM International, Canthius, Our Times, and Poetry is Dead, and in the anthology Best Canadian Poetry 2015. She writes and watches fauna in Waterloo, Ontario.