some by branching by bivalve by colony by loping by leaping
some disguised in waiting in watching by blending in motion
some in color in welcome whose wealth was seduction
some drinking tears eating dirt wearing sky on their backs
some belonged to an emperor hive tribe lived alone
some escaped by stampede by flocking by stealth or by potion
some were shot some were slaughtered trapped stamped
wrapped round wrists waists shoulders feet
some tarried too long claimed by bounty by warrant by border
by deed by the armaments of language
some are smuggled suffocated separated
whose night is flight is howling is barefoot
whose stable is dirt whose rock
is courtesy whose weather is warning
whose retreat is no refuge whose fortune is ashes
whose return is despair whose
demise will be dutifully reported
Click here to read Wendy Drexler on the origin of the poem.
Image: “Animal heads” by Colin Davis, licensed under CC 2.0.
I wrote “Types of Animals” close to midnight on the last night of a Carl Phillips workshop last August at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, MA. Carl’s prompt was to write a poem with no punctuation except white space and to use a plural point of view. Desperate for inspiration, I opened a book I’d bought earlier that week: artist, printmaker, and cartographer Mark Adams’ Expedition. Thumbing through, I randomly turned to “Types of animals,” an odd list poem that included, in bulleted form, such entries as “Those that belong to the emperor,” which I appropriated for my poem; “Those drawn with a very fine camel hair brush;” “Those that, at a distance, resemble flies;” and “Mermaids (or Sirens).” The note under the list states, “Borges claims that the list was discovered in its Chinese source by the translator Franz Kuhn.” The irreverence and playfulness of Borges’s categories opened a frenzied channel of words driven mostly by sound and meter. Much of the poem tumbled out, except for the ending, which I struggled over. When I read about each new diminishment of species, each poached elephant, each new wave of migrating warblers falling dead from the sky for lack of available insects to fuel their journey, each new extinction, each new greedy appropriation of resources, the dutiful reporting is essential but can sometimes deaden me to the losses (maybe because they seem so overwhelming), and I just want to scream.