30 November 2015

Poem of the Week 2015/48

Turkeys Observed

One observes them, one expects them;
Blue-breasted in their indifferent mortuary,
Beached bare on the cold marble slabs
In immodest underwear frills of feather.

The red sides of beef retain
Some of the smelly majesty of living:
A half-cow slung from a hook maintains
That blood and flesh are not ignored.

But a turkey cowers in death.
Pull his neck, pluck him, and look –
He is just another poor forked thing,
A skin bag plumped with inky putty.

He once complained extravagantly
In an overture of gobbles;
He lorded it on the claw-flecked mud
With a grey flick of his Confucian eye.

Now, as I pass the bleak Christmas dazzle,
I find him ranged with his cold squadrons:
The fuselage is bare, the proud wings snapped,
The tail-fan stripped down to a shameful rudder.

Seamus Heaney

After Thanksgiving last Thursday, many of us have spent the weekend dealing with turkey carcasses in various stages of being devoured. So here's a poem by Seamus Heaney reflecting on them.

With the very first line, Heaney sets up the strange and somewhat contradictory alternating states that will keep us off-balance throughout the whole poem. One observes the turkeys, and that's a significant act, more so than noticing or seeing would be; observing suggests watching closely, registering significance, adhering to custom or ritual (the way one observes a holy day). Yet one also expects them, which suggests one knows they will be there – one takes it a bit for granted.

Why would one expect them? In the second line, we discover these are dead turkeys, displayed on cold marble slabs, which suggests, long before we reach the bleak Christmas dazzle in the last stanza, that it's holiday season, and we're seeing the plucked birds in a butcher's shop. (Turkey means Thanksgiving for Americans, but it's associated with Christmas dinner as well, particularly in the British Isles.) But the butcher shop is referred to as a mortuary, a term usually associated with human remains. Throughout there is an insistence on the carcasses' identity as (former) birds: the feathers, the gobbles, the claw-flecked mud, the wings and tail-fan. Yet all these identifiers are subtle skewed, deracinated from their birdness and linked to humans or, at the end, weapons of war: the feathers are immodest underwear frills, the gobbles were extravagant complaints, he lorded it over his little farmyard, his eye was Confucian, suggesting a rational system of government, order, piety, and philosophy, even in his little stretch of native mud.

Suggestions of triumph are quickly countered (we're brought back to the counters, the cold marble slabs): the Christmas dazzle is bleak, the majesty of living is smelly. But smelly also suggests a certain vitality still found in the huge sides of beef; the near-rhyme on retain / maintains gives a certain elevation to the beef stanza, and some isolation, since rhyme is not used elsewhere in the poem. Beef consumption has a traditional association with courage and strength and other manly virtues (think of the British royal guards known as the beefeaters). By contrast, the turkey – this half-humanized creature – cowers; you can pull his neck – the neck that once gobbled complaints – without reprise. He is, vividly, a skin bag, his flesh and blood not demandingly red like the half-cow's, but inky putty.

He is just another poor forked thing, which calls to mind King Lear's Thou art the thing itself; unaccommodated man [man on his own, stripped bare, lacking civilizing flourishes] is no more but such a poor, bare, forked animal as thou art (King Lear, Act 3, scene iv, ll 108 - 110). Once again, the turkey is associated with human existence, though it's a life reduced to its sometimes humiliating essentials. Forked refers to the split formed by the two legs of the turkey or a person, but it also, with a bit of macabre wit, may remind us that these birds are on sale and intended for the dinner table.

Finally the dead turkey is compared to a war-plane, but one that is out of commission: the body of the plane is bare (just as the turkey has been plucked of almost all his feathers), the wings snapped, the tail-fan stripped down to a shameful rudder (a rudder is a flat piece used for steering; is there a phallic suggestion in rudder, given how much we are guided by sexual urges? if so, stripped and shameful suggest, in keeping with the emotional mood of the poem, a deeply ambiguous view of our urges).

This is from the anthology On Wings of Song: Poems About Birds, selected and edited by J D McClatchy, in the Everyman's Library Pocket Poets series.

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