For weeks we watched a spotted flycatcher
tenant the garden like a summer guest.
We didn’t see the other birdwatcher –
grey squirrel, magpie, cat? – plunder the nest.
We feed the cattle pelleted necrotics
(dead animals’ dried tissue, flesh and bone),
inject them with steroids and antibiotics
to keep the creatures alive till they’re full-grown.
‘Coursing’s fairer than gunshot, gas or snare.’
When a greyhound grows too old, it’s killed.
But just before a pair of greyhounds tear
a hare apart, the hare cries like a child.
Panda, orang utan, and polar bear –
species can be at risk for a hundred years
or more before we make them disappear.
Pine marten, red squirrel, mountain hare…
Wild animals lead strictly ordered lives;
their freedom is a wild necessity.
House animals are like children, husbands, wives,
the kind of mindless beasts we used to be.
About this poem
This poem was included in Best Scottish Poems 2005. Best Scottish Poems is an online publication, consisting of 20 poems chosen by a different editor each year, with comments by the editor and poets. It provides a personal overview of a year of Scottish poetry. The editor in 2005 was Richard Price.
The tension between James Aitchison’s formalism and his unblinking philosophical concerns, here the rather small distance between creatures and humankind, gives his poetry an astringent but always humane perspective and tone; a very fine poet indeed.
‘Creatures’ is a recent poem, but its starting point was a spotted flycatcher I saw in my first Stirling garden some twenty-five years ago. From its perch on a cedar stump it flickered around the garden and then, when it had a big enough catch, it returned to its hidden nest. I had hoped the bird would be the main subject of ‘Creatures’; it deserves a poem in its own right, like the twenty birds in the privately published booklet, Bird-Score. But the gulf between what you feel you ought to write and what the creative imagination decides you will write is sometimes unbridgeable. Perhaps my sense of delight in watching the flycatcher appeared in other bird poems around that time.
When the flycatcher refused to fly beyond the first four lines of the poem, other topics began to suggest themselves until the themes that emerged were the similarities and divisions between the human and the animal orders of creation, and the theme of predation. As the subject matter grew wider, or bigger, so ‘Creatures’ became a lesser poem.
What distinguishes us from non-human animals is a brain that evolved rapidly and developed an emergent system, the mind, which is sometimes cabable of objective, reasoned thought. Other stanzas of the poem suggest that reason often eludes us when we try to take account of our relationship with animals: the person who finds delight in song birds may wish to cull magpies, herring gulls and domestic cats; the cattle-feed industry sold animal remains as fodder for herbivores; the hare-coursing sportsman releases the hare in a small, barricaded field where it doesn’t have a sporting chance.
The final stanza of the poem asks, does not fully answer, questions of freedom and necessity. Wild animals’ lives are governed by needs. And the human animal? I believe we have free will in the sense that we can observe and judge ourselves, we can change our minds and we can sometimes exercise choice, but I also believe that part of the human brain is still programmed from wilderness.
Stylistically, ‘Creatures’ uses regular rhythm, rhymes and stanza patterns in order to structure thought and feeling, and also as a parallel exercise in linguistic problem solving. The nature of language and mind are such that the writing of poetry is inevitable, but the form a poem takes is influenced not only by the subject and theme but also by the nature of the writer’s creative imagination and poetic intelligence, that is, the poet’s craft and artistry. Over the years I’ve grown intolerant of poems that have no artistic or technical means of support but simply dribble down the page. Concepts of what a poem is and does change from age to age, and the changes that followed from Imagism are now beyond my understanding.