Reading: Dead Animals by John Hollander

The American poet John Hollander (1929-2013) was known for his language virtuosity. His most famous book for a wider audience was his 1981 introduction to form and prosody Rhyme’s Reason, a witty tour through the intricacies of poetry that you can borrow online. Some say that his poems lack personal engagement, that the emotion is never the author’s (which, following Eliot, it shouldn’t be). Here I read a short verse that gives you some impression of Hollander’s craft:

Dead Animals
Granted, then, that the punishment,
-Whether appropriate or not-for that
One tiny universal act (“Come, try it!”
“Yum-yum!”) of disobedience was Death,
It seems obscenely inappropriate
That all the other creatures, furry, smooth,
Scaly or feathered, shelled, gelatinous,
Great- or tiny-winged, swift-legged or slow
(I need-however lovingly-not name
Them all right now) have been condemned, like us,
To death, just to provide those symmetries
And analogues, just to allow us to
Compare ourselves to them whether or not
Condescendingly-I don’t know. I think
I’ll trade this one in for another story.

On offer is a precise and funny rephrasing of Genesis and our culture’s bullshit story of original sin. A ‘tiny universal act’ of disobedience because of a yummy Golden Delicious is totally inappropriate of course and the entire myth has been fabricated to channel a deep and dark hatred of life. Hollander doesn’t need such verbiage – suffice the word “obscene”.

He sums up the other creatures (I think he has a knack for completeness. Hollander was a celebrated anthologist and enjoyed formal perfection in poetry). Here, he skillfully implies weaker rhyme like slow-now or like us-symmetries or condescendingly-story. What do we make of his insecurity in the end? Which story does he want to trade, the book of Genesis, or his own poem (playing with meta-poetry is a common feature in Hollander’s work)? Or both?

The obscenity is that animals are mortal like us yet without sin. It allows us (compels us, maybe, it alliterates now and that’s what is really going on) to compare ourselves with the animals, to look down on them because they can’t be seduced, they have no will of their own against the flow of Being, as it were. The animals are there to make us go “look they die just like us but we have deserved to be treated like them because we have sinned; had we not sinned, we would also die, but we take on that burden consciously. Our reward is to feel better because we can name our situation. We have a mind that can create for us the illusion that we have an independent will and thus the ability to sin. Of course it is all bullocks, but that masochism gives us at least the satisfaction of being more ‘advanced’ than the animals.

Do you think this is what Hollander means?

Reading: Dead Animals by John Hollander was originally published on Meandering home

November 3. Very dangerous. But perhaps a good believer.

A healthy breakfast in the attic. I don’t understand the French guys on the table next to me, although I have said of myself that I speak that language. Don’t worry, better focus on the real things, you have a mission now dearest one. The sun stands already high as I walk out and capture some of Aleppo’s life with my camera. I am fond of a photograph with a bicycle in the front and a veiled woman in the back. There are hardly any women on the street in this part of the town. So, I am looking for charities. Where to start? First, let’s check my upcoming travel itinerary. I walk into a travel agency to ask about the cost of traveling to Israel and perhaps visa information.
“Where’s that?”
-“Israel-Palestine occupied territories.”
“We don’t communicate with them” he cuts me short. It’s as simple as that. Any other questions?
I ask him maybe he knows about some deserving charity here in Aleppo and the travel agent happens to know a monseigneur. The next thing I know is I am standing in a church explaining myself in hoodling-doodling French to a very friendly white-haired priest. Yes, his church is working with caritas France and they are supporting Iraqi families with food, medicine, fuel, and rent assistance. I ask if it’s possible to visit them and document it for my book. Of course! Two young women take it over from there, and select two families for me that are particularly needy. I am amazed as we drive off in the taxi through the crowded streets of Aleppo. It is real! I can make this my reality.

“So he is the president since 2000? How do you feel about it?”
-“I am very satisfied.” she replies.
“But can you tell me some more because I only know the Western media and they stigmatize your country as an evil place and your president as a brutal dictator…”
Well, I don’t get the chance to say exactly that because she warns me with a tactful pat on the knee. It is very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very bad to mention Israel or say anything bad about the regime. You run the risk of deportation, simply have to leave the country within 24 hours – if you’re lucky.

In the afternoon I walk around in the historical town, and visit a mosque. It’s a very nice one, I could look it up for you if you are interested, and give you the name of it. I am looking at a group of people listening to an Imam proclaiming as a student of French literature says bonjour. Our conversion is about Chateaubriand, Racine, Balzac, Victor Hugo, Nietzsche, and Marx. He has fallen in love with the old French literature, with Racine and Molière. Then he takes me to a chamber where the Imam goes after his proclamation. My French companion offers me a seat and begins:
“Do you believe God is one?”
-“Yes, what else could he be?”
“Good! And He has 25 prophets. The last one is Mohammed, but in essence they all say the same thing.”
-“I like that idea. We are all brothers.”
“Exactly! There is only one religion.”
-“Yeah!”
“Do you know what islam means? To accept, surrender, or submit to the highest principle.”
-“So true…”
“Welcome to paradise!”

We visit the tomb of one of them, Zacharia. Let me share this with you. Perhaps I am a good muslim. Let’s go through the five pillars of Islam.
#1. “God” is one. If I proclaim that you cannot hear the hypens, so that will be okay. Literacy is, of course, not a requirement. I have to work on the second part though, the part referring to the prophet. My concept of “god” is more gnostic: we all carry this voice within ourselves.
#2. I have to get up early to venerate the deity. That will be hard, five times a day at heliologically calculated times. I am not so much into venerating deities, so this is a tough one. But I hope I can make it up for that by overdoing number 3.
#3. Give 2.5% of your possessions to charity. I give away the rest, 97.5% to charities around the world, and try to inspire other people too. That should create at least some goodwill on the part of the Almighty Allah.
#4. Good news. The Ramadan does not apply to travelers! Since I am a traveler in my blood, I don’t need to worry about that.
#5. Being so much of a traveler, I’d probably make it to Mekka and become a Haj some day.
There are bonuspoints too. Let’s say, circumcision. No comment.

I stay with a cool couchsurfer called Christophe in old Aleppo and I feel like a king, we smoke a bit of Lebanese hasj, and there are some great paintings on the wall. Christophe is a young Frenchman of very friendly, suave, character, and he is in soap. You probably heard that Aleppo is famous for its soap.

We have a great eat out with other couchsurfers, chat about our trips, some of them are on bigger trips. Murdoch from New Zealand is a fellow writer and we decide to hang around together the next day. I can establish a contact for his exhibition of photographs of Iranian prisoners in Berlin that hopefully takes place soon.

November 3. Very dangerous. But perhaps a good believer. was originally published on Meandering home

November 3. Very dangerous. But perhaps a good believer.

A healthy breakfast in the attic. I don’t understand the French guys on the table next to me, although I have said of myself that I speak that language. Don’t worry, better focus on the real things, you have a mission now dearest one. The sun stands already high as I walk out and capture some of Aleppo’s life with my camera. I am fond of a photograph with a bicycle in the front and a veiled woman in the back. There are hardly any women on the street in this part of the town. So, I am looking for charities. Where to start? First, let’s check my upcoming travel itinerary. I walk into a travel agency to ask about the cost of traveling to Israel and perhaps visa information.
“Where’s that?”
-“Israel-Palestine occupied territories.”
“We don’t communicate with them” he cuts me short. It’s as simple as that. Any other questions?
I ask him maybe he knows about some deserving charity here in Aleppo and the travel agent happens to know a monseigneur. The next thing I know is I am standing in a church explaining myself in hoodling-doodling French to a very friendly white-haired priest. Yes, his church is working with caritas France and they are supporting Iraqi families with food, medicine, fuel, and rent assistance. I ask if it’s possible to visit them and document it for my book. Of course! Two young women take it over from there, and select two families for me that are particularly needy. I am amazed as we drive off in the taxi through the crowded streets of Aleppo. It is real! I can make this my reality.

“So he is the president since 2000? How do you feel about it?”
-“I am very satisfied.” she replies.
“But can you tell me some more because I only know the Western media and they stigmatize your country as an evil place and your president as a brutal dictator…”
Well, I don’t get the chance to say exactly that because she warns me with a tactful pat on the knee. It is very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very bad to mention Israel or say anything bad about the regime. You run the risk of deportation, simply have to leave the country within 24 hours – if you’re lucky.

In the afternoon I walk around in the historical town, and visit a mosque. It’s a very nice one, I could look it up for you if you are interested, and give you the name of it. I am looking at a group of people listening to an Imam proclaiming as a student of French literature says bonjour. Our conversion is about Chateaubriand, Racine, Balzac, Victor Hugo, Nietzsche, and Marx. He has fallen in love with the old French literature, with Racine and Molière. Then he takes me to a chamber where the Imam goes after his proclamation. My French companion offers me a seat and begins:
“Do you believe God is one?”
-“Yes, what else could he be?”
“Good! And He has 25 prophets. The last one is Mohammed, but in essence they all say the same thing.”
-“I like that idea. We are all brothers.”
“Exactly! There is only one religion.”
-“Yeah!”
“Do you know what islam means? To accept, surrender, or submit to the highest principle.”
-“So true…”
“Welcome to paradise!”

We visit the tomb of one of them, Zacharia. Let me share this with you. Perhaps I am a good muslim. Let’s go through the five pillars of Islam.
#1. “God” is one. If I proclaim that you cannot hear the hypens, so that will be okay. Literacy is, of course, not a requirement. I have to work on the second part though, the part referring to the prophet. My concept of “god” is more gnostic: we all carry this voice within ourselves.
#2. I have to get up early to venerate the deity. That will be hard, five times a day at heliologically calculated times. I am not so much into venerating deities, so this is a tough one. But I hope I can make it up for that by overdoing number 3.
#3. Give 2.5% of your possessions to charity. I give away the rest, 97.5% to charities around the world, and try to inspire other people too. That should create at least some goodwill on the part of the Almighty Allah.
#4. Good news. The Ramadan does not apply to travelers! Since I am a traveler in my blood, I don’t need to worry about that.
#5. Being so much of a traveler, I’d probably make it to Mekka and become a Haj some day.
There are bonuspoints too. Let’s say, circumcision. No comment.

I stay with a cool couchsurfer called Christophe in old Aleppo and I feel like a king, we smoke a bit of Lebanese hasj, and there are some great paintings on the wall. Christophe is a young Frenchman of very friendly, suave, character, and he is in soap. You probably heard that Aleppo is famous for its soap.

We have a great eat out with other couchsurfers, chat about our trips, some of them are on bigger trips. Murdoch from New Zealand is a fellow writer and we decide to hang around together the next day. I can establish a contact for his exhibition of photographs of Iranian prisoners in Berlin that hopefully takes place soon.