I took the title “Burden of Dreams” from Les Blank’s film about the astounding lengths Werner Herzog and his crew went to in the filming of “Fitzcarraldo.” In order to make his documentary, Blank had to go to similar lengths. No surprise that the story that inspired Herzog’s odyssey, as in many Herzog films, is about a tragicomic attempt to fund a dream, in this case by dragging a boat over a mountain to reach a remote Amazon rubber plantation. The dream: to build a baroque opera house on the Peruvian coast to attract Enrico Caruso.
This was the second of Herzog’s films shot in the Amazon basin. In the first, “Aguirre, Wrath of God,” one of the most memorable, among many wild, hallucinatory scenes, is a horse being thrown off a raft into a raging river. The scene is so cruel that one of my friends remembers it as many horses thrown into the river. It was one horse, and the horse managed to swim to shore and survive. Still, the scene always reminds me of the terrorized horse at the center of Picasso’s Guernica.
No matter what laws we pass on the humane treatment of animals, our treatment of them continues to reflect our hubris and our treatment of other human beings. When I began teaching writing to college freshmen, I used to assign a very short Langston Hughes essay from 1945, “The Animals Must Wonder.” The essay begins with a scene from a marriage: "Once I saw a man and woman, who loved each other, quarrel. There were bitter words and the threat of blows. Bursts of anger punctuated minutes of silent defiance. It was sad for an outsider to see. But equally sad to observe was the hurt fright of their dog, his wonder, dumb fear, and terror at the strange, loud violence of the two human beings he loved."
Hughes moves from the domestic scene that so frightened the family dog to World War II, imagining “the lost and homeless dogs wandering cold and hungry through wrecked villages” and the farm animals terrorized by tanks, planes, and explosions. Our recent wars have continued to inspire reports on the suffering of animals. We sometimes find it easier to empathize with the dumb suffering of other creatures than with the suffering of displaced people no more responsible for their condition than the animals. We see complicity in the capacity of human beings to comprehend what is happening to them.
The suffering of animals caught up in human dreams is often silent. Emily Fragos’s spare, heart-breaking poem “Ponies at the South Pole,” inspired by photos from the failed Scott expedition of 1912, is an instance. Fragos writes of her process in an e-mail: "I had originally written a very long poem with all kinds of historical facts based on the tragic expedition… I began to cross everything out in an attempt to get to the grief. I wanted to honor those poor animals. I wanted to say something, without preaching, about the mistakes that powerful men make and the innocent victims of those terrible mistakes. I ended up with the spare, minimal, "Ponies at the South Pole" :
Ponies at the South Pole
after a photograph, Scott Expedition, 1912
They are quieter than quiet. They are colder than cold
can be imagined. They may very well be blind.
Their ears receive the last sensation, a tiny crumble
of nothing. Their oblong heads tilt toward each other.
... the end cannot be far writes the bungling,
stubborn man in his battered white tent,
writes suffering, bungling man.
The patient suffering of the ponies is stunningly evoked in the ears that receive that “last sensation, a tiny crumble/of nothing” and the juxtaposition of the different order of suffering of the man writing his final journal.
Thanks to the efforts of air force colonel Ronald Smith, there are now a number places en route to the pole named for the ponies and dogs that gave their lives in the Scott and Amundsen expeditions: Bones, Nobby, Helge, and Uroa, among them.
You can find more pictures of the ponies at the Scott Polar Research institute site.
A hearty thanks to Emily Fragos for permission to include “Ponies at the South Pole,” which appeared in The New Republic on November 7, 2014. Her most recent book is Hostage: New and Selected Poems, published by The Sheep Meadow Press, 2011.
"The Animals Must Wonder" is collected in Langston Hughes and the Chicago Defender: Essays on Race, Politics, and Culture, 1942-62.