A poem by Gary Lawless:
Treat each bear as the last bear.
Each wolf the last, each caribou.
Each track the last track.
Gone spoor, gone scat.
There are no more deertrails,
no more flyways.
Treat each animal as sacred,
each minute our last.
Ghost hooves. Ghost skulls.
Death rattles and
Each bear walking alone
in warm night air
For the past two months, I've been spending a lot of time with a couple of black bears. Lily (left) and her cub Hope are part of a study by the North American Bear Center. A webcam and microphone were placed at the entrance to Lily's den so she could be observed giving birth to and raising her baby. And observed she has been, with over 90,000 fans on Facebook and more tuning in on the NABC website and on Wildearth TV.
The study is being conducted by biologists Dr. Lynn Rogers and Sue Mansfield and is part of a larger, years-long study of black bears in general. It is one of the only truly scientific studies ever done on black bears, and Dr. Rogers' explicit goal is to replace much of our misconceptions about bears with scientific facts and data.
The Author of American Ornithology Sketches a Bird, Now Extinct
(Alexander Wilson, Wilmington, N.C., 1809)
When he walked through town, the wing-shot bird he'd hidden
Inside his coat began to cry like a baby,
High and plaintive and loud as the calls he'd heard
While hunting it in the woods, and goodwives stared
And scurried indoors to guard their own from harm.
And the inkeeper and the goodmen in the tavern
Asked him whether his child was sick, then laughed.
Slapped knees, and laughed as he unswaddled his prize,
His pride and burden: an ivory-billed woodpecker
As big as a crow, still wailing and squealing.
Upstairs, when he let it go in his workroom,
it fell silent at last. He told at dinner
How devoted masters of birds drawn from the life
Must gather their flocks around them with a rifle
And make them live forever inside books.
Later, he found his bedspread covered with plaster
And the bird clinging beside a hole in the wall
Clear through to already-splintered weatherboards
And the sky beyond. While he tied one of its legs
To a table leg, it started wailing again.
And went on wailing as if toward cypress groves
While the artist dew and tinted on fine vellum
Its red cockade, gray claws, and sepia eyes
From which a white edge flowed to the lame wing
Like light flying and ended there in blackness.
He drew and studied for days, eating and dreaming
Fitfully through the dancing and loud drumming
Of an ivory bill that refused pecans and beetles,
Chestnuts and sweet-sour fruit of magnolias,
Riddling his table, slashing his fingers, wailing.
He watched it die, he said, with great regret.
-- David Wagoner
I just got back from ten days at a writing retreat in New Hampshire, so I'm a little gaga from culture shock. Ten days of peace, quiet, beautiful surroundings, and a gourmet chef placing wonderful concoctions in front of me every time I sat down, is bumping up against laundry, barn-mucking, and a heartbreaking loss.
Toad Hall is a private, non-profit writer and artist retreat about an hour north of Dartmouth. It is run by poet and publisher Maria van Beuren, and it is a marvel. A rambling New England house in the middle of 100 wooded acres, it provides space, comfort, and good company for groups of invited guests during the summer. Maria makes sure everyone is happy, extremely well-fed, and comfortable.
I thought I was going to get a lot of writing done, but I spent most of my time wandering through the woods and sketching, and that's okay, too. There was a lot to sketch: birch groves, a pond, carpets of fern, Maria's gorgeous gardens. It was a visual feast, and I discovered that artist and sculptor Ken Flynn, another guest, was right: there aren't enough kinds of colored pencils to capture the many varieties of green you see if you really look.
There were real feasts, too. Each evening, we gathered for a gourmet vegetarian dinner cooked by Rebecca, a local chef and magic-maker. I could definitely get used to this. And anyone who thinks vegetarian means boring or tasteless needs a forkful of Rebecca's fabulous ratatouille - a miracle of tomatoes, zucchini, peppers, mushrooms, and - swear to God - poached eggs. It's a concoction to dream about.
Needless to say, it was hard to leave, although I was starting to miss everyone back home. Sadly, my culture shock at having to actually do chores was nothing compared to discovering when I got back on Sunday that our sweet old German shepherd, Moses, had passed away the day before.
Rick had waited until I got in to tell me because he didn't want me to drive upset and grieving, a good move, I think. Moses, who was 12 1/2 (ancient for a shepherd), had been fine on Friday - spent the evening outside with the other dogs playing, then snoozing on the grass. On Saturday morning, though, Rick could see he was ailing - he was not interested in getting up or eating, although he did not seem to be in pain and drank some water. Rick had to go out for a little while, and when he got back, Moses was gone. We spent Sunday digging his grave under the pine trees near our greyhound Holly, and we buried him with his favorite yellow ball and dog blanket.
Moses was something of an insider in the literary world, although he was terribly discreet and never gossiped about the writers he'd known. He had belonged to Priscilla Hodgkins, the former associate director of the Bennington Writing Seminars, and many of Bennington's MFA alums remember him fondly. When Cilla moved two years ago, she was unable to take Moses with her, and he came to live with Rick and me on our farm.
He was a joy. An enormous joy, literally - he weighed over 100 pounds, and had paws the size of tennis racquets and a tail that could sweep off a coffee table with one wag. One of my friends called him "courtly and gentle," and that really captures him - sweet, dignified, and kind. He got deafer and more arthritic over the two years he lived with us, but he never lost his dignity or his lovely, loving nature.
Certainly it is a mercy that he went so peacefully and quickly and didn't suffer, but we will miss him. And anyone who thinks dogs don't have souls never met Moses.
This is me, not seen, sitting on the front steps of the Art Institute of Chicago in June and listening to Lisel Mueller's poem.
Here's a beautiful bit of it.
Last week, I shared with you the pictures from shearing day. Today, I'd like to show you what happens to the wool after it's off the sheep.
First, the fleece is "skirted." This means it is laid out flat, and all the nasty, dirty bits are removed. Sheep live in barns, and they get a lot of VM (vegetable matter), poop, and other gross things in their fleeces. The nicest wool comes from across their shoulder and backs; anything from the belly usually gets tossed.
Fleece laid out for skirting.
After that, the wool needs to be "scoured." This just means washed in soapy water. Depending on the type of fleece, this can be a straightforward process or something a bit more tricky. Some kinds of wool are very prone to felting - this is what happens when you accidentally put your cashmere sweater in the wash, and it comes out looking like it would fit your three-year-old nephew. Fine wools, like Rambouillet, Corriedale, and Merino, have to be washed very carefully, with a minimum of agitation, to prevent felting. My sheep are Babydoll Southdowns, and they have a "down" -type wool, which is springy and resilient (it has a lot of "loft," to use a woolly term) and can take a lot of abuse. Also, some wools have a lot of lanolin so need a longer wash time; my guys produce an average amount of lanolin, so it's fairly easy to wash out.
While some folks prefer to wash a whole fleece all at once in the bathtub, I like to wash a little at a time. I use very hot water and lots of soap; I prefer Dawn hypoallergenic dishwashing soap because it's good at getting rid of the grease. The fleece goes through two washes (the first sinkful of water gets very dirty very fast), then two rinses, then it's laid out to dry on either the laundry rack or outside on an old bedsheet.
After the wool dries, it needs to be picked and teased. "Picking" means separating the locks and removing any straw, hay, and other undesirables; "Teasing" means the picked locks are separated further and fluffed up. This is a very tedious process; it helps to have something good on television while you're doing it. Usually, about one third of the wool is weeded out at this point; what you are left with is a fluffy pile that reminds me of spindrift on the beach after a storm.
Picked and teased wool
Now the wool is ready to be carded - this means combed and straightened. This is done one of three ways: by a drum carder, which is mechanical and can card a lot of wool fairly quickly; by hand carders, which are big, flat, square combs with short metal teeth and long handles; or by wool combs, which have long, sharp teeth and are used primarily with long, fine wools like English Leicester. Because my wool is considered a "short" wool (the locks, or "staples" are about 2-3 inches long and have a nice crimp), I use hand carders.
First, one carder is "dressed" - that is, I put a clump of wool on it (the metal teeth grab it). Then the other carder is pulled across the wool several times, straightening out the locks and untangling any tangles. This is done as many times as it takes to get the wool looking like the person carding it wants it to.
Dressed carder Carding in process
Once the wool is satisfactorily combed and fluffy, it is then removed from the carder and rolled. Rolled longways, it is a rolag; rolled along the short side, it is a batt. Technically, roving is a batt that has been elongated by hand-pulling in order to facilitate spinning, but the term tends to be used for all carded, rolled wool.
A basket of carded, rolled wool
The wool is now ready for dyeing, needle-felting, or spinning. It is a labor-intensive process, which is why artisan fibers are so expensive. My wool, as I said, is very light and springy; the wool in the basket above only weighs one ounce combined (this would fit into a quart-sized ziploc bag). Other wools are heavier, but the process remains the same.
A good book about different types of wool and how they are used is In Sheep's Clothing: A Handspinner's Guide by Nola Fournier and Jane Fournier (Interweave Press, 1995).
Baa, baa, black sheep, have you any wool?
Yes, sir, yes, sir, three bags full.
One for the master, one for the dame,
And one for the little boy who lives down the lane.
Seems like a lot of wool for one sheep, but you'd be surprised. This week, Nathan, our shearer, came to give Ike and Izzy their annual haircuts. It's amazing to watch him - he flips them onto their butts, pulls out the electric clippers, and in about fifteen minutes releases a very relieved sheep with about half the volume of when he started. There's a specific technique to shearing: the idea is that the fleece should come off essentially in one piece. Then, the wool is gently washed to remove the lanolin, carded (this means combing the tangles out), and spun. Washed but uncarded wool is called "locks"; carded but unspun wool is "roving"; and spun roving is "yarn." At the York County Fair each summer, there is a contest called "From Sheep to Shawl," in which teams of four or five members shear, wash, card, spin, and knit wool into shawls in a given time frame, usually about four hours. It's one of the most popular events at the fair.
Shearing day is fun. Everyone has a good time, and the sheep, although a bit astonished, feel much better afterward. Ike and Izzy are Babydoll Southdowns, which is considered a small breed (they weigh about 175-200lbs), and their fleeces fill up a king-sized bed sheet each. So "three bags full" isn't an exaggeration. I thought I'd share some before and after shots with you.
The "before" shot - Dinner before Nathan arrives
Once on their butts, the sheep freeze
and let Nathan go to work.
Almost done - the fleece is coming off in one piece
Voila! A complete fleece and a relieved sheep.
The "after" shot - until next June
It's Tuesday, the semester's almost over, I have a cold, it's been raining a lot, and I am topic-less for this week's blog. So, what's up with you?
All I can offer you today is a poem, and I'm so out of sorts, I was having trouble finding one. Finally I came across this one by Jane Kenyon (I can't tell how many times my ass has been saved by a Jane Kenyon poem). Today I feel like the turtle in it - grumpy, unmoved, ancient and reptilian. Next week, I'll be my usual sunny and charming self. Until then, here's the poem:
Evening came, and work was done.
We went for a walk to see
what winter had exacted
from our swimming place on the pond.
The moss was immoderately green,
and spongy underfoot; stepping on it seemed
a breach of etiquette.
We found our picnic table
sitting squarely in the bog -- only
a minor prank. The slender birches watched us
leaning from the bank.
And where the river launches forth
from the south end of the pond
the water coursed high and clear
under the little bridge.
Huge, suspended by the surge, grand-
father turtle moved sporadically
one flat, prehistoric, clawed arm
at a time, keeping his head downstream.
Years ago, he made a vow
not to be agitated by the runnels
of spring, the abundance of light,
warm wind smelling of rain,
or the peepers' throstling...
We watched till he was out of sight
and seemed illusory, then turned
toward home -- the windows
brazen in the setting sun....
Jane Kenyon, Collected Poems
Today I'd like to tell you a story. This happened many years ago, at a workshop led by the poet Roland Flint. Roland was one of those people who carried an entire library inside of him; he could (and did) recite poems at the drop of a hat. It was a wonderful thing. He would have been a terrific companion if you were stranded on a desert island (although I don't know how helpful he would have been at things like fishing and building rafts).
At this workshop, Roland made an interesting distinction - that there is a difference between poems that you memorize and poems that you get by heart. He likened memorizing poems to cramming for a test - you can jam the words into your head for a specific purpose, but they aren't likely to stay there very long unless you feel some connection to them. Poems you get by heart, in contrast, go in (sometimes in one whole gulp) and stay there. They become a resource, a nourishing place to return to over and over again. Everyone of us has poems like this: poems that, for whatever reason, we keep and hold close and use to fill us up when we feel empty. (On the other side of the coin, I specifically remember reading Billy Budd the night before a test in 11th grade. I know I read it; I passed the test; but to this day, the only part of the book that sticks with me is the end when they hang him.)
Roland then said he was going to teach us a poem. But we weren't going to read it - he was going to take us through it, word by word, line by line, until we had the thing entire. Some of us, he said, would just have it memorized, and eventually it would go away. But others, he hoped, would get it by heart -the way he had it. He started by giving us the title, then the first two words of the first line, then asked, "What do you think comes next?" This was a roomful of poets, remember, so there were lots of suggestions. Then he gave us the next few words, and so on, until we came to the end of the line, when he had us say the line aloud several times. Then, we moved on to the next line. And so on, until we got to the end of the poem, when he had the entire room (there were about a hundred of us - it was a big workshop) say the poem together twice.
Why we love a particular poem is completely personal and often deeply private. The poem Roland taught me was indeed one I got "by heart;" it touched and continues to touch something within me, and I have often gone back to it when I need filling up. Interestingly, it was years before I saw the poem on paper. Here it is:
"The Two-Headed Calf"
by Laura Gilpin
Tomorrow when the farm boys find this
freak of nature, they will wrap his body
in newspaper and carry him to the museum.
But tonight he is alive and in the north
field with his mother. It is a perfect
summer evening: the moon rising over
the orchard, the wind in the grass.
And as he stares into the sky, he sees
twice as many stars as usual.
from The Weight of a Soul, 2008
Laura Gilpin (1950-2007) achieved recognition early for her poetry. In 1976, William Stafford chose her first book, The Hocus-Pocus of the Universe (where this poem first appeared), for the Walt Whitman Prize. She taught writing for a few years, then shifted gears into nursing, where she became involved with Planetree, an organization dedicated to compassionate, patient-centered medical care. She worked there for the rest of her life, but never stopped writing poetry. Gilpin died of brain cancer in 2007; she was, however, able to collect her poems into a final book, The Weight of a Soul, which also includes some of the poems from her first collection. All of the profits from The Weight of a Soul go to Planetree.
Here is Garrison Keillor reading "The Two-Headed Calf" on The Writer's Almanac. The poem starts at 4:00 minutes.
Hello! And what a pleasure it is to be here!
First things first: This week I'll be posting my work along with photographs by Nikolai Lesnikov, who also lives here in Seattle, as well as brief essays about art and poetry that fascinate me, with calls for cooperative research so we can discover new ideas and answers.
I'll also post work by other poets, newspaper articles, the amazing things that crop up in this strange time.
Today, although we've had ice and sleet and rain, the sun is out. Come with me down to the lake.
(First off, thank you, Stacey, for the picture this morning - it made my day!)
I've been thinking for a long time about getting a goat or two. Goats are winsome, clever, funny, and affectionate; they are also conniving, athletic, and easily bored, so you've got to have a good fence and lots of goat entertainment to keep them from figuring out ways to escape and run amok in your rutabagas. Unlike sheep, goats are challenging.
I've been toying with the idea of dairy goats, but that's an awful lot of work. You have to be committed to milking them twice a day, rain or shine, in sickness and in health - and I can tell you who would be the chief milkmaid at my house. I'm not sure I'm ready to commit to that. However, it's also possible just to have goats as pets. They aren't expensive to buy or to keep, and they are adorable, even when they are wreaking havoc across the property.
Here's a video from Beekman 1802, an organic farm in Sharon Springs, NY (check out their shop with goat's milk soap and heirloom seeds), demonstrating the off-the-scale cuteness of baby goats:
Even grown-up goats are charming. The breed I'm looking at in particular are mini La Manchas - a miniature dairy breed known for their affectionate and docile dispositions. They have the added allure of "elf ears," ears that are so tiny they are hardly visible. Here's a picture. Tell me if you don't fall instantly in love.
I like goats a lot, as you can probably tell. Goats were among the first domesticated farm animals, and people across the world keep goats in the same ways they have for thousands of years. Goats are hardy; they are herd animals and like lots of other goats as company; they can find forage in the most inhospitable of landscapes. (While they will try pretty much anything as lunch, they do not eat tin cans.) Goats can be kept on large stretches of property, or in a reasonably-sized backyard. Some suburban communities, in response to the economic crisis and the recent attention to our food supply, have revised covenants to allow residents to keep a goat or two (chickens also).
Here's is a terrific poem about a goat by the late New Jersey poet, Joe Salerno, who died from lung cancer in 1995 at the age of 48. I had the great pleasure of meeting Joe in 1991 at the Poetry Festival at St. Mary's College of Maryland. He was a lovely man - kind, self-effacing, funny, and breathtakingly talented. I heard him read this poem then; it has stayed with me ever since, and recently I discovered this video of Joe reading it on YouTube.
After his death, some of Joe's friends and colleagues put together a selection of his poems in a book called Only Here, with an afterword by Donald Hall (Joe had been Hall's student at Ann Arbor). I hate that he died so young. But Joe Salerno is someone whose too-short story is lifted out of tragedy by the scope and resonance of his poems. Read them.
This time of year, I'm preoccupied with mud. It hasn't gotten cold enough to really freeze the ground, but all the greenery is long gone. So, adding in animals with hooves, what you end up with is large quantities of mud. You sink in it up to your ankles in the pasture; it tracks all over; it's embedded in the cracks in the sidewalk; and I spend a lot of time picking it out of Black Jack's hooves. (It also makes it very difficult to pick up the poop, but let's stick to the matter at hand.)
Black Jack in the mud. He tramps around in quite happily. He also likes to roll in it - don't ask me why.
If it would snow, at least it would be pretty, but right now, life on the farm is lacking much aesthetic quality. It's the price we pay for springtime.
Speaking of springtime, I tried to find an appropriate muddy-winter poem to accompany this post, but I couldn't. There are lots of poems about mud, but they all seem to be placed in the spring and summer. Mud in warm weather has an entirely different feel than winter mud. No one is ever tempted to squish his bare toes in winter mud.
A famous poem that references springtime mud is e.e. cummings' "Chansons Innocents: I." Now, I have a problem with most interpretations of this poem. Over and over again, I've seen explications of how this piece is a lovely evocation of the innocence of childhood. Well, yeah, but --- this poem creeps me out big time. It's that goat-footed balloonman. Where is he luring those kids? Some say the goat feet make him faunlike; I'm thinking demonic. And that "far and wee" - it's eerie. Where is he going?
|"Chansons Innocentes: I"|
|by e.e. cummings|
Am I the only one who finds this profoundly disturbing, even with the wonderful "mud-/luscious"? Maybe I'm just reflecting back my winter mood, but I don't think so. It gives me the willies.
Anyway, there isn't much to do about the mud, except throw down some straw and wait for a freeze. In the meantime, Black Jack is having a good time, and if that balloonman shows up, I told Black Jack to give him a good kick.
Under the spreading chestnut tree
The village smithy stands;
The smith, a mighty man is he,
With large and sinewy hands;
And the muscles of his brawny arms
Are strong as iron bands.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, from "The Village Blacksmith"
The farrier came this week to trim and balance Black Jack's feet. For horse-owners, feet loom large, and the farrier is an important person. Horses can die if their feet aren't properly cared for. They are susceptible to infections, both fungal and bacterial, and horse-lovers have nightmares about hearing the dreaded word "laminitis," an inflammation/infection of the hoof wall that can and does kill horses (this is what did in poor Barbaro). So the farrier, the person who comes periodically to trim, balance, and sometimes shoe horses, is a vital ally in keeping a horse in good health.
A clarification: "blacksmith" and "farrier" are related, but not interchangeable, terms. A blacksmith is a person who forges all manner of iron implements, including horseshoes; a farrier is an expert in hoof-care, who also fits, fabricates, and puts shoes on a horse. In Longfellow's day, when everyone had horses, these duties almost always overlapped, so the blacksmith and the farrier were the same person. Nowadays, while a farrier is always a blacksmith, a blacksmith isn't always a farrier.
For the past few nights, very early in the morning before the other birds stir, we've been hearing two owls talking with each other in the treetops outside our bedroom window. They have lengthy but quiet conversations, their hooting conducted in sotto voce. We know they are Great Horned owls by their calls; also, once or twice we've been lucky enough to catch a glimpse of one of them flying overhead in the dark. On an amazing night last summer, one sat quietly perched on the streetlight pole for ten minutes or so while we watched from a respectful distance. Mostly, though, we know of their presence only from their disembodied voices and the occasional pile of feathers in the middle of talon marks in the ground.
One of the things that come with living on a farm is the presence of rats. Let me clarify this before my New York City readers faint in horror -- these are not the giant, aggressive rats of urban legend, who bully Rottweilers and carry switchblades. These are brown rats (Rattus norvegicus), smaller, a bit timid, the close cousins of the "fancy rats" that are kept as pets. If you live in the country and have a barn, especially if you have grain in it, you will have some rats. This is why most farmers keep barn cats.
Last summer, after we'd gotten the sheep and started storing grain, we began noticing a few rats in the barn. If we came upon them suddenly, we could occasionally catch them perched on the edge of the water tub, leaning in and drinking. It was cute -- like a rat bar. Think of Charlotte's Web and Mrs Frisby and the Rats of NIHM . Those kind of rats. I immediately named them Templeton, Nicodemus, and Rizzo.
Most people shudder at the thought of a rat, but let me confess -- I really like rats. They have bright button eyes and inquisitive noses and whiskers. They are intelligent, affectionate, and social. They are also altruistic, not only to other rats, but they have given their lives for hundreds of years in the name of medical research. I think they are cool. (I know they harbor diseases, but so do lots of animals, including humans.) If I didn't have six cats, I might have one or two as pets.
The problem is, as I soon discovered, if you see one rat, you have three; if you see three, you probably have more than even a rat-lover would feel comfortable cohabiting with. They are kind of like people that way.
In 2002, a British writer, Valerie Laws, was awarded a grant to investigate what the BBC called "a new form of 'random' literature." A flock of sheep had their backs painted with individual words; a new poem resulted each time the sheep stopped wandering for a minute or two.
(BBC News, 4 December 2002)
A representative of the North East Arts Council, who awarded the grant, called it "an exciting fusion of poetry and quantum mechanics."
(BBC News, 4 December 2002)
The sheep does not mind much --
not even the necessary attention to his wounds,
ragged bite marks on his neck
from an old dog ricocheted
back to wildness
by the archaic scent of prey.
The sheep and his brother are Zen masters
of the barnyard, accepting
rain and grass and first aid
with the same slow breath and placid stare.
They swallow the world whole
in a way we have forgotten,
who cannot see a rainbow arc
across a summer sky without
unprisming it into white light,
into something we think we understand.
A brief lesson in animal husbandry before I get to poetry: Sheep and goats were some of the first animals domesticated by humans (chickens were in there, too), which makes a lot of sense. They work very well for both a nomadic and a more sedentary agricultural lifestyle. Certainly, they are what farmers call "easy keepers:" low maintenance and high return.
However, sheep have gotten a bum rap for stupidity. Unlike their wily goat cousins, who are perpetually plotting mischief, sheep take a very dharmic approach to things: if it doesn't affect me, why worry? Rather than stupid, they are incurious. If they come to a locked gate, they just turn around and head off in another direction (again,unlike goats, who are the Houdinis of livestock and who, once free, will tap-dance across the hood of your car with gay abandon on the way to ransacking your tomato plants). Sheep have actually been rated above cows and slightly below pigs on animal intelligence tests (although I must admit being unclear how one tests the intelligence of farm animals. None of them seem capable of higher math).
The issue is that sheep are on almost everyone's menu. To survive, they must react instantaneously to a threat, perceived or real. Their philosophy is "run away now; ask questions later." They don't have much of a defense arsenal beyond this, other than glaring and stamping (once I went into the barn wearing a billowing peasant skirt that totally freaked them out. They had never seen me like that before, and they refused come near me. Instead they stood at the other end of the pen, bug-eyed, stamping like woolly flamenco dancers: go away, go away!) or bunching up in a corner if they're trapped and can't run. This last actually makes a lot of evolutionary sense. Predators like wolves and lions operate by isolating and stalking an individual, hoping to separate it from the herd and pounce on it. When a whole herd is crowded together, it is very difficult to see where one sheep ends and another begins. Bunching significantly improves the survival chances of any particular sheep.
Sheep can learn things. Mine know their names (Ike and Izzy); what the grain bucket means; when it's my car pulling in the driveway and when it isn't (I'm the caretaker and dispenser of sheep treats). They also can be taught to walk on a lead and to pull a cart. They are friendly and talkative and like to get their ears rubbed. They are soft, and they don't smell. It's easy to see why they have been part of the human experience for thousands of years.
Consequently, there are lots and lots of references to sheep in literature and art. I did some quick research online. Biblically, we've got three sheep metaphors that are repeated throughout the texts: the 23rd Psalm version of Godly people as sheep, trusting in their shepherd; Jesus as "The Lamb of God:" gentle, obedient, loving; and the black sheep, the one who breaks away from the flock and trips the light fantastic in the big city. In children's literature, there's Mary and her little lamb; Lambert the Sheepish Lion, who thinks he's a sheep and ends up saving the flock from a wolf, so he probably doesn't really count; and I'm sure lots more but I want to get to modern and contemporary poetry.
A quick Google of "sheep poems" finds a lot of awful doggerel, but also some good stuff from the 20th century. Sheep are used as a trigger for existential angst in Sylvia Plath's poem, "Sheep in Fog." James Dickey infamously gives a voice to "The Sheep-Child," a poem that makes Ike and Izzy very, very nervous. And Russell Edson has some fun with the expression "Counting Sheep" in his poem of the same title:
A scientist has a test tube full of sheep. He
wonders if he should try to shrink a pasture
They are like grains of rice.
He wonders if is possible to shrink something
out of existence.
He wonders if the sheep are aware of their tininess,
if they have any sense of scale. Perhaps they think
the test tube is a glass barn...
He wonders what he should do with them: they
certainly have less meat and wool than ordinary
sheep. Has he reduced their commercial value?
He wonders if they could be used as a substitute
for rice, a sort of woolly rice...
He wonders if he shouldn't rub them into a red paste
between his fingers.
He wonders if they are breeding, or if any of them
He puts them under a microscope, and falls asleep
from The Tunnel: Selected Poems, Oberlin College Press, 1994
Buy the book here on Amazon.com
I'd love to hear if you know of any other cool sheep poems. I'll be posting my own version -- I don't know how cool it is, but hey, they said I could post pretty much whatever I wanted.
I left it
on when I
left the house
for the pleasure
of coming back
ten hours later
to the greatness
of Teddy Wilson
"After You've Gone"
on the piano
in the corner
of the bedroom
as I enter
in the dark
from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman
THE RULE OF THUMB
Ringfinger was nervous
when they learned
that Hand might succumb
to the rule of Thumb.