by Earle Birney, edited by Gary Geddes
from DavidIn Earle Birney's poetry, a key theme is the imposition of man upon the natural world and the negative consequences of it. Birney claims to have felt like an outsider, observing the human condition from a privileged position within university halls and army barracks that made his insights on humans, and his empathy for the natural world, all the more poignant. In the example above, from "David," Birney has his narrator, Bob, learn an important lesson about will and desire. Bob wants the bird to live so that he might keep it as a pet -- it is his own selfish desire, and not the good of the animal, that is in question here. This lesson is tall the more important when David, critically wounded on the cliffside, asks Bob to push him over the edge so that he can die with dignity rather than live disfigured and in pain (should he be able to live at all). Bob wants David to hold on so that he doesn't have to make the life-or-death decision for his friend, but David forces Bob to face reality by reminding him of the robin with the broken wing. Is Bob trying to hold on to David for David's sake, or for his own? In the end, Bob pushes his friend over the edge, doing as David wanted, but knowing that he has killed David and his own youth in the process. A poignant poem, Birney asks us to question our motivations behind our actions, and also to remember that we are not individuals so importantly as we are members of a collectivity.
[...] And David taught me
How time on a knife-edge can pass with the guessing of fragments
Remembered from poets, the naming of strata beside one,
And matching stories from schooldays [...]
That day we chanced on the skull and the splayed white rib
Of a mountain goat underneath a cliff face, caught
On a rock. Around were the silken feathers of hawks.
And that was the first I knew that a goat could slip.
[...] Then grinning, he reached with his freckled wrist
And drew me up after. We set a new time for that climb.
That day returning we found a robin gyrating
In grass, wing-broken. I caught it to tame by David
Took it and killed it, and said, "Could you teach it to fly?"
The idea of man and nature is revisited on "The Bear on the Delhi Road," where Birney watches two men trying to teach a bear to dance. The poem weaves together images of cruelty and beauty to create a very complicated image of the connection between man and nature. Though they do not wish the bear or the people around them any harm, by insisting on denying the bear's "wish forever to stay / only an ambling bear / four-footed in berries," the men are necessarily denying the bear's natural will and imposing a human desire upon him instead. The result in "no more joyous," but they have won a competition against nature.
Clear in both of these poems, as well as "Appeal to a Lady with a Diaper," is that Birney was troubled by contemporary society and misplaced values of decadence over substance. The bear and the robin have the potential to fall prey to the ever-changing will of man simply because they are of the natural world. Contemporary society devalues this for progress. Where progress is moral and socially just, Birney applauds it -- where it exists for its own sake, he cuts it to ribbons.