Reflections on Birney
by Chris Hibbard
(Author’s note: In both these poems by Earle Birney, man is intertwined with nature. While one confronts a man held captive in the formidable lap of nature, the other looks at a ‘king’ of the natural world living as a slave among men. Both poems involve notions of what individuals ‘do’ to get by; and the tribulations that come with living, both within society and on the utmost edges of it. See the poetry section on this site for the works proper; in the post ‘Two Poems by Earle Birney’.)
Individualism in Nature: Reflections on Earle Birney’s “Bushed” and “The Bear on Delhi Road”
Earle Birney’s “Bushed”
What it means to be an individual is a complicated topic; a point made clear by the poet Earle Birney. Raised in the mountainous countryside, but having traveled all around the globe; Birney is an individual among many.
His poem “Bushed” is a lyrical poem about a man who yearned for solitude so much that he became a hermit, hiding himself away from the world in a secluded, isolated cabin. At first it is a majestic and regal thing to be living beneath a mountain so big, (“his mind slowed when he looked at it”), but the slowing of the mind in this phrase is ironic foreshadowing of the deprivation and mental deterioration that is to come. “Bushed” is a poem about an invididual cutting himself off from the rest of the world, only to find that his pleasant solitude may not be so ideal after all.
When he starts feeling that the nature surrounding him may not be so benevolent; and may be even ‘out to get him’, so to speak, his peace and tranquility become a terrifying experience best described as ‘cabin fever’. In his shack on the shores of the lake, he is driven crazy by this mountain that is “clearly alive” and sending messages “whizzing down” in “booming proclamations”.
The trapper’s isolation only magnifies his fear, which in turn depresses his mind and ultimately leads to lunacy.
This insanity is a gradual one however, that builds up inside him. For of course, the mountain under which Birney’s character rests is not a malicious animate being – it is merely his own imagination that perceives it as such. In embracing his delusions, Birney’s trapper resigns himself to his eventual death as he “waits for the great flint to come singing into his heart”.
The character in “Bushed” will be eventually destroyed by the wild world that he has immersed himself in, if not by the dangers inherent to the wilderness, but because of his feelings of confinement, paranoia and inadequacy; results of this situation he has made for himself.
In this sense, Birney is saying that an individual can only go so far on his own. As human beings – creatures with dull teeth, short nails and upright posture – humanity evolved as a social race, one requiring the assistance and company of others to survive.
* * *
“The Bear on Delhi Road”
Switching environments and themes completely, Birney turns an about-face in his poem “The Bear on Delhi Road”, now focusing on a pair of poor men in India who attempt to a living by exploiting nature – specifically, attempting to teach a bear how to dance.
“The Bear on Delhi Road” is a poem that inspires pity of an unusual kind; as it is pity that is reserved for both the bear and the men who try to exploit it. The bear is pulled along by the men, attached to them by a chain through its nose. It is a huge beast, one that likely came from the hills miles away; now a prisoner to these men who are in turn imprisoned by it; the source of their money and satisfaction of their need for it.
“It is not easy to free myth from reality or rear this fellow to lurch, lurch with them in the tranced dancing of men,” Birney’s poem ends. This line sums up the poem effectively, in that is it unclear whether it concerns the bear, rearing up the men to dance their dance; or the men, rearing up the bear to act like a man.
Both the men and the bear are peaceful, working together for separate purposes. The men dance out of reach of the bear’s claws, and the bear dances out of reach of the stick that has repeatedly rapped it’s nose – a mutual dance between man and nature.
~ by Chris Hibbard on November 20, 2008.