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Book Review: Poetizing the History of Non-human Subjugation in the Age of the Anthropocene

By Manas Dutta

Title: Fox Land and Selected Poems
Author: Bishnupada Ray
Publisher: brown critique Books, Puducherry, 2016

The anthology of poems under review, Fox Land and Selected Poems, tries to understand certain capacity or traits such as logos, ratio, Will, spirit, Being, emotion, resistance, subjectivity, etc which it is generally believed, the non-humans lack. The poet critically questions these essentialist human categories and subsequently tries to narrate the ontologies of the non-human or the non-anthropocene through the expression of transformative poetics or parapoetics. It offers a fresh explanation of the non-human and their existential traits in the world.

The present anthology is named after the fox, the non-human, “the agent of the human-other” and interestingly enough the book opens with a reference to Ted Hughes’ celebrated and anthologised poem, Thought Fox. It was unmistakably his breakthrough, signalling his departure from the rhetorical and metaphysical groundings of poetry and his advocacy of mythmaking. The poem for Hughes comprises a reverie by immediately invoking the imagination. It evokes solitude, and the only sound available being “the clock’s loneliness”. The poet becomes actively aware of the approach of the nearness of the other or the imagination in the second stanza. The poet stands at literal and figurative thresholds: he stares at a blank page, which becomes the dark window, the starless sky, and then into the forest’s darkness. So, the Thought Fox is an animal poem with a difference. (p. 20) Ted Hughes captured his fox at the same time as he completed the poem. The fox manifests within the poem, the fox is the poem and both are a product of the poet’s imagination.

It is generally believed that poetry or philosophy has seldom regarded the question of the animal as little more than a sub-topic. But, this anthology of poems broadens the horizon of our understanding towards the animal. Earlier, it was merely a poetic expression or perhaps childish narratives for fun and amusement or work of metaphoric agents for the world, where human being and their detrimental role has been highlighted simply ignoring the stories of the ‘other’ e.g., the non-human. Bishnupada Ray decodes or encodes expressions of the non-human such as agony, sufferings, pain, happiness, kindness, and so on throughout his poems. Under the new poematic schema, he narrates, “the jottings of my pain/ defamiliarise the nights” and the earth becomes a place for only the human being. It goes on to say, “from our shrinking habitats/ we are pushed to this riverine no-man’s land between borders/ with a gloomy border enclave” and “make to turn this place/ as sublime as foxly possible” (p. 20). The non-human sufferings and their subsequent agitations have been aptly described in the poem titled, “Elephant Ride”. They ask certain questions to human beings and challenge their development agendas. The Elephant, the non-human asks, “over our dead bodies/near the jungle tracks/ you put up a sign/ elephant corridor/ let them pass/ we have a right to pass/ this right is our might…you are smart we know but/ do not play the minority card/ the politics of appeasement/ please give us back our corridor/ our forest our food our freedom/ take away your trains and population” (p. 21).

In the poem called “Dodo”, the non-human’s expression of agony revealed, “let us face extinction/ the complete blackout of memory/ of fever fret and the daily despair/ over love hate duty honour/ and the defeat of our being/ at the hand of becoming…and we are not strong enough/ to put on the gravity of survival” (p. 28). The hollowness of the earth and its human habitat has been captured in the poem, “Jatinga” (p. 29). On the other hand, the non-human requests the human child to visit in the woods to realise the non-human world in the poem “Twitter”, “come along human child/ to the woods and the wild/ there you can hear our tweet/ and learn yourself how to twitter/ for the world is more full of voices/ than you can understand” (p. 32). Likewise, how human agency has made the ground unfavourable for the non-human and their existence has been described in the poem, “Cactus” (p. 33). The poet expresses his notion of opposition/protests towards the human world for not recognising the presence of their counterparts called non-human/ animal in the poems, “Ass” and “Fur” (pp. 35, 38).

In the poem, “Country of the Apes”, the agonised frustration of the poet has been articulated. Here the inability of the poet to counter the greedy world becomes quite evident, “a poet sinks himself in the sand/ a shame sinks his head/ and a weight sinks his heart/ let him reconfigure dignity/ through this self-abasement…we see such a fine man in ruins/ amid the heartless facts of his life…or you will be nowhere tomorrow.” (p. 40). The practice of worshiping animals among the indigenous tribal people, especially in the African continent, has been in practice since long but such non-anthropocentric trends have been neglected in mainstream history. Yet, this has been justly described in the poem, “Totem Pole” (p. 52). The poet has been desperately looking for an environment, which can constitute a habitat for both the non-human and the human symbiotic co-existence and this is reflected in the poem, “Firefly” (p. 54). One cannot simply ignore the presence of the non-human in our society, which is largely dominated by human agencies and their ambitions. The non-human intends to say, “please bear with me/ I am not unsocial/ as you might think/ but I do not like to disturb others/ with my ungainly/ appearance” (“A Bear Apology”, p. 56).

The non-human and their sufferings are clearly visible in our everyday life, though we humans hardly sympathise with their agony or pains. The poem, “Plot” narrates the condition of turtle and the torture it encounters in a village hut for fulfilling the gluttonous needs of humans. It goes on to say, “we gather around the butcher/ the turtle is put upside down/ his blade neatly cuts off its nether part/ we can see the inside of the turtle/ and the blood from the freshly cut flesh…and its meat cut and sold to the buyers/ all the while the turtle keeps staring at us/ till it has only the head and the upper shell/ all the while it keeps on staring at us.” The human world never understands the sufferings of the turtle (p. 58). We know that the selling of turtle meat is illegal and yet in weekly markets this happens regularly. The poet magnificently catches the colonizing intentions of the human world in this respect. Being superficially sympathetic towards non-humans like turtle, we merely keep on discussing, “at dinner over the turtle meat/ we have a discussion/ on the butcher’s panache/ and the style of execution” (p. 58). This book, along with the non-human/animal world, also focuses on the inhuman as it addresses issues related to human mistreatment of fellow-human beings, who are treated as sub-humans/non-humans. The poem, “Tea Garden” perfectly captures the issue of human precarity in the form of starvation deaths of the tea garden labourers in northern India. It states, “this cup of tea is steaming hot/ on my inner table land/ with reports of starvation/ and a procession of death” (p. 60).

Bishnupada Ray’s new anthology of poems, Fox land and Selected Poems, is an inimitable attempt to preserve the poetic hedgehog, the fox in this de-poeticised world. The fore(after)word wonderfully narrates the anthology’s core argument along with other issues related to the non-human or the non-anthropocene. The book consists of seventy-five poems and each of them has been written in small letters. Needless to say that such use of smaller alphabets is symbolic as it metaphorises the small and subaltern voices of non-humans, which are always relegated to the margin. This book is a brilliant attempt to de-marginalise those small voices in this age of the Anthropocene.

Manas Dutta is Assistant Professor in Kazi Nazrul University India. He was awarded the Charles Wallace India Trust Fellowship to do research in British Library London and in School of Oriental and African Studies, London in 2016. His area of research engages with Military History, Conflicts and Violence. He has contributed in journals such as Social Scientist, Indian Historical Review, Studies in Peoples’ History (Sage), Contemporary South Asia, Economic and Political Weekly, International Journal Of Military History and Historiography, Itinario (Cambridge University Press Journal), Canadian Journal Of Military History, Journal of Military Ethics, South Asia Journal of South Asian Studies, etc.


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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