With a quiet confidence Mary Angelino’s “Feeding the Geese” describes a familiar scene of human interaction with the natural world and then transcends that moment with a final stanza that makes me gasp with recognition, bringing to light a fear I had yet to articulate. Far too often poets writing about the natural world fall into the trap of the didactic mother-nature-teaching-us-a-lesson poem. Angelino deftly avoids this trap and makes new her subject, the speaker observing nature while keenly aware of the separate quality that makes humans stand apart from the natural world.
The poem opens with an erasure when the speaker states, “I am nothing to them,” and that, along with the title, sets up the age-old dichotomy of human versus nature, except this isn’t the speaker versus the geese. Instead, the poem explores the modern symbiosis of the two, the speaker bringing a bag of bread to the lake to feed the geese. We are in nature, but we are not in the wilderness. The speaker has come to commune and interact rather than to hunt and conquer, yet the speaker never completely steps into the natural elements. There is a separation that cannot be eliminated. Even the description of how the geese approach, all neck and peck, “as if their bodies were hidden under a table,” places us in a human environment. The idea of feeding the geese remains an artificial construct as the kitchen table hovers metaphorically over the landscape.
In stanzas two and three, the speaker fades from the scene even more as the supply of bread comes to an end and the geese return to the water. It is in these two stanzas that I hear the echoes of Yeats’ “The Wild Swans at Coole,” a poem not memorized but layered into my muscle memory by it having been taught to me by a Yeats enthusiast many years ago. While Yeats describes how the swans all take flight at once and “scatter wheeling in great broken rings,” Angelino describes the geese on the lake creating wakes that are “the spokes of a wheel.” When Yeats depicts the way the swans “drift on the still water,” Angelino’s geese sleep there “wooden tops / the wind has set to spinning.” In both poems one natural element layers on the next, building tension from line to line, even as the speaker remains a silent observer, knowing he/she will never truly be “of” nature, the separation created by the thinking mind too much a chasm to overcome.
It is in the fourth and final stanza of “Feeding the Geese” that the speaker returns full force, noting another human separator in the natural landscape, the bench upon which the speaker sits to observe, the bench that provides comfort and convenience and elevates the speaker, creating a distance from the nature observed. This distance is crucial to creating the force of the last line in the poem, when after having spent a brief interlude with the geese, the lake, and the wind, the speaker contemplates mortality. Rather than falling prey to the “nature lesson” of the cycle of life, the speaker resists, confessing to the wish for a long life but also to “still have [her] mind” when the end of that life nears.
Here is where the poem turns for me. I gravitate toward poetry that explores the human condition and offers me both empathy and wisdom. Angelino has certainly done both, leading by instinct and observation rather than by lecture to this pronouncement of something human and true. That last line lingers and haunts, as I am a woman approaching middle age, with aging parents, one of whom suffers from the loss of short-term memory, and two grandparents who slipped away into dementia before dying. Would I have recognized the brutal honesty and the threat of Angelino’s last line at an earlier age? I doubt it. Did I see this in Yeats’ poem all those years ago? No. But there too is the beauty of poetry. It will be there, always, waiting for the reader to catch up and take what it has to give.
Sandy Longhorn is the author of Blood Almanac (Anhinga Press). New poems are forthcoming or have appeared recently in Cincinnati Review, Crazyhorse, North American Review, Waccamaw, and elsewhere. Longhorn teaches at Pulaski Technical College, runs the Big Rock Reading Series, is an Arkansas Arts Council fellow, and blogs at Myself the only Kangaroo among the Beauty.