Contributor’s Marginalia: Joseph Chapman on “Bestiary” by Jordan Windholz
When David asked if I would like to write a blog entry on any of the poems in Spring/Summer issue of 32 Poems, I made a strange choice. I chose the poem I least understood, the poem that seemed the most mysterious to me and yet the most inviting, the poem that drew me into further examination and thought. That’s not always a good idea when your thoughts will be public. But I want to make a go of it, to see what I could glean from Jordan Windholz’s fabulous and strange poem “Bestiary.”
A bestiary is “a descriptive or anecdotal treatise on various real or mythical kinds of animals, especially a medieval work with a moralizing tone”—which suggests to me that right from the title, Windholz is declaring both the shape he’ll be working within and his freedom from it. (Isn’t that what great art aspires to, earned and authentic freedom within a tradition?) I say that Windholz is declaring his freedom from the title, or working against it, because the first four lines demand that we do not read this poem as parable, as medieval stories that moralize:
the parable of the fox is not a parable of den
the parable of the blackbird is not a parable
the fur’s tuft in the bramble betrays flight
and the pinion in the bush in an archaic pen
Certainly Windholz aggressively declares that “the parable of the blackbird is not a parable,” but there’s also more going on here. Notice the spacious, punctuation-free lines, the freedom and room they’re given on the page. They breathe. The live in their own rooms, unlike allegory and neatly defined parable. These “parables” are not about anything, Windholz suggests. They’re all mystery and glimpse, as the fur “betrays flight” and the “pinion . . . is an archaic pen.” These parables coast on sound, “pinion” and “pen,” making Christ’s parables seem lucid by comparison.
What I also love about this poem is that Windholz wastes no time, throwing the poem into disarray before we’ve even taken our seats. The turn comes in line five: “further off, a storm hunches, silently.” Now we are not reading parables, or discussing their moral correlatives—we are in one. And if you read the rest of the poem closely, the outlines of a story emerge. We realize that there is a storm, that “the rain falls” and “the moon rises,’ and, in the dark, “sight stops after a great distance.” Through this dark—the dark of inexplicable yet existing stories—“the hounds woof through the thicket” and bloody the fox, snatching at his body and fur until it is “a bloodied pelt in their jaws.” And who is the witness, as all violence must have a witness? “Then the blackbird is a small letter when it flies.”
Each line is a discrete mystery, and withholds; if the lines add up to anything larger, it is a larger mystery.
in this parable, plot is margin
and escape scurries and hides
when we read this parable, a sky littered with periods is all we see
The plot is margin. It’s what happens along the edges of the poem, outside the single-line images and metaphors, and it runs from us. When it escapes, we see a sky littered with punctuation, an emptiness of meaning: symbols without the necessary context of referents. The night colder, and the stars brighter, because they mean less.
Unless, perhaps, there is anything to be gotten from the last line: “a starved animal slinks into the body and sleeps there.” The fox escapes, though starved, and sleeps in its broken body struggling to call its home a home. It might be a stretch, but I think the ultimate truth of this poem is a basic one. One of repetitive violence and the animal fact of our bodies and fleeing. After the incessant violence of this summer’s news cycle, it’s hard not to see how we all, no matter which nation we live in, slink back into our bodies, beaten, and sleep there. And how the cycle starts again, how it returns us to the first line of the poem through a single word: “the parable of the fox is not a parable of den.” This is a non-parable but still a parable nonetheless. The parable goes something like this; all we have is animal fact, which may or may not provide meaning. We are chased, we are beaten, and we retreat.
Joseph Chapman earned an MFA in poetry from the University of Virginia, and his poems have appeared in Best American Poetry, Boston Review, Cincinnati Review, Gulf Coast, and elsewhere.