Poetry Review–Gerald Stern, “The Naming of the Beasts”

8 Jul

Well, today we get all Biblical–today we are talking about “The Naming of the Beasts”  a clear call-out to the story of Adam and Eve in Genesis.

You were wrong about the blood./It’s the meat eating lamb we are really terrified of./Not the meat eating lion.

The idea of a meat eating lamb is horrifying–a strange unnatural image that certainly would be terrifying on a whole new level than a lion.  These lines bring all sorts of Biblical images, how the lion will lie with the lamb, the lion of Judah, Christ the lamb.  In fact the lamb/lion dichotomy is one of the most vivid pairings in the Bible.  Also, the lamb is sacrifice and innocence.   According to the speaker, the lamb scares us more than the lion.

The noisy soul shrieking and spitting and bleeding set us off–/the smell of nice green grass confused us.

The image of a lamb being slaughtered, and the lamb is a stand in for that person’s soul.   And if we go back to the first line, being wrong about the blood, this might be a response to someone saying that blood created the horror, it didn’t, it just “set us off” as if it were a doorway to the horror, not the horror itself.    What is confusing, is the grass, which indicates safety and bounty.   The reason that a lion is not as terrible, is because a lion makes people’s guard go up, so that whatever it does it won’t get a person at their most vulnerable.  A lamb however, is helpless, and that very helplessness creates pain.  It’s interesting to think that ritual sacrifices were more often things like lambs than big horrible animals.

It is the eyes, the old sweet eyes showing just a little fear./It is the simple mouth full of honest juices./It is the little legs crossed at the bony joints.

It’s clear that the animal has done nothing to earn such a fate, but we find what the person thinks of himself in contrast that’s implied.   Jaded, terrified, complex, dishonest, big.  Also, that last line, little legs at the bony joints as if we were seeing this lamb tied down to an altar, isn’t that exactly the sort of thing that a terrified person would look at, that tiny detail?  Also it emphasizes the fragility of this creature.

–It is not greed–it can’t be greed–it is fasting.

We’re still trying to define that terror.  The line is right, greed isn’t terrifying, we can be disgusted by it, but it rarely creates a physical reaction like fear–fasting is what people are more afraid of.   What’s interesting is the fear of fasting or doing without is what creates greed.  Also, the indication is that this lamb which is offered up to god isn’t put there because of greed because this family will not be able to eat it.

It is not divorce–it is custody;/it is not blood–it is supineness.

This rite is not a divorce–I take that to mean that it’s not just getting rid of the people’s unworthiness rather it is making them own that unworthiness.  Think about it, if you had to kill a lamb after every wrong deed wouldn’t you really feel even worse about whatever it is that made you do it than before? As for the blood/supineness dichotomy, what I think the meaning is, is that the fear of drawing blood is not the reason that this is so brutal, but the absolute “supineness”–supine is a tricky word, which is why Stern pulled it out of his hat.  Literally supine means laying on the back, so being laid out vulnerable, tied down, completely exposed is one part of what terrifies the speaker, but also, supine means passive, not responsive, so becoming the lamb frightens him as well, because the lamb has no control or even concept of it–by being lazy/indifferent you are set out to be a martyr to those stronger than you.  This is what Stern is naming, that passivity that makes you sacrificable in the first place.



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