Original poem reprinted online here: "The Heaven of Animals" by James Dickey
Originally read: July 26, 2013
More information about the Poet: James Dickey
At the top of my notes I wrote, "cinquain." Nope. The first stanza is a sestet, but I think past me was looking for a consistent form in the poem. I don't know why. I think the poem is pretty consistent on the inconsistency of Heaven.
So in the beginning, well as epic as the line should be, is death and a reawakening, "Here they are. The soft eyes open. / If they have lived in a wood / It is a wood." And the afterlife is the same place. The language here is simple as the explanation of the setting is done again, "If they have lived on plains / It is grass rolling / Under their feet forever." Why? Regardless of setting, it will always go back to it -- there's a set up of "consistency."
"Having no souls, they have come." This line refers the biblical idea that animals have no souls, but this line supersedes the equation of soul = heaven by implying there's something else going on here, but the scene is still valid. It's kind of humorous how the speaker brushes aside the philosophical quandary with, "Anyway,"
"Beyond their knowing / Their instincts wholly bloom / And the rise." The reiteration of the first stanza but with the introduction of "instincts" which is the core of this poem. However, the next stanza focuses on a comparison to "soft eyes open" to "landscape flowers." But the turn in the lines is the repetition of Outdoing, "Outdoing, desperately / Outdoing what is required." The idea of "outdoing" going a bit overboard in the physical sense seems not only to apply to the situation, but also the poem trying to reach a concept, trying to understand heaven.
In the fourth stanza, the turn comes back down to the instincts:
For some of these,
It could not be the place
It is, without blood.
These hunt, as they have done,
But with claws and teeth grown perfect.
One thing of note with this stanza is that this poem is not questioning. This stanza is exposing what heaven could be like for a hunter. The instincts, just as the setting, is still intact. And the last line of "But with claws and teeth grown perfect" feels as though there's a slight edge toward the phrase because of the word "perfect" which could reference creation, but hey, the divine as an entity is mostly out of the poem with the "having no souls" line.
Regardless on being soulless, these ones are, "more deadly than they can believe." Stalking better. Crouching better. Then this line, "And their descent / Upon the bright backs of their prey" indicates two things -- a heaven for predators must have prey, two the word "descent" has a dual purpose (the physical action, and the implication of a downward spiral in metaphor [hell]).
But note the change in time with the next line, "May take years / In a sovereign floating of joy." Time, even though paced slow will still lead to somewhere -- the descent. And look at how "heaven" is described as a "floating of joy" -- for who?
To put it bluntly, "And those that are hunted / Know this as their life, Their reward: to walk" -- the prey's Heaven is quantified based on knowledge. Their life is what they are known but instead of the usual hunt and be killed it's more of, "Under such trees in full knowledge, Of what is in glory above them, And feel no fear."
This is where the poem gets philosophical. If the purpose of prey is to be hunted, but never die or feel pain -- then is it so bad? For me, the poem here enforces stratification, not as a bad thing, but as something that "naturally" occurs in which, without emotion, becomes, "acceptance, compliance / Fulfilling themselves without pain."
The last stanza, the envoy, reiterates the first lines, but should give a new light to the situation:
At the cycle's center.
They tremble, they walk
Under the tree.
They fall, they are torn,
They rise, They walk again.
There's a new spin on the meek will inherit the earth. It's not that the wrongs of the world are gone, nor the feeling of trembling; rather, the insistence to go on which makes this poem either serious in the approach or cynical. Seriously cynical?