Harry Owen (ed.), For Rhino In A Shrinking World, illustrated by Sally Scott. East London, South Africa: The Poets Printery, 2013. ISBN 978-0-620-55296-7.
Hunted by cowards who claim they are men,
Slaughtered and butchered, left writhing in pain.
How long before their final amen?
A. Renard, “A Villanella of Indifference”, 92
For Rhino In A Shrinking World is an international anthology that was created to highlight the plight of the rhino: that three out of the five remaining rhinoceros species are classified as critically endangered. It is a collection of poems that speaks of the violence of humankind, the beauty of the rhino and nature, and as a warning for our future. A warning not just of a rhino-less world, but also of the harm an anthropocentric nature can do to ourselves and the environment. The editor, Harry Owen, immediately introduces the reader to the violence that humankind is inflicting upon the rhinos with their illegal poaching, where “criminal gang of cowards … mercilessly hacked the horns from their faces with axes and pangas (machetes) and left them to bleed slowly and agonisingly to death” (“Introduction”, iii). Throughout the collection his helplessness and need to do something about this genocide is evident and is mimicked by each poet in their own distinct way. The collection is divided into sections, such as, “Meetings”, “Nature Speaks”, “Extinction” and “Connections”, to name just a few. Sally Scott’s captivating ink and charcoal illustrations offer an added depth to the rhino’s “voice”.
The collection of poems range from showing the reader an anthropocentric species who believes they reign supreme: ‘[t]he trick’s lining him up in your sights … you need to take his horns’ (R. Elkin, “Shooting Rhino”, 18), to the wistful imagery of when a rhino
nudged my shoulder.
So I sat
– scared to break the spell –
while he rested his horn-crowned head
fine, furrowed, crepe-like skin
N. Morrissey, “Lord of Life”, 27
The poems become a canon; they can traverse the ages and continents. Not only do they speak for the rhino, but they speak of, and for, all of nature: from the crickets, to the bluefin, to the elephants, the toads, the giraffes, a spider or even a tick embedded in a hide. Not only do they speak for the voiceless sentient beings with which we share this world, but they can be transposed onto any injustice or oppression. And several of them do just that: they scream for the loss of compassion towards our own species, they cry out to the world to listen and stop and change our actions before it is too late:
I’m angry we as a global village don’t give a shit about our children
And that we knowingly fuck them up the arse by not tearing down those in power who
refuse to make brave bold decisions
R. Slater-Jones, “AngerPoem”, 104
The ecopoetry spins a web that connects the rhino, elephant or the tick to humankind, nature (or potentially, lack thereof) with our past, present and future. As a result of humankind’s actions we are undoubtedly placed within a world where “all that’s left for us to poach are eggs of kites and vultures pulling / at the putrid flesh of roadkill corpses” (H. Owen, “Your Tour Guide Speaks”, 122). Whether our actions are malevolent or benevolent, humankind is deeply embedded within this natural world that the poetry has created and most of the poems communicate the same message: humankind has created “this age of war and waste” (S. Banoobhai, “Prayer”, 171).
Each poem highlights the plight of the rhino/nature and humankind’s relationship and interactions with our ecosystem. Some of the poems weep for the pain and suffering that we inflict upon the sentient beings, while other poems focus on the aftermath of such evil. For example in Agnes Marton’s “Rhinoceros” it is obvious that humankind is now far removed from nature:
I keep googling
for the best horn shape
but all I find is foghorn.
I get off-line,
scampering from the room (55).
Humans, due to our societies, constructed ideologies and maybe even the belief that we can do it better, have been conditioned to look for a replica or the simulacrum of nature to interact with, rather than the organic. We, personally, may not swing the machete on the last rhino’s horn, but by choosing the inorganic we are removing ourselves so far from nature that we can no longer identify with, or show compassion towards, other sentient beings and our environment. The poetry becomes a warning for our future; our parasitic ways have destroyed nature and it is too late, there is no nature left to interact with.
I am not scared of you,
I am scared for you.
will one day,
swallow you whole
B. Chatterjee Dutt, “The Rhino Speaks”, 41
Several of the poems highlight humankind’s anthropocentric nature and our belief that we are superior to the other sentient beings. Valerie Laws’ “Best Selling: Father and Son Hunting Package Deals” confronts us with the idea that “[t]he world is big and wide, son. / It’s ours to rule and ride, son” (85). Encompassed within that anthropocentric nature the poems also expose the insecurities of humankind, such as when Laws highlights ideas about masculinity: “And when you’ve learned to kill, son, / You’ve learned a manly skill” (85). Laws eloquently challenges the idea that to be the “superior being” one must be able to oppress and dominate, otherwise you are less of a being. Other poems also reinforce these insidious self-doubts, such as Lance Fredericks “Curved”:
I am a man, my Jambiya proves it …
Our Men, after all, are defined by these trinkets …
Stroking its bejewelled handle.
Satisfied. At peace. I smile.
While on the surface these poems comment on the arrogance and cruelty of humankind, they also speak of how weak we really are when compared to nature. Governments and corporations have to create weapons to dominate and oppress the ecosystem that they refuse to live in harmony with. There are those who have to destroy an “other” to make themselves feel better. They have to create justifications for their actions:
It’s a kind of conservation, son.
These beasts need preservation, son.
So we shoot them on reservations, son,
So you can take your son
V. Laws, “Best Selling: Father and Son Hunting Package Deals”, 85
The poem questions humankind’s ability to simply exist in the world, in the here and now, as the other sentient beings do.
The poems compiled in For Rhino In A Shrinking World ask the reader to question, not only the active violence done to the rhino, but also the guilt of the rest of humankind in their complicity and ignorance. Marc Vincenz’s “Crushed Dragon Bones” highlights two different beings that are both as guilty as the poachers. Firstly, there is the apothecary lady who “[g]rinds the mixture in mortar humming some old love tune”. There is a duality to the lady, she may simply be trying to make a living to support a family we do not know about. Yet, at the same time, there is an insidiousness to her selling: “Hey you, big nose? Want me to check your pulse? … She fiddles a powder, rattling grains / from that draw, granules from another. All marked in red” (76). We cannot blame her for not knowing the murder and torture behind the “medicines” she sells. Yet, how can we not question her and whether she is aware of the violence behind her profits. The poem also asks the reader to question whether her need to provide for her family is more important than a rhino’s life or even the survival of an entire species. However, the real villain in the poem is the man creating the demand; the one who buys the “[c]rushed dragon bones for the little man inside … This will keep me going all night” (76). Just as Vincenz’s poetry offers the reader the chance to question humankind’s place in nature and our responsibilities, so too does Marry Mullen’s “Vexed”. Humans are the “predators, oil execs, bankers, fiddlers, / Bigots, control freaks, honkies; you happiness poachers, / Liars, pretenders …” (178) and “[g]rinding the horn will not make you hard. / Softness does that. Whisper a sweet word” (178): abusing nature will not save our lives. Rather, she implores us to work with nature, to enjoy nature simply as it is: unadulterated.
All the poems anthropomorphise the rhino. It is impossible not to, when it is our words, values and meanings that are being used to create an image. However, it is the degrees to which they anthropomorphise that creates the different meanings to the poems, all working to raise awareness of the torture and murder of the rhino. For example, the anthropomorphising in Phillippa Yaa De Villiers’ “The Mouthful” highlights the burden of being a voice for the voiceless or trying to empathise with them: “my muscles stiff from carrying the heavy horns of an animal identity” (31). While Dan Wylie’s, “Be Bounteous and Kill Me”, anthropomorphising metaphors create a heartbreaking image:
I awoke at dawn, my rump stinging, finding
a whole strake of my consciousness missing …
but my thighs have turned leaden with doubt …
The long hand of my compass is broken,
I see nothing before me
and there is nowhere to go
“Compass”, “my rump stinging” or “consciousness missing” are all very human constructs and ideas, yet, the thought of the pain from the wounded flesh or the unbearable agony of a horn that has been hacked off is all too vivid. While we can never know what it is like for a particular animal to be that animal, the aesthetics of these ecopoems can push the critic/reader to identify and empathise with this violated species – or any oppressed or dominated being – and allow the reader to acknowledge that animals share with humankind the desire to live, avoid pain and enjoy pleasure.
Given the transformative effects of language, these poems occupy a powerful position, enabling the reading audience to question the (mis)treatment of the rhino, as well as the chance to bear witness. While it may not be possible to actively prevent every act of violence towards animals, it is possible to understand the atrocities inflicted. And bearing witness to an injustice, whether it is a vigil, protest or a piece of poetry, creates a space for that wrong to be exposed and to provoke discourses to bring about change. Harry Owen’s anthology of poems is more than a vigil; it is more than a protest; it is a loud and desperate plea for humankind to question their ideologies and actively help save these rhinos, nature and our future:
Watch extinction take place live on CNN
Just leaving behind a guilty bloodstain
They were hunted by cowards who claimed they were men
Who just laughed as we breathed their final amen
Renard, “A Villanella of Indifference”, 92
Moira Sheppard is an ICU/Emergency vet nurse who recently completed a Bachelor of Arts (Hons) degree and is about to commence a PhD in Literary Studies. Her thesis will examine representation of animals in literature and will look at links between the “imagined” animal and the “real world” treatment of them.