What are the Animals Saying?

Stuart Cooke


To think and write about the languages of animals is no anthropocentric indulgence. Increasingly, research from disciplines like biosemiotics and ethology is telling us that other animals (and plants, too) have developed all kinds of complex semiotic systems. When we think about how and why such systems are made, and how we might interpret them, we could be engaging in an ethological poetics. For me, ethological poetics is distinct from ecopoetics because it refers to the meaningful existence of expressive, lively creatures, as opposed to generalised conceptions of ‘environment’, ‘nature’, ‘ecology’, etcetera.

Ethological enquiry is also more than this, and importantly so in contested, colonised landscapes like Australia’s: I see it as a decolonial form of ecological practice, which subverts the old, imperialist fort surrounding Human Cognition and Culture. Such a subversion is but an extension of a much longer history of decolonial activism, in which Indigenous peoples have resisted colonialist classification as flora and fauna, and repositioned their arts, cultures and languages centrally within radical conceptualisations of unsettled, and unfurling, political intensities.

To consider the beings that have remained ‘flora and fauna’, however, is to attend to those myriad others whose lives and cultures have also been altered irrevocably by European invasion. In their efforts to unravel the Cartesian and Judeo-Christian strictures of the colonial imagination, poets and critics should think very carefully about the implications of First Nations’ onto-ecological terrain. In Australia, proper recognition of Aboriginal sovereignty implies recognition that other animals and plants also have their own Law.

Indeed, many of the poems in this issue encourage such profound, ethological (re)consideration. Here, the vision of the more-than-human is at once the arrival in human language of a thoroughly alternative semiotics, and a reappraisal both of what poetry is and where it might come from. In turn, the poems compel us to attend to the territory of their creatures, and often to surrounding territories as well. Together, they are poetic manifestations of the ethical reconstitution formulated by scholars like Karen Barad and Donna Haraway: the correct response to a radically exterior Other, the concern of an old ethics based on exchange between essentialist categories, has been replaced with “responsibility and accountability for the lively relationalities of becoming of which we are a part”.[i]

I must also make a comment about the poems that weren’t selected for this issue. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, BIRDS were by far and away the most popular subject of submissions. It is equally unsurprising to point out that birds are a common subject in poetry – not only in Australian poetry, as more provincial imaginations might surmise, but also in North and South American poetry, English poetry, Filipino poetry, and so on … Now, I have no problem – no problem at all – with writing about birds; in fact, I’d argue that birds (kingfishers, lyrebirds, blackbirds … ) have inspired some of the most extraordinary poems ever written. There are many excellent bird poems in this issue, too, which display a wide variety of perspectives and approaches to vocality (compare ‘Bird Song’ with ‘White-browed Babbler’, for example).

My problem with many of the unsuccessful submissions was that, invariably, the turn to a bird (more often than not, the bird’s article was indefinite) was little more than a token gesture towards a non-human animal. The bird, in other words, was simply the most convenient non-human object available, which required the least effort to hear or see. Time and time again, poets seemed to think that the invocation of a bird outside a study window, in flight or in a tree, was an original vector of thought. But birds are only the most conspicuous of our non-human companions, and many avian species are easily observed. Far from doing the really challenging work of acknowledging, thinking about and conceptualising (however provisionally) a different umwelt, most bird poems suggested reiterations of a bad colonial poetics: the form of the Other was hastily sketched, yearned after, and then erased before I was returned to the region of primary concern (the poet’s thoughts).

After birds, there were a lot of poems about bees and other insects, and a smattering about whales and other marine life. In most cases, though, the process was the same: the animal was at best a glimmer, at worst a cumbersome trace, which subsided beneath a clunky, unresponsive language.

In welcome contrast, the poems gathered here do nothing of the sort. While each could be positioned in a distinct location with relation to issues of mimesis, representation, form and vocality, each nevertheless bares the irrepressible mark of a non-human agency, be it a crab, a thylacine, a cybernetic flow of compost, or the complex, generative field of Country … These poems are compelling portraits of noisy, chattering environments, which refuse to be silenced by the brutal weight of capitalism and ongoing colonialism – those other C words, which are varieties of carelessness.

[i] Barad in Donna Haraway, When Species Meet, Posthumanities (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008). p. 289


Stuart Cooke is a poet and critic based on the Gold Coast, where he lectures at Griffith University. His books include Opera (2016) and Speaking the Earth’s Languages: a theory for Australian-Chilean postcolonial poetics (2013). His translation of Gianni Siccardi’s The Blackbird is forthcoming from Vagabond Press.

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