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Essay

Sandy Shreve on Anne Wilkinson's "Tigers Know From Birth"

(How Poems Work, November 2003)
“Tigers Know From Birth” appeared in Anne Wilkinson’s 1955 collection, The Hangman Ties the Holly–the second of only two volumes of Anne Wilkinson’s poetry to be published during her lifetime. Happily this poem, along with the rest of her work, is readily available in a new collection of her poems from Vehicule Press.
Wilkinson’s death from cancer in 1961 at age 50 robbed Canada of one of our finest poets. She began publishing in literary journals in the late 1940’s, and from the start her poems were met with high acclaim by many of the most influential critics and poets of the time.
A.J.M Smith, in his introduction to The Collected Poems of Anne Wilkinson (Macmillan, 1968), noted that “one aspect of her poetry [is] its intimate sensuous identification with life as a growth out of the earth;” and that “the body and its senses were the instruments through which nature and reality entered the mind and became a part of being” …

“Tigers Know From Birth” appeared in Anne Wilkinson’s 1955 collection, The Hangman Ties the Holly—the second of only two volumes of Anne Wilkinson’s poetry to be published during her lifetime. Happily this poem, along with the rest of her work, is readily available in a new collection of her poems from Vehicule Press.

Wilkinson’s death from cancer in 1961 at age 50 robbed Canada of one of our finest poets. She began publishing in literary journals in the late 1940’s, and from the start her poems were met with high acclaim by many of the most influential critics and poets of the time.

A.J.M Smith, in his introduction to The Collected Poems of Anne Wilkinson (Macmillan, 1968), noted that “one aspect of her poetry [is] its intimate sensuous identification with life as a growth out of the earth;” and that “the body and its senses were the instruments through which nature and reality entered the mind and became a part of being.”

“Tigers Know From Birth” appeared in Anne Wilkinson’s 1955 collection, The Hangman Ties the Holly—the second of only two volumes of Anne Wilkinson’s poetry to be published during her lifetime. Happily this poem, along with the rest of her work, is readily available in a new collection of her poems from Vehicule Press.

Wilkinson’s death from cancer in 1961 at age 50 robbed Canada of one of our finest poets. She began publishing in literary journals in the late 1940’s, and from the start her poems were met with high acclaim by many of the most influential critics and poets of the time.

A.J.M Smith, in his introduction to The Collected Poems of Anne Wilkinson (Macmillan, 1968), noted that “one aspect of her poetry [is] its intimate sensuous identification with life as a growth out of the earth;” and that “the body and its senses were the instruments through which nature and reality entered the mind and became a part of being.”

In “Tigers Know From Birth,” Wilkinson deals with one of our strongest emotions—fear. In each of the first four tercets, the speaker’s senses are so closely attuned to her environment they become part of it. She sometimes succumbs to, sometimes prevails over, perceived dangers. In all stanzas, the third line, abbreviated to three strong beats, releases the energy and emotion of the preceding longer lines with an oomph we feel bodily as we read.

Stanzas one and two are nightmarish, dominated by imminent doom. On land, the speaker feels incipient storms in her bones in time to seek shelter, but to no avail, as lightning strikes the tree under which she huddles. On water, she is “hung with seaweed” where the metaphor of the “cold-blooded carp” represents her fear of drowning; a dread that reduces her to a creature more adept at crawling than the crab (which merely imitates her). The caul/crawl rhyme here gives the stanza a further chilling effect, an added sense of being held underwater.

In the next two stanzas the speaker’s eyes and ears, evolved from jungle and forest, protect her from danger. In an earlier poem about her poetics, Wilkinson says shadows provide an “accidental candour”(“Lens”), suggesting that here, the “focus on the substance of a shadow’s / shadow on the sky” represents a heightened ability to discern the most obscure details. This is reinforced in stanza four, where she can hear the serpent before she is conscious of the sound it makes moving through grass.

Death is explicit in the final stanza. Here she raises the possibility that besides the various ways of dying she has thus far “learned from land and sea,” there exists another kind—“the easy rest” of a tiger’s “little catnap.” As predators at the top of nature’s food chain, tigers are unlikely to fear for their lives the way humans or other animals do. Wilkinson seems, at one level, to acknowledge that we cannot know this kind of fearlessness. But calling death a kind of “rest” invites a deeper meaning, seeing it less as an end to life than as another stage of existence, something with which we can be at peace.

The speaker has yet to attain such ease, but by naming it, she suggests it is achievable. Re-reading the poem with this in mind, we find each fearful image also crackles with energy, the endurance of life sustained by the brief presence of individual beings.