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Essay

How Poems Work: Jesse Ferguson on John Newlove's "God Bless the Bear"

God Bless the Bear

How many of them die of old age?
They die of the tension of not-knowing,
the apprehension.
Fear sits in their guts,
thus the courage, the quickness, the shyness
of a deer asking Are you my death? the gopher
taking one last look. I want to know
what my death looks like
no matter how fast it comes.

Or the bear. God bless the bear,
arthritic as me, doing its death-clown act
on two legs, ready to embrace, saying
I’m just you in funny clothes.
Your clothes are funny too. Let’s wrestle,
my little man, my little son, my little death, my brother.

From A Long Continual Argument: The Selected Poems of John Newlove (Chaudiere Books, 2007)

In a short span, this unrhymed sonnet presents multiple voices and multiple points of view: those of various herbivorous prey animals, the omnivorous, titular bear, and the (presumably) human poet-speaker who unavoidably mediates between the reader and the non-human entities in the poem. Its volta or “turn” signals a shift in focus from the realm of “natural,” or non-human, cycles of life and death to a consideration of the bear’s relationship to the speaker (and through the speaker to humanity in general). In the octave, the speaker speculates on the feelings of prey animals in the wild as they encounter their various deaths. We might assume that they meet their ends in the jaws of hungry bears, but that would be another speculation (however justified, given the poem’s title). In line six, the abrupt shift from the speaker’s perspective to the speculated points of view of the gopher and deer initiates a disorienting identification between human and non-human nature (here represented by animals). The speaker introduces the voice of the deer with the verb “asking,” but the sudden shift to the lyric “I” in the statement “I want to know / what my death looks like / no matter how fast it comes” accentuates the vocal ambiguity: is this a continuation of the presumed thoughts of the prey animals, or is this the statement of the poet in empathy with those animals? “God Bless the Bear” provides no easy answer, and that’s the point.

Newlove pushes this shifting identification with the animal realm even further in the sestet. Here, the poet’s chief means of shaping ambiguity changes from unattributable speech to heavily anthropomorphic language and images that undermine the easy distinctions between human and non-human that, not incidentally, have facilitated our exploitation of the natural world. Newlove employs dramatic irony when his speaker commands god to “bless the bear,” which if taken as earnest would presume that a non-human being needs the blessing of our anthropoid deity. The speaker’s solipsism continues when he claims that his subject, here pictured as a circus dancing bear divested of the majesty that made the creature sacred in many aboriginal cultures, is “arthritic as me” (emphasis added). He goes on to picture the bear as “ready to embrace” him—a highly ironic image, given that the dancing bear is trained through brutal physical coercion to move his limbs as if in anticipation of an embrace. This irony is heightened when the speaker apparently fails to see that the bear’s gesture could as easily be a threat display. These lines dramatize the flawed thought processes that have and continue to allow humans to exploit animals.

The blurring of the speaker’s and the bear’s identities assumes a dizzying intensity in the poem’s closing lines: “I’m just you in funny clothes,” and “Let’s wrestle, / my little man, my little son, my little death, my brother.” The catalogic final line confuses humanity’s habitual categories of kinship, and the syntax results in a quickened rhythm that reinforces the abrupt mental leaps demanded of the reader. The bear claims to be both father and brother to the poet-speaker, and yet he also claims the human as his “little death”—an archaic euphemism for an orgasm, but also an allusion to humanity’s rapacious exploitation of nature. This closing list of affiliations disorients the reader, hopefully leading us to question the easy distinctions we use to understand our place in the biosphere. Thus, the sonnet can be said to have an ecopoetic underpinning. And yet, the anthropomorphic projection of the speaker’s ego onto the various animals in the poem leaves us wondering whether we’ll ever be “ready to embrace” nature on its own terms.