Pam Ore —Grammar of the Cage
How does one write about an imperfect world, a sick and tired and poisoned world that sets up numerous cages for its inhabitants? Indeed, Pam Ore in Grammar of the Cage [Les Figues Press] asks exactly this question: how can poetry function as transcendent when human success threatens so many species? A former zookeeper in Oklahoma City and Portland, Oregon, Ore is concerned with the status of caged animals, and the first section of the book provides meditations on zoo animals. But she understands that the earth is the human cage. Her project then for the rest of the book is tending to and caring for the earth the way a parent would care for a child with a bad case of the flu—the parent keeps acknowledging the strength of the child in order to counter the child’s misfortune, all the while waiting and hoping for the flu to run its course. Perhaps, Ore, though, would change the diagnosis from bad flu to inoperable cancer.
The fact that Ore ranges from experiential narratives to meditations on nature (which often run to the extreme of being overtly surreal and dream-like) to curious poems as language games à la L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E school makes this a collection that never gets fusty or drab. There is much intelligence and alertness that surface. However, the main chorus that is heard throughout the book is the deep and sincere feeling of empathy for the earth. At times the appeals are made with such raw emotion that they paint Ore as someone devoted to the doctrine of PETA, which for all its bravery and progressive thinking about the place of animals in the human world, too often displaces human concerns for those of animals. An indication of this mindset in Ore’s book is the near complete lack of human actors in the book. In only one poem, “Kitchen at 2319 E. Park Place,” does the 3rd person “she” appear to address a human form and then only as a foil to illustrate human misunderstanding of the speaker. Elsewhere in “November/Screaming” the “she” appears, but in this poem the “she” refers to the sun.
The 2nd person “you” appears a couple of times, but it never refers to a specific speaker, just a generalized one. A reader might conclude that the speaker is a very lonely one, one who has replaced human interaction with that of beasts and flowers and the vicissitudes of nature. At times, in fact, Ore seems contemptuous of all human effort and institutions as in “Cutting Up Tamba” where after the mercy killing of a diseased hippopotamus, the speaker refers to “researchers and scientists [who] moved in like a cloudbank, with wishlists and priorities.” The speaker is distraught by this demand when, later, the speaker says “[we] began cutting up Tamba into scientific and renderable pieces.” The double entendre on the word “renderable” suggests there is disdain for scientific analysis by equating its aims and goals as nothing more than exploitative in the way that rendering plants exploit the death of animals. One might ask if any human interaction is legitimate.
In “Scatter Creek, September” the antipathy is made explicit by the speaker:
Trust the grass,
the rusting oak.
Lie down there,
where the sun goes
on blue wings.
Dry wind blows away
the yellow flowers
of love for people,
bares pods and seeds
for the thirsty tongues of bees.
It should be no surprise then that at the end of the poem “extinction [begins] sing[ing] in the brush.” Perhaps the exclusive attention paid to the non-human realm is exactly the point of this book though. If earth is the human cage, then Ore is ticking off the items that comprise its grammar and lamenting the loss of its proper usage like a community college English instructor.
Sometimes the juxtaposition of the human world against the natural world becomes heavy handed like in “Spring Cedars.”
Wrens settle battles
over shade territories
Humans slit the clean
throats of trees.
This criticism aside, there is exceptional facility within this idiom. The natural world is invoked in a way that reflects deep understanding of its mannerisms. Ore effortlessly strings together images from the natural world in sonically rich and sometimes surrealist turns of phrase. In “Wind Light Leaves,”
These twigs weave valid walls
and vines handle
the leaves’ wages.
This night a swan will stand
inside a well
and idle wings will seal the halls
we gave tall wind.
When we tell and need these veils,
a seed digs its shell in silt,
while light, leaving in waves,
heals and heaves night.
Still, white hills lean into view:
we live elated, with delight we swing
new and even. At last the wide weeds
have shed their sting,
and I sing with living
in all this wind,
seeing all this light
and all these leaves.
In these near forays into animism, sound seems to have as much sway as sense. Certainly the sensibility here is one that peoples the wild. The qi’s signature is in the leaves and the light. One can almost imagine the pre-dawn of man apes thinking this poem without any words. Ore is aiming for an almost pre-literate sensibility in many of her most rapturous poems about the natural world.
In “Saint. Say It.” she writes:
some would say the saints
for these same days in the name
of human love that fling you
into a night borne by the blue
petals of gentians
you see the grace
there is in a day & sometimes
you succeed in naming it even
suck out your brains
through the flowers that are
if you are flung and running
into this night and find
beauty in the rain
that sinks through you
if you find the stars
beading up on your forehead
as you sniff out the fragrance
you live with a heart
that beats you to death
a hive for a mind
and lungs that barely pull you
as they are
on the air
with the lungs of warblers,
mice and kinglets
and the generous
exhalations of flowers
The speaker is becoming earthen. There is a figurative and literal move to be one with the earth. The speaker has negated itself as human form. All that remains of the human are the curious little trails of language that are left on the page which serve as the last remnants of the human realm, the cage, if you will, that no longer contains the human.
This is perhaps the central guiding theme of the book, the notion that language serves as the defining attribute that separates human from animal. It is the bars on the cage, and these bars do not permit animals from entry into the domain of humans. In “Grammar of the Cage,” she captures this idea most explicitly.
I want to say how it was, because it happens
without words, without time,
the kind of time implied in sentences, the kind
built into language, the cagewire of our brains.
Somehow you can go between noun and verb
as between bars, with calm intention and usually sideways.
Language time has a beginning and an end,
a producer and a receiver. Non-language time
is something produced between us, in endless collaboration.
When I see the bears behind the blue bars,
and know language put them there,
what should I let stay unsaid, unprojected,
and what must I pull through myself
to help humans imagine a different
perspective? What is it I should not write
in order to give the earth half a chance?
In this piece Ore sets out to show how language is also a weapon, the product of the objectifying thought of humans that marks the world in terms of “this” and “other.” It is this sensibility that Ore ultimately finds discomfiting. She feels that if the earth is to stand “half a chance” then somehow the human tendency (do we dare say instinct?) to objectify must be eliminated. However, Ore’s take on this is a little confusing. She defines “language time” as finite, yet non-language time is produced in collaboration. This would suggest that there is exchange of information in this collaboration; otherwise there would just be signaling in the dark. Perhaps I am being too picky about my definition of “language,” but this in a very great sense suggests that there is a language being developed in this ad hoc collaboration. It may be a language of gestures or even a pheromonal language, but this is language nonetheless. It, therefore, seems odd to me that Ore, whose attention is so riveted to the life of animals, would fail to make this distinction. It is confusing why she would privilege human communication over what many would see as the more honest communication of gesture and scent. On this note, I am uncertain what the line “When I see bears behind the blue bars,/ and I know language put them there” means. This seems to negate that the animals have their own language. On first reading I presumed that the language referred to was human language that put them there. There was something particular and special about human language that inscribed animals as other, as lesser. One might surmise this is what Ore means when she says language has put the bears in the cage, but it is not clear even though it probably needs to be. After all, Ore seems to be making an indictment of (human?) language, but one is left wondering what the specific harm is that has been issued.
One of the most exciting aspects of Grammar of the Cage is how Ore incorporates some poems that are virtually linguistic constructions and are designed to be meditations on the structure of language with poems that are her meditations on the natural world. [Les Figues Press deserves credit for taking on these two disparate styles within the covers of one book. Too often poetry publishers are of a mind that poems should be of one stylistic piece.] While the language is breaking down in some of her magical language of the natural world, the pieces that are language constructions serve as tall and dark edifices. Some of the language games she plays are lighthearted, such as in “Pop Quiz,” where she mimics the different parts of a school test with directions to the reader to “fill in the blanks” or “match” or “circle the true answer.” This piece as it asserts its absurdity is meant to question the validity of the rational excesses of the human mind. Other pieces like
is the opposite of
xthrough measured sequences
of neglect, separation and intervention,
I constantly kill you.x
xIf: I can write an alphabet,
Then: I can make a cage.
Language is the key singing in the lock.x
Trees and the lack of them
are an underlying structure,
an architecture of poetry.
Apples hang in the morning fog,
redden the scarves of trees.
Who will do the night’s laundry?
xI killed you with direct observation,
discovery and publication.x
xWords do not apply to everything.x
Let these words point towards the roots of spaces left
to realms beyond scientific inquiry,
let them serve as stars’ noise, as sanctuary,
are both an overt look at language’s impact and an object lesson of how the presence/absence of language behaves. The X’s almost suggest targets where X marks the spot. Again, Ore displays her disdain for observation and analysis. She prefers the realm of the magical, the pre-rational often associated with the poetic. Yet is her inclusion of these kinds of poems complete with their thesis-like utterances an acknowledgment that there can be no escaping this outlook? The speaker in the book seems to be trapped by objectifying language every bit as much as humanity is. In fact, the moments of magic language that occur when the speaker is engaging with the natural world seem to be punctuated by the experimental brainy pieces. These are Ore’s dominant modes in the book. However, she manages one piece which is an amalgam of these two modes, an interesting direction for Ore to have pursued.
Now that the air is let out of despair
a moth is flying out of my mother.
My path leads straight to apathy
and humans sound like humming.
Sacred things are filled with red,
thinking requires ink
and my brain is composed of 80% rain.
I feel the harm in harmony,
how numbers are numb, and how this
is the eve in forever.
In “Evening” Ore manages to successfully merge her “soft” side with her “hard” side in a way that produces a satisfying poem at the level of sound and image as well as exist as a statement of her controlling idea in the book.
All in all, Pam Ore’s Grammar of the Cage is an ambitious effort for its generous inclusion of disparate styles and its expeditions into the realm of the undisclosed minds that linger solely within the animal world. Her passion for the questions she raises about the human relationship to animals is notable, and the conclusions she draws about this relationship, though at times a bit vague, exhibit a strong penchant for doing right by the earth and its animals, sentiments which cannot be stated too often or with too much certainty.