I see mention of a recently published anthology titled Vivisection Mambo. What – a whole book of verse on the hideous subject? But the title turns out to be misleading. The word ‘vivisection’ is evidently there for metaphorical purposes, to imply that the poems inside are searching, bare-nerved, even bloody – in a word, important. ‘Mambo’ is added, I guess, to show that they’re also lively and fun, like the dance. No doubt the poems themselves are all these things, but they aren’t about vivisection. The title is just taking careless and improper advantage of the frisson that might be supposed to go with the word.
In fact it’s hard to find any poetry that is about vivisection, though heaven knows it’s a subject which needs attention of the imaginative ethical sort that poetry can provide. There’s one large and terrifying poem of early twentieth century date called The Testament of a Vivisector, written by the fine Scottish poet John Davidson (more of that some other time). Davidson was a trained scientist, and probably knew more than most about laboratory life. And I suspect that it’s lack of such immediate knowledge rather than the ugliness of the subject that keeps poets away: poetry isn’t easily made out of generalizations.
There is one poem about vivisection which makes a deliberate merit of this impersonality, as its business-like title suggests: ‘The Use of Animals in Research’ (from the collection Mrs Carmichael by Ruth Silcock, Anvil Press, 1987). “Animals are different”, says its first line with well-aimed meaninglessness, for it soon appears that the voice surveying “our work” is indeed that of a practitioner. Here in fact is a go-between like Professor Sir Colin Blakemore, knowledgeably reassuring his public of the value of animal research, though without Blakemore’s tact or sophistication:
No one can doubt the
of scientists. The proof: nearly
one third of all licensed experiments
are for medical re-
search. The rest not. Nevertheless these other tests
could promise amelioration
of mankind’s lot. For instance …
Then the prosaic voice goes on to list some of the things tried out on animals. It’s not just a sketch: the poem is fourteen seven-line stanzas long. In fact, as the author says in a note, it’s a verse-rendering of material from Richard Ryder’s 1975 book, Victims of Science.
You’ll have noticed the poem’s strange metre and rhyme scheme, blatantly at odds with the syntax, even severing individual words:
To be brief, and not bore you:
rologists, in pure research, like
to transplant animals’ heads, deprive young
monkeys of mothers, spike
electrodes into brains, blind cats, stop food, punish
pigeons (it’s shown on television too).
The vivisector’s voice – with its didactic love of numbers and lists, and its banal equanimity – seems to be ignorantly stumbling through the poetic form. He wrecks the aesthetics, and for their part they mangle his discourse. It’s mainly through this contradiction or irony that the poet herself comments on what she has him saying. And her principal comment seems to be that the vivisector – by turns patronizing, populist, and defensive – cannot rise to the ethical seriousness of what he speaks about.
‘The Use of Animals in Research’ appears in the Mrs Carmichael collection under the heading ‘Two Animal Poems’, paired with ‘William Cowper’s Hares’. In this other poem, Ruth Silcock describes the eighteenth-century poet’s relations with the three hares which at one time he had living in his house. And this history of Cowper and his pets, which he himself also wrote about, makes an illuminating corrective to the vivisection poem.
For instance, so far from extenuating human cruelty, Cowper was painfully sensitive to it, and wished, above all, to protect his hares. It’s true, that he therefore had to keep them from their natural life; the word “prisoner” is used in Ruth Silcock’s poem, though the hares were more or less tame, and seem to have had the run of the house and garden. But their natural life, so Cowper feared with good reason, would entail being hunted by humans. In his own long poem The Task, he had spoken of this in the case of the first of his hares (a doe):
Well – one at least is safe. One shelter’d hare
Has never heard the sanguinary yell
Of cruel man, exulting in her woes.
And then, addressing the hare herself,
I have gain’d thy confidence, have pledg’d
All that is human in me to protect
Thine unsuspecting gratitude and love.
It’s an ambitious phrase, “All that is human in me”, and a helpful reminder of what’s missing from the glib voice and perfunctory philosophy of the vivisector in ‘Use of Animals’.
Then there’s the question of numbers and the attitudes that go with them. “In one year in Britain”, says the vivisector (referring to the early 1970s),
perform over five
hundred thousand trials on live
animals: seventeen thousand dogs, twelve
thousand cats (I arrive
at forty-seven dogs, thirty-five cats a day),
four hundred horses (eight a week, roughly).
That last and telling word, “roughly”, summarizes the sweeping indifference of all such Home Office maths to the individual animal, in whom alone life and its possibilities of pleasure and suffering exist. In this sense the numbers are an abrogation or at least a suspension of morality. And it’s not just that Cowper’s hares are three only, and have been distinguished and dignified by names. Yes, their individualities have been nurtured in that domestic setting, but it’s clear that they were not created by it:
Tiney would not be tamed. Puss, much
gentle usage made tame.
Bess was born brave and tame …
As the shepherd knows each sheep,
Cowper distinguished each hare:
among a thousand,
no two are alike.
Every animal has a life peculiar to itself by title of nature, whether humans think they recognize and understand its inwardness or not. The names and other recorded distinctions are for human benefit, and add nothing to that original fact, though they may evidence kindness, as they clearly did in Cowper’s household.
It all comes down to that word “usage” (“Puss, much / gentle usage made tame”), here meaning ‘treatment’. In treating other animals humanely (with ‘all that is human in us’), we make way for their particular beings, as we would wish our own to be made way for. In merely putting them to “use”, we insult nature in them and in ourselves. These are existential truths which poetry is peculiarly fitted to communicate. I don’t say that either of the ‘Two Animal Poems’ is brilliant – they don’t aim to be – but both are plain-spoken, aesthetically distinctive, unsentimentally truthful. Together they leave their own modest but permanent memorial to what is possible of good and bad in the human sensibility, and what that may mean for the other animals.
Notes and references:
Vivisection Mambo is edited by Lolita Lark and published by Mho & Mho Works (San Diego, CA), 2015.
Ruth Silcock was a psychiatric social worker, and many of her poems are about institutions, authorities, and the pathos of dependence.
The quotation from William Cowper’s poem The Task (published 1785) is found in Book III, sub-titled ‘The Garden’.
The stained glass window is from the Norfolk church of St Nicholas, Dereham, where the poet is buried. It shows Cowper with the three hares and his spaniel Marquis (the four of them were, he wrote, “in all respects sociable and friendly”). The photograph is used by kind permission of Simon Knott, and can be seen in context at http://www.norfolkchurches.co.uk/derehamnicholas/images/dscf6948.jpg.