#12 Does Ken Babstock differentiate between rural and urban, between animals and humans?
Since the reintroduction of the "Arcadian idyll" of the Greek philosophers by the Renaissance playwrights, the word "pastoral" meant a pleasant place of cultivated nature between the wild lands and the cities, a nice place in the countryside, where a person can relax from any worldly concerns, where nothing exciting or terrible ever occurs, and everyone is innocent and happy. Then, in 1999, Ken Babstock published "Mean", an anthology of his poetry, and proceeded to make a mockery of these concepts.
One of the first poems where "the pastoral" colliding with "the concrete terrain of motorbikes, prisons, and chainlink" is in "Father Thorne's Bad Saturday". The poem introduces the pastoral/rustic theme in lines 5-12:
"...just down from my parish so we'd / go for groundhogs when his father / allowed it. A bright boy, chatty, / I'd laugh aloud at his stumblings / toward God: queries, crotchets as tart / and enticing as new blackberry clusters. / We'd reached the slough in Saar's / south field, hawing at cattle". (Babstock, 5)
These lines help us imagine a small rural town, located among fields for cattle to graze and wheat to grow. In other words, a typical modern pastoral - a rural countryside where everything is always peaceful, and nothing exceptional or exciting ever happens.
Unfortunately, the next line introduces us to that other element of Ken Babstock's poetry - "the concrete terrain of motorbikes, prisons, and chainlink", which begins with the cattle, "who'd / stare and moan" rather ominously (5). These moans are a forewarning that something is askew in this pastoral paradise; the cattle with their moans feel it, even if father Thorne does not - that is, until he sees that his companion "shouldered / and cocked the thing <...> Had trained the barrel-hole / to a spot in my chest." (5) At that moment, the previously peaceful pastoral turns dark and rather morbid:
"...the sun / dimmed to crimson, a cloud-shadow like black / crepe cut the tussocks between us. His name / wouldn't come to my lips. I just dropped the / willow switch I'd been topping buttercups with / and swallowed whatever spit I had left." (Babstock, 5)
The peaceful pastoral suddenly sprouted some potential "big city" violence, as father Thorne suddenly found himself in potentially the same position as the groundhog shot and killed only moments ago. Differences between the urban and the rural, between animals and humans can vanish in a blink of an eye.
The poem "Sheep Shed", on the other hand, deals not with matters of life and death, but rather with matters of life and sex. This poem is concerned not so much with blending rural and urban, as with blending human and animal. The three teens - Kathrin, Maria, and the narrator - have to spend the night in an abandoned sheep shed for some reason. The author immediately points out that the narrator and his companions are even "Not sure it even was a sheep shed; / three squat stone walls, the fourth / formed by the hillface." (Babstock, 9) This makes the 'shed' of the poem into a hovel or a glorified barrow, with no furniture or any other markings that show that humans made - or ever inhabited - it. The narrator is "not thinking of come-ons / or sex but scared as a child when his / house speaks in the night." (9) This makes him and his companions into not-quite-humans, but rather frightened little animals with "Eyes wide as / buckets yawning for light, listening for boots / bearing hard on the trail from house to / shed, the apocalyptic clang on tin / then the steep chase seaward, or -- / silence". (9) The narrator and his friends do not seek other people or proper human homes but "any abandoned / hut with a roof". (9) This makes them not proper members of human society, but exiles, social outcasts who live like animals and do not expect anything positive to come from contact with normal people either. This may be a rural/pastoral countryside setting, but it is warped into something menacing and dark, with "broad shoulders plugging / the space between lintel and post, blotting / out all but the skinniest finger of moon." (9)
Like a traditional rural landscape, Ken Babstock's countryside may be quiet and peaceful - but it is also intimidating; the mention of sex in line 19 may leave some readers wondering, just what the owner of the "broad shoulders" in line 25 would want from the teens, of whom at least two are girls...
Lastly, the poem "White Dog" just gives the pastoral poetry one final twist. The poem centers itself around a river - another trendy clichИ setting of the country life. Usually a river in poetry is either a solemn or a cheerful place, where nothing bad comes to mind. Ken Babstock made it into the center of a tragedy, as the girl, Laura, finds her dead dog lying on its banks, "its snout a compass needle to the current's pull." "A fist-sized hole pecked neatly / through stomach wall, / ravens defending / a rope of entrails, like a dew worm coaxed / out on the stone." (Babstock, 10) It is needless to tell that poetry shows dew as a thing of fragility and beauty, poets usually compare it to diamonds, or tears, not typically to "a rope of entrails". The pastoral is finally marked by "Laura's weeping, her bent shape / mirroring her dog's on the shale." (10) Once more, the line between animal and human is blurred, this time directly, as the pair, "master / and carcass, seemed like parentheses". (10) Parentheses are like brackets, they always go together, and they resemble each other in reverse. Therefore, the clichИd phrase "a dog and its master" took on a new, disturbing dimension, suggesting that Laura, the dog's owner, could easily take the dog's place on the river's shore, dead due to any cause.
To add insult to injury, the poem's lines 28-29 introduce "the ravens, black-cloaked / and prosecutorial, had a case / and could be halfway done". (10) The poet gives a flock of ravens' characteristics of people; more specifically characteristics of attorneys, prosecutors, and lawyers. Babstock introduces and compares the scene of a criminal court with the spectacle of a dead animal and a flock of scavengers. Once more, the elements, the features of a big city life, are introduced to a supposedly very non-city setting - the river flowing through the countryside.
Obviously, the above-mentioned poems are not the only ones that show Babstock's views about the pastoral and how it really is. Just by looking at these poems alone, one can get the general idea: the pastoral is a dangerous, menacing place, almost as bad as the city without the skyscrapers and traffic jams. Furthermore, people who inhabit the countryside can, in blink of an eye, become as helpless as animals or people in a big city, and they suffer both physically and emotionally as the latter as well. Ken Babstock argues that there is no distinction between rural and urban (and humans and animals), and that at any moment the pastoral setting can sprout "motorbikes, prison, and chainlink."
Babstock, Ken. Mean. Toronto, Canada: Anansi Press Inc. 1999.