Obstinacy as Hedge against Feelings of Nothingness
Is Marianne Moore’s poem a war poem in disguise? Horses are beautiful, sleek, graceful. Mules are obstinate and onerous–and useful. As a personality the poet Marianne Moore was nothing if not pragmatic; I’ve always liked Moore’s meditative poem on human and animal obstinacy, on inflexibility as means of maintaining sanity, and skirting “the treeless precipice” of Sartre’s nothingness of being, and even went so far as to write in the same vein about ursine and human ferocity. But I came to understand the poem in a more visceral way recently, when my uncle lent me a book about his guerrilla warfare experiences in the jungles of Burma, where solitary scouts approached every bend through towering, tangled vegetation with the apprehension of Japanese waiting in ambush. The terrain in Moore’s poem is more spare, yet she captures a sense of the emptiness of menace that assails us at times. Following their patrols, the soldiers used mules as pack animals–each mule bearing 200 pounds of equipment and supplies through terrain was so rough and sometimes so steep, the mules would lose their footing and “topple off the trial altogether and go head over heels down the mountainside, breaking their necks and or stabbing themselves with bamboo,” writes Charlton Ogburn, Jr., the author of The Marauders. In my revery on Moore, I wonder now if, avid newspaper reader that she was, she was thinking about mules as pack animals in the nightmare of war; or if perhaps, she had not felt at times like a pack animal herself as she steadied and supplied for her psychological frail mother through the years of their impoverish life together in a tiny apartment. Here is Moore’s poem:
I Like a Horse But I Have a Fellow Feeling for a Mule
I like the mule: his sides are thin.
He takes his ease in no man’s inn.
When contrarieties are thick
About his mind’s eye, he will kick;
Men bewail their false position;
Closing with the mule’s tradition.
He skirts the treeless precipice.
The former groan at that and this:
Though steeped in incredulity,
He treads on ‘nothing’ safely; he
Erects his body as a hedge
Between their bodies and the edge.