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Poetry and the Lion’s Mane

Updated: Jul 23, 2022

By Stephen Kuusisto, co-editor Nine Mile Magazine

Why do lions–male lions–have manes? “Protects them in fights,” some say, but lions mostly attack each other at the hips which is a fact like candy or coconuts as Anselm Hollo once said though he wasn’t talking about lions. A contrary view: the mane advertises a lion’s fitness like a peacock’s tail, vanity in tooth and claw. A Pride of lions with its boys up front is nothing more than a roving band of social Darwinists. Those big cat boys should have their manes around their hindquarters like tawny tutus. Nature flubbed her leonine mane placement.

Nature flubs a great deal. Poetry engages with the flaws. A better way to say it is poetry “is” the flaws. Poetry can and will concern itself with imperfections. Poems that matter, the ones that feel necessary have to do with that lion whose mane is losing hair. It never grew back properly after a fight. Poems that matter suggest the mane is less important than a consideration of prey for it’s all appetite and surrender “out there” and not a hair salon.

Consider this excellent poem “In Praise of Prey” by Leslie McGrath which I’ll quote in its entirety:

The rhythm of predation is a sine wave.

Between predator and prey it winds

like a whip-crack in slow motion.

The time has come to praise the prey

who fill the guts of the never-satisfied

for whom winning is all, and nothing.

Praise the squeak and the telling tremble.

Praise their begging and their shame.

Praise their jugular fullness, the sweet red pulse

the ever-open spigot of their submission.

Let go the lamentations. Let go the pity.

All hail the awkward and the addlebrained

the boneheaded, the broken-down, the bonkers.

All hail the cracked and the cuckoo

the lame, the lunatic, and the losers.

Here’s to the nutjobs, the spastic

the peculiar and the outcasts.

For them, the wedgie and the booby prize

the tar, the feathers and the narrow rail.

Tip your jaw and let praise fall for prey.

History is written on the vellum of their bellies.


Now I’m more than a little uncomfortable with McGrath’s easy move from the locus of creatures being eaten to disability figuration and I know I’m meant to be discomfited. I know I can’t praise brutality but the poem makes me look up from the ghastly entrails of nature and slick acculturation, makes me reach for my chin to touch the blood. I’m still whispering, “I haven’t let go of my pity”–“don’t you see? I didn’t sign on yet?” I want very much to write in the margins “remember the T4 Project? Hitler rounded up and exterminated the disabled before he turned his full attention to the Holocaust.”  Of course I want to write this. In fact, forget about marginalia–one thinks of Frank O’Hara’s “Personism”–hell I want to call Leslie on the telephone! Want to shout: “We cripples? We’ve had enough booby prizes, lobotomies, incarcerations…I’m not going to tip my jaw. I won’t praise my reconfiguration as “the eaten” and you can’t make me!

But Leslie McGrath, poet, isn’t asking me to offer my head on the alter of abjections. Poetry differs from eugenics because it’s necessarily composed of ironies, dramatic and comic, and the best poets engage, widen, turn these ironies (which are possible only because of literacy, because we know a self-to-self dichotomy of consciousness made possible by reading) into discomfiture. One of the finest examples of this occurs in Cesar Vallejo’s famous poem “Black Stone Lying on a White Stone” translated here by Robert Bly: 

I will die in Paris, on a rainy day,

on some day I can already remember.

I will die in Paris—and I don’t step aside—

perhaps on a Thursday, as today is Thursday, in autumn.

It will be a Thursday, because today, Thursday, setting down

these lines, I have put my upper arm bones on

wrong, and never so much as today have I found myself

with all the road ahead of me, alone.

César Vallejo is dead. Everyone beat him

although he never does anything to them;

they beat him hard with a stick and hard also

with a rope. These are the witnesses:

the Thursdays, and the bones of my arms,

the solitude, and the rain, and the roads. . .


Safe to say the lion’s mane isn’t poetry, nor the peacock’s tail, nor the appetites of merely living. Safer to say you’re broken into life, art is difficult, and the witnesses will be merely the insentient and inconsequential days unless one knows what to do with the solitude, the rain, and the roads…

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