Tag Archives: Poetry

Thinking Like a Mantis?

Is it appropriate to be finding goodness in ecological systems? Many people say ‘no, absolutely not’. ‘We can’t look to nature for guidance in human values’, they say. ‘We are humans, nature is different.’

Mantis, Jaybird (CC)
Mantis, Jaybird (CC)

I had a colleague once who was very keen on this point. He was utterly convinced of his basic view that we cannot and must not try to derive values from nature. His clinching argument was the praying mantis. The reason: because after sex the female kills and eats the male. His shudder was thoroughly genuine!

Well, I have to agree that this is not a good model for human life. From a biological point of view, though, it tells us something interesting about mantises. There are over 2,000 mantis species (Mantodea) on Earth, and in all of them the female lays her eggs and then walks away and leaves them. There is no nurturing of the young. She puts all her effort into building up her strength so that she can lay lots of healthy eggs. And given that a female can lay up to 200 eggs, a lot of food has to pass through that little body.

Gustavo Fernando Durán (CC)
Gustavo Fernando Durán (CC)

Females can eat, for example, sixteen crickets per day, and in addition to their preferred insect food, they are known to eat mice, frogs, birds and newts. In the time of egg-formation, the female has two main needs: to develop her own strength and to attract a partner to fertilise the eggs. Once that is all in place, death is the next step: lay the eggs, walk away, die and be done with it! After eggs and sex both partners are expendable.

There is no way humans could live like this even if we wanted to. Our young require years of care. It is true that a child can be raised without a father, but it is equally true that it takes a community to raise a child. We are not alone in requiring social co-operation to raise the young. Many mammals do likewise, and so too do many birds. None of us creatures who care for and socialise our young for long periods of time would be wise to take lessons from mantises.

The meaningful division in this context is not between humans and ‘nature’ but between high levels of care and low levels of care of offspring. Both strategies are viable, but they are in no way interchangeable. Scientists refer to them as the r and K selection strategies. One involves large parental investment and few offspring (K), the other involves large numbers of offspring and little parental investment (r).

The r/K difference positions humans as a ‘K’ type of creature; we are like some creature and unlike others.

To return to the joy of sex mantis-style, recent evidence offers a more complex and therefore more interesting story. For a start, it turns out that female mantises only eat their sexual partners if they are hungry. The experiments that showed cannibalistic females ripping into their mates used mantises that were starving. Research outside the lab in fields and gardens did not discover strong evidence for cannibalism.

Males want to copulate every bit as fiercely as females want to lay strong eggs. If there is to be a new generation, the female needs both nourishment and sex. It is rather a happy adaptation that males can, if necessary, provide both. They actually can continue their sexual activity, and may even copulate more rapidly, when their head has been bitten off!

Mantis sex, Larry Miller (CC)
Mantis sex, Larry Miller (CC)

Most creatures are choosy about who they mate with, and mantises are no exception. Females put out a pheromone to announce that they are ready for males, and then it is up to the guys. Male mantises do approach females cautiously. Scientists describe courtship rituals for some species in which the male comes toward the female waving his antennae and wiggling his abdomen. The two of them stroke each other and then mate, perhaps for up to six hours. However, other species take a fly-in-fly-out approach, with the male arriving, having sex, and departing as rapidly as possible.

Mantis in action, Mike (CC)
Mantis in action, Mike (CC)

Out in the garden mantises are doing what mantises do, but inside a high-powered research institute a scientist shudders at the thought of ruthless and predatory females. The insect femme fatale is a prevalent gender stereotype, and apparently a fearsome one. In her human form, she is a beautiful ball-breaker, intent on destroying men while taking all she can from them. Thanks to feminist analysis we now understand that such gender stereotypes are part of patriarchal power. They rationalise control over women, excluding us from full humanity, and they embed the imagery in the realm of nature where it can seem to be incontrovertible.

There is always a fine balance between prejudice and humour. Character types and popular imagery are a significant part of our cultural lives, and a lot of them can be quite funny. I’m rather taken with the kinds of lessons we could share based on male mantis behaviour. Most of us will be aware of the fly-in-fly-out type, of course, and who could fail to recognise the brainless guy who would go on fucking even if his head did fall off!

We learn a lot about humans by examining the stories we tell about nonhumans.

Surprisingly, though, there is actually a lot of positive mantis lore in the human world. In a completely different frame of reference, a northern Chinese style of martial arts known as Tang Lang models itself on mantises. It recognises that mantises are fierce little predators. They are swift and precise, shift from immobility to action instantaneously and take their prey completely by surprise. According to Wikipedia, ‘One of the most distinctive features’ of Tang Lang ‘is the “praying mantis hook”: a hook made of one to three fingers directing force in a whip-like manner. The hook may be used to divert force (blocking), adhere to an opponent’s limb, or attack critical spots (eyes or acupuncture points).’ The basic idea is to work with the principle of overcoming weakness with strength.

Praying mantis training, © Kungfu-Republic
Praying mantis training,  Kung Fu Republic (CC)

So, is there a problem with finding goodness and other blessings in nature? The question goes beyond stereotypes and joking. There is a lot to be learned from the natural world, but learning should not be confused with mindless mimicry. The fact that some females kill their sexual partners is no more a guide to human behaviour than is the fact that some males take an f-i-f-o approach to sex.

The most interesting examples, like Tang Lang, show humans carefully observing and translating other creatures’ knowledge and behaviour into forms that are suited for human life.

Along with martial arts, let us think about translation arts.

When poets translate poems from another language, they have to think about the meaning of the words in the poem and about how to bring that meaning across. At the same time, a poem has sound, rhythm, tone and other characteristics that are part of its power as a spoken form of art. The ‘soundscape’ or ‘music’ is integral to its overall poetic effect. Can a soundscape be brought across from one language to another? Is it better to have a literal translation that closely follows the words but loses the music of the poem? Or should the act of translation try to recreate the music, perhaps changing the poem radically in order to do so?

There are no absolutely right or wrong answers to these questions. Each poem in translation is a unique event. The main point is that translation is itself an art, and thus requires thought, creativity, passion, and strong understanding.

Thinking like a mantis requires far more creativity than simple copying. Interspecies translation is like poetry translation.  When humans seek to learn from nature, we need to work like poet-translators and think in terms of art, not imitation.

Think of Earth creatures and systems as poems in languages that are foreign but not entirely incomprehensible. Our task as humans is to translate: to find the meaning and the music, the ways of life and life’s poetry. For we are part of the music of Earth and our capacity to join in harmoniously depends on both the accuracy of our knowledge and the skill of our translations.

© Deborah Bird Rose (2016)

Keith Kissel (CC)
Keith Kissel (CC)


There is a highly informative documentary about mantises, and although the narration is astonishingly anthropomorphic it is nevertheless fascinating (view here). It describes itself this way: Published on Aug 26, 2015. Taking a close look at almost hundred days of a Praying Mantis’s life, the movie tries to bring about some incredible images of the creature’s lifestyle, as well as eating and reproducing habits. It covers the whole cycle of laying the eggs, hatching and growth of the insect. This feature changes a lot of theories that have been set about the Mantis.

To learn a bit more about the feminist analysis of mantis-stereotyping and to see some hilarious cartoons, visit this site.

To see ferocious predators in action, watch Nature’s perfect predators.

Wikipedia has two articles on praying mantis martial arts, northern and southern. The quote is from the article on the northern style. For more detail see the Kung Fu Republic.

The field of translation is huge. I have learned something of the arts of translation from my partner Peter Boyle, a poet who also translates. For analysis of translation issues, a classic text is the 1921 essay by Walter Benjamin in which he worked with the idea that translation is itself an art (read here). Willis Barnstone provides an interesting and accessible overview of poetry translation issues (read here).

There is a fascinating field of biomimicry which finds technological inspiration in the natural world; it is not the focus of this essay.

r/K selection theory has undergone numerous critiques and refinements since it was first posited. It remains a useful tool for drawing broad comparisons.

Ecology and Writing ~ Martin Harrison

My friend Martin Harrison was a poet, essayist, professor, mentor and colleague. He died unexpectedly on Saturday, September 6, 2014 at just 65 years of age.

Martin Harrison, by Adrian Wiggins (CC)
Martin Harrison, by Adrian Wiggins (CC)

Martin was one of the foundation members of Kangaloon, ‘a fellowship of poets, scholars, artists and activists in dialogue with the current cascade of ecological degradation and diminishment of life’. Kangaloon takes its name from the area in NSW that is home to the endangered giant dragonfly, Petalura gigantea.

Throughout many deep and exploratory conversations, Martin was a key figure in developing our statement of who we are and what we aim for: ‘Through our creative endeavours we ask: how are we to respond with vision, love and hope? How are we and other species to live and live well? How may we promote health, life and beauty in an era of unfathomable loss?’

Our commitments, too, were deeply affected by Martin’s vision:
– to the beauty and practicality of ecological systems to a philosophy at one with the environment
– to create art, writing and scholarship from the depth of nature
– to promote balance and sustainability in design
– to rethink economy as ecology
– to live simply and poetically in the presence of earth’s creatures

Petalura gigantea, Merryjack (CC)
Petalura gigantea, Merryjack (CC)

The Kangaloon group reached out to others in numerous ways that included open seminars, readings, panels, and writing. One of our achievements was a special issue of the journal TEXT, an open-access online journal dedicated to writing and the teaching of writing. Four of us co-edited a special edition with the title ‘Writing Creates Ecology / Ecology Creates Writing’.

Martin wrote a brilliant essay, and indeed the whole special issue consists of fascinating  contributions to the questions that Martin formulated so succinctly: ‘How does creative writing engage with the theme of ecological catastrophe and ecological possibility?  How does the ecological challenge of the contemporary period impact on the teaching of writing?  What are the thematic horizons of new and emerging writers who engage with issues to do with the environment and ecology?  What kinds of experiment does the ecological context encourage and indeed require of the contemporary writer?’

Just last Thursday (September 4) Martin and I presented together in a small seminar at the University of Technology, Sydney where Martin taught creative writing. The seminar series was titled ‘Poetics, Writing, Thought’, and was organised by the students. It was a special evening, charged with ideas, conversation, and the kind of dialogue that pushes everyone’s thinking along. Martin suggested that he and I read the ‘Postscript’ we wrote for TEXT, and so we revisited an enjoyable writing project. The lucky people who attended this seminar got to hear Martin read one of his great poems, ‘White-Tailed Deer’ (see below), perhaps the last poem he ever read.

Martin was in great form. Rarely did he approach an issue in full frontal mode. Like every fine poet, his approach was to move quietly and circuitously toward a moment of revelation. And so he said, with that wonderfully characteristic shrug, ‘I’m sorry to keep bringing Heidegger into the conversation, but … he was absolutely right.’ He smiled, then, and went on: ‘I’m sure you know what I’m getting at, Heidegger was telling us even then that humans are so remaking and re-defining the world that all they ever can see is the human’.

Martin (Harrison, not Heidegger) loved earth life – the lives of other-than-humans. His deepest concerns were called forth by the perils, indeed disasters, of human self-enclosure. At the same time, he had the greatest respect for ‘the others’, and that respect included the fact that they live their own lives.

We brush against each other, some of us, from time to time, and Martin the poet was grabbed by the mystery of it all, the indecipherable connections, the unpredictable moments when something happens and we humans are drawn from our encaged preoccupations.

When I learned that Martin had died I was already on the other side of the world, and my thoughts flew back to the evening in Sydney when we spoke and conversed. Kisses are strange and beautiful events, I realised, remembering that we had kissed ‘hello’ and, later, ‘goodbye’. There are kisses that are formalities, and others that are sweet friendship, and in the end, without our even knowing it, there are the kisses that will come to have said, and will forever say, fare thee well, dear friend, fare thee well.

© Deborah Bird Rose (2014)


For more on Martin Harrison’s life and writings, see Wikipedia.

The issue of TEXT that Martin, Lorraine Shannon, Kim Satchell and I edited can be accessed online (view here). It includes articles and poetry by Kangaloon members Martin, Lorrain, Kim, Peter Boyle, James Hatley, and me.

The ‘Postscript’ that Martin and I wrote, including his poem, can be accessed online (view here), and I include a small portion of it here as well:

[this is part of what was read by Martin and me the Thursday evening before he died]

…. MARTIN: In other conversations, you have wanted to talk about my poem White-Tailed Deer.  It’s true that in that poem (hopefully) a rich diverse system has come together.   This is not because I wanted it to, but because in order to be a poem it had to come together.  There is even the risk that it will all fall apart and that it won’t make sense that the local sunset had to meet the up-state New York night and that the deer have something to do with it.  I had been entranced by them, by their watchful presence, in that deep, often re-growth forest.  It was on the border between New York State and Vermont.  It took me a couple of years to get the original drafts unfocussed and then re-focussed.   You see, I’m not just a slow writer but a really lazy one!

DEBORAH: You know yourself best (maybe!), but I’d dispute the term ‘lazy’. The multiple time dimensions through which living beings speak, and the terrible slowness with which many of us humans manage to respond, is not so much laziness, I think, but more like struggling through some awful nightmare. The terrible realisation today is that to wake from a nightmare is to emerge into another one. I keep thinking (always) of the flying foxes who are at this moment being tortured in the effort to force them to leave and never to return to their home camp in Sydney’s Royal Botanic Gardens. For them, as for the flying foxes in Queensland who are being shot, each day is a fresh nightmare, each generation is subjected to a new biocide, and in spite of the dedicated, sometimes heart-broken people who protect, defend, rescue, care, and seek to assist them back into the symbiotic life of blossoms, nectar, nourishment and pollination, nothing is ever enough. And so the loss of generations, and the loss of ecosystems, and the loss of the human capacity to stretch outside the boundaries of this self-made  prison of righteousness and knowing goes on rendering more suffering, more death, more distance, more loss of all those within whose company we could have thrived, and who could have thrived with us.

The time scales are outside our ordinary frames. The poem that speaks beyond the frame, that takes minutes to read but years to write, takes even more years on the part of plants, animals, and human culture to have arrived at that particular nexus. If like yours it succeeds, it becomes an achievement in binding time, species, place, and culture; it lets us glimpse through the membrane of closure into other worlds, times, creatures, and forms of love, and to grasp, again, that moment in which the future was (is?) still open.


White-Tailed Deer

The small thump from nowhere, someone turning
a piece of tin, a door’s buffeting noise closing across the gulley,
a neighbour – what are they doing out there? – dropping a trailer or a drum
in a paddock where damp grass’s been drying out these last twenty minutes
in a final sun cube whose shattered gleam just now has
flooded through sprays of half-grown bluegums
traced on the shed-wall —
it happens – where? –
closing in mid-air between two never identified twigs
six metres up, or caught behind a bird song (was it that?
or just some other sound) caught the thousandth time
from outside the kitchen door, magnified for a second or two
then forgotten just as many thousand times.  Like the thump,
it’s forgotten so intensely that we all hear it as an event
not really known as an event, one which shifts
the breath, the blood-surge, and how we see,
back into shape.  For a moment you understand
dazed ecstasy –  it’s a squawky wattlebird landing
(no, that’s a dream half-merged with a memory)
or it’s the elbow’s jerk with which the car boot slams,
happenings which aren’t noticed or which can’t be,
how the shopping brought home brushes the passage wall,
how events change time’s flow beneath perception.
Really, you’ve no idea what’s going on.  You hardly grab a thing.

Networked. Transformative.  Yes, the world glimmers.
The flash lies in the grass, is something and is nothing.?
The yellow-throated bird scrabbles in the rangy grevillea.
A great ocean withdraws into perspective over my shoulder,
in the shadows of untended trees.  A hum overtakes the orchestra
and a striated sense of inevitable time surpasses each local thought.

It’s as if you can be fearless — a second or two — about
what’s inextricable in feeling and movement and mood.
A dance becomes a fight, bodies tangled, then a dance again.
The light goes down like a glittering dark boulder buried in the soil.
An aurora flares in the half-heard resonance around the thing –
the thump, the door closing, the click that passes you by –
while intangibility takes a serpent’s shape of wind-brushed molecules.
And how will it end? this half-traced ecstasy at merely being here.
Could anything be heard other than the after mode
of how we got there, made it out?  Suddenly you realise
you’re hearing a night-time forest floor, a twig snapped –
not this last light with its thin, gold trees and ragged openness –
but a moment’s hesitation one night in a foreign country:
I was in up-state New York, there was a house in the woods,
there was indoor light of a dinner party, good people, drinks.
I’d stepped outside to get a sense of things, their loitering depth.
Earlier I’d seen startled deer leap a stone wall tumbled into bracken.

                                                        (Acknowledgements to Vagabond Press)

To listen to Martin reading this poem, here is an audio file, with thanks to Peter Boyle and Nick Keys!


Arts of Peace While Bombs Are Falling

The violence in Gaza has taken another torque into anguish and grief. Tal Nitzan, an Israeli poet and pacifist, has written a beautiful open letter to her Palestinian colleague Basem Al-Nabriss, also a poet and peace activist (view here).

Tal Nitzan, courtesy of Amit Zinman
Tal Nitzan, courtesy of Amit Zinman

Tal posted this letter from Basem Al-Nabriss on facebook:

“The situation is really like Dante’s Inferno.
Little Tal [Basem’s granddaughter] and the entire family are in horror. No-one can sleep but for a few hours. I am in constant contact with them, and I try to give them some hope.
There is massive destruction of homes, unprecedented numbers of casualties, mostly innocent people.
What concerns me now is that we get out of this hell as soon as possible.
Regrettably, I feel that being a writer is futile now. What can words do in the face of this fanatical madness? In the face of burnt flesh?
It must be a nightmare for you too.
I imagine and feel the pain of everyone on both sides.
I wish you safety. Safety for our two peoples, and peace for all.”

I wrote about Tal, and another great poet of peace, Maram Al-Masri, in an earlier essay on arts in dark times. I join all of them in solidarity and love, and invite others to do the same. Tal speaks of the role of prophecy in awakening conscience and the awareness of responsibility. She claims poetry as ‘a rebellious act that unsettles axioms, generates question marks, and asserts the right of readers and writers as one to doubt, protest, and rise up.’ I hope she is remembering her own brave words in this time of terror, for she reminds us that ‘throughout history, literary creations have expressed the forbidden and the revolutionary and have … precipitated’ great changes.

The Republic of Poetry ~ Trois Rivières, Quebec

The opening ceremony of the 29th Festival International de la Poésie took place in the Maison de la Culture, at the heart of Trois Rivières, a medium-sized city halfway between Montreal and Québec City, Québec Province, Canada. Gaston Bellemare, the organiser of this miraculous event, was described by one of the speakers as the President of ‘La République de la Poésie’. His presidential style is incomparable; thanks also to the director Maryse Baribeau, there has never been a more hospitable festival. From 4 October to 13 October, 2013, the city of Trois Rivières gave itself over to poetry, and our days here have been a blessing. Poets have arrived from Finland, Senegal, Egypt, Peru, Benin, Argentina, Brussels, France, China, and many more places. Some have dual origins, announcing complicated lives of resistance and exile: Iraq/Spain, Egypt/ Québec, Cuba/ Québec, Syria/France. Australia is represented here too: Peter Boyle is an invited poet, and I am on a holiday surpassing all dreams. In this Francophone culture, poetry, eating and drinking go hand in hand, day after glorious day.

But to go back to the beginning: on the stage in the auditorium where the opening ceremony took place was a small dais, and on the dais was an empty chair. One spotlight remained on the dais throughout the evening. The empty chair was conceived by PEN International (originally Poets, Essayists and Novelists). The oldest human rights group in the world, PEN was founded in London in 1921 with an international mission. It has become clear over the years that in many troubled areas of the world writers are targeted for imprisonment, torture and assassination. PEN has taken the lead in defending writers everywhere. The empty chair is for our brothers and sisters who are in prison or other places of torment.

Outside the Maison de la Culture, others are also remembered. The absent, the forgotten, the poets whose lives we will never know, are uniquely represented in Trois Rivières by the world’s only monument to the Unknown Poet.

The festival continued as it had begun: the opening ceremony concluded with an invitation to step out into the foyer for wine and beer. The speaker urged us to enjoy ourselves by making reference to Rabelais’ great observation that there are more old drinkers than there are old doctors! From there on it was non-stop multi-sensorial pleasure. As the program unfolded we learned that the festival was almost completely decentralised, taking place in foyers, cafes, patisseries, restaurants and bars all over the city, and even in a few religious settings. There were readings and discussions over breakfast, morning tea, lunch, afternoon tea, apéritifs, dinner, early night at the bar, and late night at the bar.

Brunch and Poesie at the restaurant 'Le Sacristain'
Brunch and Poesie at the restaurant ‘Le Sacristain’

Each reading included four or more poets reading just a few short poems. We always had time to think about what we were hearing, we always heard several poets, and we never had to go back to the auditorium to find ourselves looking at each other across a barrier created by the contrast between spotlight and obscurity. Rather, we were together in intimate spaces, reading, listening, discussing, joking, eating and drinking. The audience included other poets, of course, along with residents of Trois Rivières, people from the province and the nation, and some from overseas as well.

For such a festival to succeed, internationalism must be more than a list of countries of origin. The cosmopolis of poetry achieves its vitality through both diversity and conversation. Here in Trois Rivières we were telling stories along with reading poetry; we were sharing lives, histories, and passions; we listened attentively, and the poets spoke eloquently. We had occasion, day in and day out, to laugh together. Sometimes there were tears as well.

Our conversations developed into fascinatingly mixed smorgasbords, with French, English and Spanish predominating, often mixed together in unexpected ways. The official language was French, though, and every poet brought works that had been translated into French, if they weren’t written in that language to begin with. Every poem was read both in French and in the poet’s own language. My French is not good enough to allow me to appreciate many of the subtleties of poetry, and I missed a lot, but at the same time, I was thrilled to hear the sounds and cadences of other languages, catching emotions and intensities borne by the human voice in one of its most expressive modes.

Postcard: an afternoon in the church

Church of Saint James (Anglican) Trois Rivieres
Church of Saint James (Anglican) Trois Rivieres

I became entranced with the Arabic poetry of Ahmad El-Shahawy before I could understand it. It wasn’t until the afternoon reading in the Saint James Church (Anglican), the only event in which English was the primary language, that I was able to appreciate both its meaning and its impact.

Ahmad El-Shahawy
Ahmad El-Shahawy

Ahmad is a journalist in Cairo, as well as a poet. His work has won numerous prizes, including the UNESCO Prize for literature in 1995 and the Cavafis Prize for poetry in 1998. As well, he has been the subject of many MA and PhD dissertations. He loves Egypt: its long history, its greatness, its ancient civilisation, and the possibilities for a future that remains faithful to that ancient cosmopolitanism. As I listened to him, I thought about the fact that journalism is one of the most dangerous professions in times of political troubles. I admired his courage, and I was enthralled with how he allowed his love of life to speak for itself, and implicitly to become an act of resistance in a place threatened with extreme repression.

The poem I filmed is from ‘The Book of the Dead’ (1997). Clouds, sky, ashes, stars, earth, and wind flow through the poem. Birds and trees inhabit it, as do angels, and light, and roses, and a woman who is loved. In this garden of life and death birds and trees talk to their gods, and the hoopoe, the sacred bird of ancient Egypt, writes verses in its own Koran. Love flows through this sacred place, and loss, while part of the flow, is also a wound. The poem is read first in English by Peter Boyle, and then in Arabic by Ahmad.

Peter Boyle
Peter Boyle

 Postcard: lunch at the Maison de la Culture

On many occasions the Festival included music along with poetry. Musical improvisation was the main mode; there were many moments of unexpected and beautiful intra-action.

The most captivating performances took place over two sessions of ‘World Music and Poetry from Afar’. The group was Afroworlbeat, and most of the poets were from beyond North America. Many of the poets selected readings that worked with intra-actions across times and places. The three musicians engaged gently and thoughtfully with the reading. The depth and liveliness took our breath away.

Juan Pedro Bertazza (Argentina) and Afroworlbeat
Juan Pedro Bertazza (Argentina) and Afroworlbeat

One of the readings I filmed was by Peter Boyle. He was born in Melbourne and has lived in Sydney most of his life. He is the author of numerous books of poetry which have won many praises. He translates poetry from French and English, and was recently awarded the NSW Premier’s Award for translation. Peter read his poem ‘Berlin Buch’ in both French and English, while Afroworlbeat carried rhythms and short melodic lines of wonderful intensity.

How does it happen? Across languages, histories, lives, continents, dreams and nightmares, revolutions, wars, bombs, migrations, exile, injury and love – across all these distances and experiences, we were brought together in transformative moments that felt and were miraculous.

©Deborah Bird Rose (2013)