Teddy Bears don’t really have Picnics: some thoughts on Mary O’Malley’s poem, “The Rat”[1].

Mary O’Malley’s poem is in an anthology of poems “A Different Eden: Ecopoetry from Ireland and Galicia”, in a section of the book called: “When we were not the centre of the universe”. I liked the poem, especially as it was read to me by Lorna Shaughnessy (see her latest collection of poems: “Lark Water”, Salmon Poetry, 2021) as part of our after-dinner conversation recently. 

The poem seeks to rehabilitate the rat,

 “…I too am born,

I too live and do little harm.”

I found one part very empathetic, it gave rise to a feeling I have had on not a few occasions. It references the Irish myth “Buile Suibhne” (The Madness of Sweeney: see J.G. O’Keeffe’s bilingual edition 1913 or Seamus Heaney’s “Sweeney Astray” 1983: in Faber and Faber, 1984.) In the story Sweeney throws St. Ronan’s beautiful illustrated psalter into the lake from where it is miraculously rescued by an otter, whole and undamaged by the water. The Rat in the poem remarks, and you really get the resentment and anger in the lines:

“…Not even the monk

Gave me one good deed.

He let the otter rescue

The holy psalter for Ronan.

I could have done that.” 

If Heaney was considering that passage in the poem, I can hear him say: 

And the reader thinks: my god yes! I’ve been there I have felt that!

There is a potent angry reference to Global Warming and sea level rise in the rat’s sinister warning to humanity in:

“They sent me out among the junkies

And rubbish sacks, into the gaol cells.

I will be here when the seas rise

And cover their carcasses.”

And there is a crescendo of rejection and condemnation even in the final two lines of this intense poetic malediction with its wonderful understated ambivalence on “bloody”:

“I wanted none of it, their curses

Or their rows, or their bloody gods.”

I enjoyed the poem; it was strangely cathartic; the rat in a way becomes an archetype for our anger and our resentment at abuse and shame. I felt better for it. It had something of Heaney’s “redress” about it. Which was why, I think, I parodied his comments on Thomas Hardy’s “Afterwards” from his “Introduction” to “The Redress of Poetry: Oxford Lectures”, Faber and Faber, 1995, page xvi :

The full -starred heavens that winter sees, things like that. “My God” says the reader!”

Having admired this poem I have to ask with the context of the anthology “A Different Eden” in mind: is it an  example of Ecopoetry? It certainly protests against our defilement of the environment and warns of our complacent attitudes, our “hating” and by implication in understatement with “rows” and “bloody” our wars and conflicts but for me it is anthropomorphic and is really about us humans rather than the rats, which is why it works so well on the level of my dissatisfaction and anger. Of course, I am prescribing, some may say dogmatically, that ecology is about relationships between living beings and their living environments and eco/poetry should avoid the human-centred perspective; it should be concerned with the reciprocity of our relationship with the natural world, in this case rats, and not project onto rats as symbols of our disgust or shame. The poem is really in the Romantic tradition of Keats’ “Ode to the Nightingale” where the bird inspires a mood and an emotional response. If that comparison seems a little outlandish, I mean it is in a Western literary tradition in which we subjectively look at the natural world as objects out there. It is not, for example the way a first nation American or Australian would see it.  We have to move on from imaginative “tropes” (as the anthology calls them; I prefer the words metaphor or image.) that seek to suggest that our rat was familiar with Ronan Finn in the Sweeney myth or that teddy-bears really have picnics. 

It is included in the Anthology in a section called “when we were not the centre of the universe.” I am not sure what this actually means; when was that time? We never were the centre and we know that now, even if we thought differently before the Copernican revolution. Does “universe” mean the cosmos here or just our planet? The Earth is not the centre of our galaxy or anything in the cosmic universe. Apart from this ambiguity however the rationale of this section is well described in the short, just over three-page, introduction. It states:

“Section Three…stresses the need for humility among our species. These are poems that move beyond conventional animal tropes to allow the animal world to occupy centre stage, poems that urge us to tune in, watch, listen more closely, and learn from all life around us.”

Earlier with reference to Section Two it states:

“…the need to move “from ego to eco”, recognising the interconnectedness of all life forms on the planet.”

I agree with most of this with two chief reservations: one is the use of the phrase “the animal world”. We are all animals are we not? Certainly, from an ecology point of view we are. Surely the phrase would be better if it read, “the other than human animal world”. The second point is more philosophical but no less important. It is interesting to note the alignment and the paradigm perspective of the thought processes in this introduction. It recommends we “tune in” (a kind of “hip” phrase for sure; makes me think of Timothy Leary!) but what that seems to amount to is the standard conventional way of empirical academic research, i.e. “watch …listen…learn”. In short this is still the paradigm of Descartes; nothing has moved on from the Enlightenment and the move that got us into this ecological crisis  in the first place. 

I think it is difficult to approach the natural world in this way. If “relationship” is the key word in our definition of ecology then we are trying to bring about a new approach, a totally new paradigm, in which we have reciprocal relationships with our living environment. This requires a poetic understanding, a post-cartesian turn. Stephan Harding says we must become lovers of Gaia. In Stephan’s new book, “Gaia Alchemy”, (Bear and Company 2022), he says in a meditation on page 278:

“For it’s not gravity that holds you down, but love, the love that the great Earth, Gaia, feels for the matter in your body…Feel her clasping you to her breast as she dangles you upside down over the vast cosmos below you.”

 This introduction of “Gaia” is crucial because unless we recognise that the planet is a living system, that it is an irreducible whole[2] and therefore has “being”, we will fall short in our efforts to bring about a change in understanding. All this is not so much watching and listening and learning perspectivally but involves feeling at a deep and more shamanic or mystical level. And it is poetry that seeks to do this that I would want to call truly ecopoetry. 

[1] The Rat by Mary O’Malley in “A Different Eden: Ecopoetry from Ireland and Galicia”, Edited: Payne, Shaughnessy and Veiga: Dedalus Press, Dublin, 2021. The poem originally in “Playing the Octopus”, Carcanet, 2016.

[2] An irreducible whole has being: a phrase used by Wolfgang Smith in a podcast with Matt Segal, see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V_ZWBkSNMFg






2 thoughts on “Teddy Bears don’t really have Picnics: some thoughts on Mary O’Malley’s poem, “The Rat”[1].

  1. Tony’s succinct commentary on Mary O’Malley’s poem is to me like a deeply meditative walk in the woods. Is that not the function of ecopoetry? Thank you for this, Mr. Hegarty. I look forward to reading more of O’Malley’s poems (oh, those Galway poets!).


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