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The final poem in Sukrita’s new book, Vanishing Words, is a conference of crows called ‘Crows Are Our Ancestors’. At this conference, a delightfully, anarchic and democratic one, with gregarious “caw-cawing”, declare that they do not want to have human aspirations:
They declaimed loud
To take off into the
the rising sun
their own dreams
to live and let live
An older crow, addressing the congregation asserts that they are willing to trade their physical markers — “bill, neck, breasts, wings” — to retain their “spirit” and their “mystery”, though the primary desire is still, “not be like the human species”.
This remarkable poem is divided into eight short parts. But not all of it is narrated by the same voice. In the third part, there is a univocal declaration: “I am a crow, / …The night is / Envious of / My iridescent black.” But from the sixth part, the voice seems to transform into a human one:
Pecking at his own shadow
On the glassy surface
We know is omnivorous,
Masochistic and hungry
In the next part, crows of different nationalities are given different linguistic characteristics. For instance, American crows apparent speak with a twang:
Short staccato sounds
Ja ja ja, go go go
Even before you arrive
By the eighth and final part, the voice of the poem has changed to human. Crows are distinguished from other birds such as owls (“sage-like and wise in one culture / stupid and ullu in another.) The way the human narrator perceives the crows seems an antithesis of the desires of the birds themselves expressed earlier in the poem. They are now almost human:
With humans their brains are wired up
They hate when hated
Love when loved, fear when feared
Crows have with us a deep
Linguistic and genetic connect
They are our ancestors
Anthropomorphic birds have a rich tradition in literature around the world. In Panchatantra and Hitopadesha, birds call conferences of their kind when faced with threats. So do winged denizens of the world in Attar of Nishapur’s The Conference of Birds or Geoffrey Chaucer’s Parliament of Fowls. Humans interact with birds in Aristophanes’ play The Birds or transform into birds in Ovid’s Metamorphoses.
For P.B. Shelley and John Keats, the skylark and the nightingale, respectively, are metaphors for the perfection in nature to which humans can only aspire. Even in modern poetry, the crow is a potent symbol of guile in Ted Hughes’ poetry.
In recent years, Indian poets have also used have used the crow as a powerful symbol – such as Nitoo Das in her book Crowbite (New Delhi: Red River, 2020) and Nitika Parik in My City is a Murder of Crows (New Delhi and Calcutta: Hawakal, 2022).
The ethics of anthropomorphic representation of animals has been discussed by several academics.
This has become especially important in this late-Anthropocene age when human activity has led to the extinction of several species, and according to the latest research by data website Statista, it threatens 1 million more or a quarter of all species.
Fredrik Karlsson, a theologist at Uppsala University in Sweden, has suggested in a 2011 paper that anthropomorphism has been traditionally considered to be a cardinal error by ethicists, that leads to misrepresentation of animals. “(A)nimal ethics needs to take the wider discourse of critical anthropomorphism into account in order to sophisticate the understanding and use of anthropomorphic projections,” he argues. “Anthropomorphism is an efficient tool of communication, and it may be made an adequate one as well.”
Poet and painter Kit Kelen and literature scholar Chengcheng You have, in their book Poetics and Ethics of Anthropomorphism (Oxford: Routledge, 2022) have interrogated the “taken-for-granted textual strategies” of both anthropomorphic as well as its opposite zoomorphic – representing humans and objects with animal characteristics – literature, and have reflected on what future such literature has in the Anthropocene age when encounters between humans and animals are increasingly mediated through conflict.
Sukrita seems to acknowledge this conflict in several poems of her book, but also expands the democratic ambit of her poetry. Not only animals but also plants are included in this expanded structure. In ‘With My Chinar Again’, the narrator finds a kinship with Chinar trees, much like the narrator of ‘Crows Are Our Ancestors’ had found with crows:
In some autumn, in some century in the past
When your leaves abandon you
When all your colours merged into
the white of mountain snow
you and I
we got together…
There is a sort of almost erotic energy in these lines. This is a sort of eroticism that informs eco-feminist and eco-Queer literature. Though Sukrita’s poetry is of a register very different from, say, Sapphire’s grotesque-erotic Push (1996), it is no less radical. This needs to be celebrated.
Uttaran Das Gupta teaches journalism at O P Jindal Global University, Sonipat. His novel, Ritual, was published in 2020.
Note: The piece has been edited since publication to identify the poet Sukrita by her first name alone.