“The Animals,” a poem by Geoffrey Lehmann, appeared in the June 1 ’09 New Yorker. In free verse, its message is not always, or consistently, clear. In its five “stanzas,” it talks about how we and animals were once the same – “Without understanding we watched the sunrise/ and the coming of night,/ registered the changing of seasons/ and dew on leaves that brushed our flanks.”
The poem includes descriptions of pairs – humans and non-human animals – now living together in homes: “. . .a calf asleep on a double bed, perhaps,/ or a hare with long ears/ crouched under a mahogany sideboard, thumping the floor” and “a neighbor sleeps with a wombat in her bed. . .” .
Before the graphic, sad and surprising (or maybe not) ending stanza, this short one:
“We were once them,
and now are their custodians.
They know we are different
and their eyes tell us to keep our promise.”
Does the last stanza, the tragic story of a pony, indicate we kept our promise to them by continuing to share living space with them – or, that in so doing, we harmed them because our living spaces aren’t suitable for them? (In fact, are they truly suitable for us?!)
And then of course, there’s the question of which branch really evolved – humans or (non-human) animals.