There are two squirrels in a recent poem I wrote roaming in the garden outside the kitchen. I put them in the work not because I have actually seen them in the garden. If authenticity was my goal I could put two black-and-white cats, for they are the frequenters of that area and in fact I think they think the place is theirs, judging from the extremely defiant looks they give me whenever I catch sight of them. Or foxes. In the past two years, I have seen foxes in the garden twice. Both times, it was snowing gently and the garden was serene with a sense of expectation. The foxes stirred the quietude and stillness when they trotted from one spot to another, displaying their golden fur. They did not stay long. I would like to think that they had a secret schedule and that they had to be seen by a particular number of good people (e.g. me) before the city disowned the snow and everywhere turned ash-grey.
Back to the squirrels — living in London, of course I have seen many of them, especially in parks big and small. The squirrels here are genuinely fat and they move leisurely. It is hard to imagine that the city is doing poorly if you gauge its economy by the largeness of the squirrels’ tummies. I put two squirrels in the poem, however, not to evoke a sense of place. I remember reading some writing advice about putting ‘insignificant’ details in a piece of fiction in order to strengthen its mimesis (i.e. l’effet de réel). I admit I do that every now and then. But I cannot in all conscience dismiss the squirrels as merely some unimportant information.
To tell the truth, in my poem, the squirrels are sharers of the lonely persona’s secrets. Confined in the kitchen that she cannot really call her own (read another Kitchen poem by me here
and oh for God’s sake, I know real
rabbits don’t lay eggs but my rabbits weren’t real, were they?), my persona projects some of her psyche onto the squirrels outside of her window. They are futilely digging some shallow holes for some non-existent nuts. I did not think that anyone else had discussed squirrels and secrets in literature. Otherwise, I would not have put the animals in my work. This is supposed to be a secret between me and my poem.
Consider my shock then when I read the following lines in Emily Dickinson’s poem one evening when I was really already half asleep (it must be around 4:00am), drool on both the corner of my mouth and the page:
The Pleading of the Summer—
That other Prank—of Snow—
That Cushions Mystery with Tulle,
For fear the Squirrels—know.
I sat up. I read those lines again and again and again and again. OH MY FUCKING GOD (excuse my language). DICKINSON STOLE MY SQUIRRELS. SHE TOTALLY DID!
I assure you, I have calmed down now. My using the squirrels in my own poem, I think, is a case of reverse déjà vu
. I know very well this is imprecise terminology. It is okay not to correct me.
(And yes, I know I will be informed of my ignorance very soon after this blog post has been uploaded. People will send me a list of literary works with ‘squirrels’ and ‘secrets’ in them. Go on.)
ADDED in December 2011: “If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence” (George Eliot’s Middlemarch, chap. 20).