In the last part of the Sensory Landscapes series, Lauren examines how writers can use animals in the landscape as inspiration for descriptive writing and focuses on the writing techniques of the extended metaphor, anthropomorphism and synecdoche. The featured poetry in this post is that of Jane Downing, a successful poet who hails from Wiradjuri country in New South Wales.
The previous three posts in this series have focused on the land itself, its contours and textures, the plants that spring from it and water that flows across it. In this post, we use animal subjects within their natural landscapes to hone our descriptive writing skills. Of course, this also provides us with an important opportunity to consider how we, as human beings, have changed and impacted on these natural behaviours and habitats, and the way entire eco-systems have been affected by our behaviour. By capturing the intricacies of animals (and note, this doesn't just mean Australian native animals) and celebrating their movements, colouring, habits and rituals in their own right, perhaps we will contribute to the collective voice growing louder that climate change and overdevelopment will mean we lose so much of the richness of nature.
Some of us find it difficult to "get started" when we're writing. That's why I love lists so much: you can just make a long list of all the associated words you can generate and decide on the details of a piece afterwards. This first exercise uses lists designed to help you study your subject so that you can bring it to life.
1. Choose an animal you have access to so you are able to observe them (without in any way harming, capturing or disturbing its habitat), this could be your pet!
2. As you observe, make a list of all the words that describe their movements, colouring, markings, goal-oriented behaviour, sounds made.
3. Using this list, make another list of all the ways that these behaviours remind you of human behaviours, human scenarios, human motivations, emotions, expressions and relationships. Using this list, decide how you will present the animal in your piece as anthropomorphised, that is, as if they are human. Be mindful to keep their objective qualities in your description as well, it is mostly the overall thrust and motivation behind the behaviour that has elements of humanity.
You will notice in Jane's poem, 'First Sighting', she characterises the blue-tongue lizard as a time-keeper, appearing to remind her of plans and goals of last year. She focuses on the hibernation/re-emerging behaviour of the blue tongue as a way to imbue it with human qualities.
First Sighting by Jane Downing
sign of the world’s turn about the sun
the blue tongue frights and scratches himself back
beneath fallen leaves from another season
crunching and cracking the dry
undergrowth, giving signal that he is there and up
and about after a long hibernation
giving warning that another year has passed
and what has changed –
the blue tongue’s dark medallions meld and hide
leaving on the echo of my tread his reminder
of the plans for the last twelve months
The second way in which Jane's poem 'First Sighting' uses the blue-tongue to represent meaning is synecdoche, that is, using a small part of an idea or object to stand in for the whole thing. It is closely associated with symbolism, so the two techniques can get a bit blurry, but that's ok - we're here to practise writing, not rote learn literary devices! The blue-tongue's emergence represents a hibernation cycle, which of course has its own place in representing time passing, seasons and achievement of goals over the course of a calendar year - a timeline that humans like to keep themselves to!
Does the animal you've chosen have any connotations within Aboriginal Dreaming? Mythology? Folklore? Write a description of how they fit within these belief systems.
What are the systems the animal you've chosen belongs to? Are they a predator? Prey? Where do they fit within the hierarchy?
Does the animal you've chosen represent anything or is it used on any emblems? (This is probably more symbolism, but the way you use it in your writing could vary)
Using your research, write a description of the animal focusing on the qualities of it that reflect any of the above so that it stands in for the larger system/narrative of which it is part.
This exercise is about the rhythms, cycles and movements of the animal and the way they can be compared to that of humans in a more extended way. For this exercise, take your first list you developed for Exercise One and extend it, either using your imagination or observation, to describe a contrasting or differing state in the animal, or perhaps the next step in some kind of sequence the animal is completing, such as building a nest.
Then, for each part of your lists, consider an extended comparison with a human process or ritual. In her poem 'Night creatures', Jane demonstrates how the attracting of gnats to the light source (a human one, but unbeknownst to them) is like a pilgrimage, and their death following it is like the sacrifice of the chosen ones at the altar of an ancient pagan society. You can try this exercise multiple times, and see which of your comparisons is most apt and allows you to reveal the most of the animal's behaviour.
Also note the structure of Jane's work; if you are considering writing your description as a poem, consider how you may use structure to divide your processes or parts of a sequence or ritual. If you are using prose, consider how you might play around with layout on the page to reflect aspects of the animal, the comparison or the process.
Night Creatures by Jane Downing
In the Night Sieve
sieve the creatures
of the night
some so humble
the needle-prick holes
by the false promise
of the light
At the Morning Shrine
A pepper dash of gnats
martyred at the altar
felled on the desk
at the spot
where power enters
That point of green
light the lure
in the dark
of the night
As always, Monas, we are keen to see your writing inspired by our blog series! Share with us in the comments below or on social media, and don't forget to submit your wonderful writing to the Mona blog between the 1st and the 7th of each month!
Author Profile: Jane Downing
Jane Downing’s poetry has appeared in journals around Australia including Meanjin, Cordite, Rabbit, Canberra Times, Bluepepper, Not Very Quiet, Social Alternatives, and Best Australian Poems (2004 & 2015). Her collection, ‘When Figs Fly’ (Close-Up Books) was published in 2019. She can be found at janedowning.wordpress.com
Jane's published poems here, 'First Sighting' and 'Night Creatures', were both inspired by her immediate landscape. ‘Night Creatures’ was written while Jane was writer-in-residence at the Booranga Writers’ Centre, Wagga Wagga, when all her senses were alert to the new and unfamiliar. The gnats in the writers’ flat intrigued her in their own right but also because, she figured, really, aren’t humans all attracted to the light, even if it can lead them to their deaths? ‘First Sighting’, by contrast, had a genesis over many years passing the blue tongue which reappears near her front steps each spring, a reminder that another twelve months have slipped away and a reckoning must be done.
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