I had a really amazing experience yesterday morning. Bright and early (6.30 am) I turned my computer on, clicked on a link, and sat down to talk to a group of students from the Crawford International School in Nairobi about The Pride of Lions.
Let me go back a bit. A couple of years ago I was contacted by a person from Cambridge University Press about using Pride of Lions in an anthology called Songs of Ourselves Volume 2, which was a text set for study in Cambridge IGCSE, O Level and Cambridge International AS & A Level Literature in English syllabuses. (Actually the request was for permission for them to reprint it – apparently they’d already been using it for a while, but had managed to track me down in time for the second edition of the anthology. Sigh!) Anyway, a year or so later it duly came out, and a copy landed on my doorstep.
Since then I’ve had sporadic emails from people about it. Quite often it’s students wanting me to explain the poem, but also on a couple of occasions from teachers. I’ve not felt comfortable answering the students – partly because I don’t want to do their homework for them, but also because I’m wary of giving them answers that won’t in the least way help them when they come to their exams. (I have more or less decided I need to put up a dedicated page with FAQs on the poem, so when I get some decent spare time I will do that.) But I had a lovely in depth conversation via email with a teacher in Ghana called Juliette Vanderpuye, who was teasing out all sorts of interesting things in the poem that I had only half planned, but which absolutely fitted with the poems intentions and text. So when another teacher contacted me, asking if I’d be willing to talk with her students at some point in the next few months, I felt happy to do so.
Which is why I got up early yesterday morning, to talk to Elizabeth Asaala and a few of her students, calling in as the sun went down in Kenya, and rose in New Zealand.
I had a ball. We ended up talking for about an hour, which just flew by. They had read the poem seriously, and spent a lot of time talking and arguing about it. What fascinated me was that they had come to a completely unintended interpretation of the poem, but one which made total sense. It all came down to how you read one stanza. Here’s the poem:
The Pride of Lions
But before we could marry, he became a lion –
thick pelted, and rich with the musk of beast.
The switch to all fours was not easy – all his weight
slung from the blades of his shoulders.
His deltoids knotted like teak burls,
and I burnished them as he slept.
Burrs matted his mane, and for days
he wouldn’t let me groom him –
slapped me away with a suede paw,
snarled against my throat.
He would not eat fruit, or drink milk,
but tore meat from the bones I provided.
His claws caught in the carpet,
so I stripped the rugs from the floor
and polished the boards until they gleamed
and rang with the chime of his nails.
I stroke his saffron hide
and tangle my fingers deep in his ruff,
draw him up around me, ardent
as the gleam of his topaz eyes
– the hypnotic lash of his tail,
the rasp of his tongue on my thighs.
There were loads of things we talked about, but the thing that they had gone deeply into – that had made them angry with the poem – was their reading that this was a poem about domestic violence, and a woman who tolerated it. The key is all in how you read the third stanza, and whether you see him there as a man, or as an animal.
In preparation for talking to them I’d gone back to my notes and old journals, and read back over the various drafts and comments from my crit groups and Glamorgan cohort as I pulled the poem into shape. Interestingly I’d made a note that Barbara had objected to the snarled against my throat line. Frustratingly though, I hadn’t noted what the objection was, or even which Barbara had made it. (A choice of two: Strang or Marsh. Both great people, and damn fine poets.) But I had noted the objection.
As I said, it comes down to how you see him, and likely also your own experience. In my head, he becomes physically, literally and actually an animal in the poem’s very first line. (Brief digression: one of the students – Nicholas, I think? – had asked me why the poem started in that broken-in way, and whether that was because it was part of a sequence and was following on from an earlier conversation. I confessed that no, it was mainly because it was a good way of snagging the reader’s attention. I should have added that it was also because I wanted to emphasise that his transition was sudden, and was essentially presented to her as a fait accompli.)
If you’ve ever worked with animals, especially wild animals, you will have experienced being bitten (or kicked or scratched) by an animal that was afraid and/or in pain. They aren’t trying to do you harm as such: they just have no other way of communicating, and are lashing out to get you to stop doing something that they don’t understand, or to keep you at a distance where they feel safe. To me, that was what that third stanza was about – he’s now a lion. They can kill people fairly easily if they want to. This is them establishing how they physically relate to each other now. He’s no cat, and not going to let her treat him like one. But he’s also not trying to hurt her – actually I’d put it another way. He’s trying not to hurt her, which is why he slaps her away with a suede paw – no claws, just the pad of his paw. The slap was meant to signify a certain amount of clumsiness as well as physicality, but I can definitely see why they had seen that as a contemptuous gesture, or as an example of casual violence. In which case, reading the poem as being about a battered woman is entirely valid, and the students’ anger entirely justified. As Stacey, the student who was running the session, commented:
A woman is not a rehabilitation centre for broken men.
I couldn’t agree more.
To see my poem being read on the other side of the world – good.
To have my poem being studied in detail by people who really dig in? Even better.
To be able to see my poem through someone else’s eyes, in an utterly new way, and in a way that makes complete sense, even if it wasn’t what I thought I’d written?
—That, my people, is beyond price.