Amali Rodrigo, from Lotus Gatherers (Bloodaxe Books, 2016)
So an eagle represents ruthless efficiency, but also a kind of nobility. Flamingos are strange and delicate, a vivid colour not often found in the animal kingdom; their pinkness symbolises beauty. A sweetheart is someone we care about, and are intimate with; the implication is we know them well enough to know that they’re good right through to the middle. Worth noting that ‘sweetheart’ is also something of a diminutive – think of a parent comforting a child with a scraped knee. Oh, sweetheart! Knick-knacks are little bits, things, unrelated and disparate. Love is just love.
That’s really all the nouns in this beautiful and delicate small poem. Except for ‘you’, which is where the poem starts running, splits in half, sets us to work. The you is three things: it is the eagle; it is the lover – the sweetheart addressed; and it is you, looking at a poem. One of the interesting things happening here is the reconciliation – an uneasy one, I’d say – of how those things relate.
So bearing in mind that the ‘you’ has to be, at least partly (certainly it’s the least deniable option), the eagle, then we ask: sweetheart? Really? The courageous, viciously outfitted eagle? Why so softly, caringly addressed? Why the reassurance offered by the last line? We need to conclude that the eagle, for the moment, has been divested of its power. It’s reduced to patience, to an inglorious ‘picking through’. Literally, we understand, this reduction would be resultant of its need to eat – its status as power-symbol undermined by its being, like every other animal, a physical creature.
It’s this coming down from the seat-of-power to the humble requirements of the body, then, that we bring back to rereading the poem as being addressed to a lover. Our lovers are, most of the time at least, held up to at least some kind of eagleish ideal – they’re the beloved! Flawless, noble beloved! And here’s the lover (oh, sweetheart!), reduced by some biological need (the need for companionship is, at least, felt in the body, very often), to picking over the remains of something now dead. Trawling patiently – stolidly, determinedly, almost morosely – through the disconnected assortment of odds and ends which no longer perform together the function for which they were intended. The ex-lover left with the corpse of the relationship.
This is where the poem’s masterstroke comes in: when the restrained, compassionate narrator points out, so gently, that ‘The flamingo is pink / inside and out.’ It’s a brilliant double statement. Its being pink both inside and out, on the one hand, suggests that there’s no difference between the two. Why bother distinguishing between the outside – the world – and the inside? We know that feeling; when you’re heartbroken, the sad bright trees waving hopelessly towards their inevitable decline come autumn are speaking only of our own misery, and the futility of hanging on to beauty.
But here, on the other hand: it’s a reminder that the pinkness, the richness, isn’t only to be found in those bodily needs which reduce us from our nobility, from our stature. The flamingo’s unique specialness is on its outside, eagle, as much as it is on its inside – much as though that’s what appeals to you now, hungry and lonely, ignoble and poking at oddments.
The third reading: ‘you’ as us, reading – as me. Taking the odd liberty that the indeterminacy of poetry allows us, I have a little private reading of this poem, as being about criticism and critics. Oh stop this game of taking the suddenly dead workings of a poem to pieces; remember that it’s beautiful outside as well as in. Its outer face – the one that looks outwards to the world – that’s worth paying attention to, too. Stop for a minute, darling reviewer, darling critical brain: look up from the page, and out the window.
(As a sidenote, on this topic: note Rodrigo’s sly pun on ‘sweetheart’ – the heart as literally sweet, as a thing to be eaten. The latent, raptor commandment of love, to consume the loved one.)
(Because I haven’t really mentioned the technical accomplishment of this poem, which employs a whole raft of tricks to create the sense of careful, caring, distanced compassion. There’s the indentations of the lines, and the double line-break before the final line, giving each word more white space and silence to rest inside. There’s the gentle chiming of ‘picking’ with ‘knick-knacks’, tied into ‘pink’, too, through the minimalist alliteration of those ps. There’s the chiastic structure (like X-Y—Y-X; one line, two lines; two lines, one line) offering its sense of careful elegant balance. There’s the slight disruption of this symmetry in that double line-break before the last line, too: and a slight absence of balance – between the let-go lover and the speaker, the gone loved; or between the inside and the outside of a thing – is something the poem’s talking about.)
Actually there’s a fourth ‘you’ in contention, here. There’s the ‘you’ of self-address; the narrator telling themself that they will love again. The need for the distance of the second person pronoun, then, suggests there’s something going on beyond the agency of the first-person self. The helplessness, for example, we might imagine someone feeling suddenly shut out of love, going over and over the broken-down causes and occasions of a gone relationship. This is a reading I like, and the wonderful recognition of the pinkness both outside as well as inside the flamingo manages, then, to take the form of a consolation. We’re able to believe that love will come again with the affirmation that the roseate glow of beauty is outside of us: elsewhere, waiting to be found, and not merely buried amongst our so-called inner resources. So that when the formerly pink knick-knacks stocking the shelves of what seems temporarily like a foul rag-and-bone shop inside us are all shading to grays and browns, then we can reach outwards: sweethearts! We will love again.