On their own feet they came, or on shipboard,
Camel-back, horse-back, ass-back, mule-back,
Old civilisations put to the sword.
Then they and their wisdom went to rack...
—Yeats, from "Lapis Lazuli"
Ryan Boyd's poem "Wolves" elegantly testifies to our present madness. "Wolves" opens by briefly sketching how disease and police force us inside. It then describes an attempted party, where to feel joy, partygoers embrace a deep denial: "we agree to pretend / the dead didn’t lose / or the monied win." "Wolves" concludes with a cryptic comment about how the present crisis might be the end. "[T]he ground shudders and splits" as it has "all the time in the world." We, in "cities sick / with envy" desperately want to go outside, to be open, to exert control. But we don't have all the time in the world, a plague still rages, and fascists and vicious oligarchs are ascendant.
Wolves (from Protean) Ryan Boyd Wolf year, illness at the door, our streets scabbed with police. Gray jubilee, everyone in, the party set to begin— we agree to pretend the dead didn’t lose or the monied win. Everywhere, cities sick with envy unlock their doors as, with all the time in the world, the ground shudders and splits. Someone somewhere opens a gift.
"Wolf year," the opening, holds an absorbing mystery. The phrase is illustrated by "illness at the door" and "our streets scabbed with police," but both fail to completely define it. We know an illness devours lives. We know those tasked to serve and protect often devour lives and laws. "Wolf year" is hungrier, still.
How to grasp the scope of the hunger? Boyd's invocation of wolves in the context of civilization collapsing recalls two poems of Auden, "Domesday Song" and "The Fall of Rome." Auden depicts collapse but uses a fox, birds, and reindeer, bringing through them complementary themes into play. Roughly, Boyd's "Wolves" presents an immediate threat which is destroying everything. But Auden's animals cast a natural eye on humankind. The natural world can be victimized by us, but it also stares at our self-destruction with incomprehension. Armed with echoes of Auden, I believe we can better appreciate a central lament of "Wolves:" "we agree to pretend / the dead didn't lose...".
The third stanza of Auden's "Domesday Song" uses light, singsong rhyme and meter to highlight a descent into madness:
Silence settles on the clocks;
Nursing mothers point a sly
Index finger at a sky,
Crimson in the setting sun;
In the valley of the fox
Gleams the barrel of a gun.
Though they are excellent, you don't need the other stanzas to know what's happening. Nursing mothers pointing at a crimson sky while an ominous silence settles is not terribly subtle. It convinces inasmuch as readers themselves want to imagine the end. On its own, a picture of a mother holding a baby staring at a mass of blood-red seems to be from a B-movie. But if you have some experience with things falling apart, you know that violent, angry excess resembles pornography. The ridiculous reigns supreme as extremes are indulged. Indrajit Samarajiva explains how in Sri Lanka, one party threw chili powder at the other and took over Parliament briefly. Everyone laughed until the bombs started going off: "The coup was a farce at the time but how soon it turned to tragedy. They called it a constitutional crisis, but how soon it became a real one. Right now, the same thing is happening to you.... It seems stupid now, but the consequences are not."
Auden ends this stanza with a brutal scene: "In the valley of the fox / Gleams the barrel of a gun." It is worth pausing to make an immediate comparison with "Wolves." "Wolf year" devours but Auden's fox is hunted by us. Eventually, when we ourselves are hunted, we too fail to recognize what exactly is happening. Confusion accompanies terror, and this is not always understood when we are being terrorized. We in the "Wolf year" know the general orientation of those who wish to needlessly harm others. That knowledge is never good enough, as newer variations of old threats keep arising. Many of us do have to become news addicts in order to identify the sheer amount of extremist language and iconography all around us. I've seen plenty of Oath Keeper and 3% t-shirts around, and it is helpful to know where I am not wanted.
"The Fall of Rome" is filled with images of inequality causing societal collapse. Consider, for example, the fourth stanza: "Cerebrotonic Cato may / Extol the Ancient Disciplines, / But the muscle-bound Marines / Mutiny for food and pay." When Auden turns to animals in the poem, he gives us birds and reindeer. The birds, with a sickly beauty, watch as a plague not only kills but devastates what little is left of people's lives:
Unendowed with wealth or pity,
Little birds with scarlet legs,
Sitting on their speckled eggs,
Eye each flu-infected city.
Particularly ghastly is how the theme of birth hovers over these lines. As if every living being were a virus to other living beings. The theme is so severe that it seems like Auden's reindeer constitute a response. They run, and one gets the distinct feeling they're running from the horrors of a broken society:
Altogether elsewhere, vast
Herds of reindeer move across
Miles and miles of golden moss,
Silently and very fast.
Animals bear a strange witness to human witlessness. They might stare uncomprehendingly, not realizing they bring disease themselves. Or they might flee, as panicked herds do, testifying that what we have wrought is wrong. It is curious Auden focuses on fleeing herds. The classics wondered if political science, an art of rule, would entail treating humankind as if it were a herd. In Xenophon, this is a dark joke, but a dark joke which elaborated at length brings to light some darker truths.
Returning to "Wolves," we have three substantial images in our possession. A fox, confused about noise and violence as it is hunted. Birds, some just born, watching as flu envelops a city. And reindeer who move in herds quickly and quietly, refusing to stop.
In short, we have three images which push us to question the very concept of social order. When social order breaks down, organization (or the lack thereof) is weaponized against our thinking, our health, and our ability to move. This seems to be what Aristotle meant in saying that without law, man is the worst of the animals. More pertinent to our age, I can say that no one wants to be a prisoner or refugee, and the moral depravity entailed in saying to millions that people do want this is sickening.
The center of Boyd's "Wolves" is endlessly fascinating, adding to if not transcending what can be learned from Auden's animals. It addresses the mental carnage of social order collapsing upon itself: "we agree to pretend / the dead didn’t lose...". We make the dead noble and good no matter what—this is something I can address, having written a dissertation on a related topic. Plato understood that nobility was meant to serve a substitute for having an actual good. You're called "noble" because you are called to sacrifice, and if you have estates and wealth, there is an expectation. In contrast, someone who is simply wealthy has their good. The "noble," though, takes on a life of its own. We fall into remembeing the dead exclusively in terms of their legacy and whether they changed the world or not. Carlos Maza made an incredible point about AIDS activists that I cannot find, otherwise I'd link to it. But what he said was something like this: AIDS activists fought and pushed the world to see more and be better, but that's a poor substitute for their lost lives. Even in terms of utility, how much better the world is that dedicated, concerned people are around. Still, there are other valuations beyond utility, and it isn't clear that all our attempts at valuation could actually value life. The illusions we must work with, in the face of accelerating decline, are perilously close to being delusions.