No feathered pinions uplift them, yet they sustain
themselves on transparent wings. They . . . utter
only the tiniest sound. Houses,
not forests, are their favourite haunts.
—Ovid, Metamorphoses IV, 410-14
At first they sought shelter there
millions of lifetimes before
human voices echoed through
caves later given back to
these winged refugees who’d fled
snapping jaws in the forest
The resonant limestone walls
became a recital hall
amplifying tiny sounds
from throats hanging upside down
piping their high-pitched greetings
these felt-covered sacks of song
Their voices became their eyes
navigating the darkness
more deftly than any bird
thin-boned wings sweeping upwards
the alert oversized ears
and panache of Fred Astaire
Light flashed behind them reveals
a Venice of red canals
flowing through wings more cape-like
than butter- or dragon-fly
a thousand beats per minute
no vampire’s this dancing heart
Questions and Answers
What inspired you to write this poem?
I was moved by the same impulse that has led me to write a series of reinterpretations of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. I felt that our culture’s anthropomorphizing of other life forms had kept us from recognizing the true nature of those beings. This concern has become more urgent as we face the imminent extinction of so many of them: the world becomes a more barren place, and we become spiritually impoverished if there is less “other” around us against which we can measure our own features, and whose features we can sometimes emulate as role models—think, for instance, of the selfless parenting of birds who exhaust themselves flying to and from the nest to provide nurture for their nestlings. In the case of bats, our anthropomorphism has caused us to reconfigure this creature in exaggerated and distorted forms, from Dracula to Batman, while we have missed the awe-inspiring wonders of the real animal. Bats are the only mammal capable of sustained flight, some of them winging through the air at 160 kilometres per hour. Their wings (taking up 85% of body surface area) are much thinner than those of birds, allowing them to manoeuvre much more accurately; and the touch-sensitive receptors on their wings let them adapt instantly to changing airflow. Most remarkably, they manoeuvre by means of echolocation, bouncing sounds off other surfaces and making minute adjustments in their flight paths. I wanted to capture these and other features in my poem.
What poetic techniques did you use in this poem? How much attention do you pay to form and metre?
To take the second question first, I pay enormous attention to form and metre, since these are some of the means by which poetry (like birds, like bats) can lift above mere flat description and come close to embodying experiences. Here, I wanted to find a form that approximated the bats’ delicate movements and sound patterns (many of them beyond the range of human hearing). Short, seven-syllable lines seemed the right size and conveyed the variable rhythms of their flight, couplets suggested wingbeats, and a mixture of rhyme and approximate rhyme attempted to produce a version of their echolocation.
How did your writing process unfold around this poem? How did you write, edit, and refine it?
Usually I wait for a line or two to materialize, a kind of anchor, and here the first two lines not only suggested the pattern of half-rhymes, but also called attention to how much longer bats have been around than our own presumptuous species. The title came next, carrying in a light, colloquial way the dual qualities of the bats’ sound and movement that I wanted to touch on in the poem. It was at this point that the figure of Fred Astaire (with his capacity to dance up and down walls) entered my thoughts, and I had a feeling that he would put in an appearance somewhere in the poem. Little triads of couplets seemed to be encouraging a more dance-like effect, providing a means of evading the heavy foot-tread of quatrains. The one place where I spun my wheels for a while was in the third line of the third stanza, as I sought to convey the movement of the bats wings, trying and rejecting “whirling,” “stepping,” “dancing,” “lifting,” and “stroking upwards” before lighting on “sweeping.” And the last two lines, originally “no vampire’s this heart tuned to / a thousand beats per minute,” changed—after the poem sat a few days to contemplate its ending—to “a thousand beats per minute / no vampire’s this dancing heart,” allowing me to use that explicit image of “dancing” and as well to let “heart”—the source of all the dancing—to have the last word.
What did you find particularly challenging in writing this poem?
The big challenge here was to avoid the anthropomorphism that seems endemic to our species. I came close to it with the Fred Astaire reference (his ears really did resemble those of a bat!), but I think the detailed descriptions of the bats’ own movements and sounds established them as a strong enough presence to counteract that effect. The last stanza also tries hard to defamiliarize the bats, associating their veins with red canals, contrasting their wings with those of butterflies and dragonflies, and introducing the astounding fact of their thousand-beats-per-minute heart rate.