Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.
Chase Twichell and a Summary of 'Saint Animal'
'Saint Animal' is a short poem that focuses on the nature of being human and of being human in nature. It briefly explores the idea that as creatures of the earth we are both animal and spirit, and that we struggle to live together in harmony.
This duality may be hard to handle. It's what makes us human, but the flipside is that the animal—our instinctive and intuitive side—can inspire and lift us up to heights we perhaps could never imagine.
These moments of enlightenment come like an epiphany, taking us to unexpected places, resulting in new ways of being and understanding. This poem is one such glimpse into experience.
The poem's title suggests that there is a religious element involved. The word saint comes from sanctus, meaning holy, which implies that this animal inside is closer to the source of all things, namely God. But this poem is in no way fundamentally related to conventional Christian sentiment, so it has to be assumed that the word saint is meant to convey a sense of symbolic power, in a similar manner to a totem.
Chase Twichell is well known for her minimalist approach to subject matter. Through her Zen meditations and practice she seeks to strip off the layers of opinion and conditioning and reach the essence within.
'Zen is a wonderful sieve through which to pour a poem. It strains out whatever's inessential.'
Much of her work is inspired by her upbringing, spent mostly in the Adirondack Mountains, where she grew up, spending most of her time out in the woods and open air. This freedom encouraged an intense interest in the interactive fabric of the natural world.
'The work of Zen is to learn to see the world for what it really is: constant flux.'
She sees herself as part of that fluid system and her 'little poems are acute glimpses of things . . . a series of small harsh rebirths.'
'Saint Animal' was first published in the Kenyon Review in 1997 and appeared in her book The Snow Watcher in 1998.
'Saint Animal' by Chase Twichell
Suddenly it was clear to me --
I was something I hadn't been before.
It was as if the animal part of my being
had reached some kind of maturity that gave it
authority, and had begun to use it.
I thought about death for two years.
My animal flailed and tore at its cage
till I let it go. I watched it
drift out into the easy eddies of twilight
and then veer off, not knowing me.
I'm not a bird but I'm inhabited by a spirit
that's uplifting me. It's my animal, my saint
and soldier, my flame of yearning,
come back to tell me
what it was like to be without me.
Line-by-Line Analysis of 'Saint Animal'
'Saint Animal' is a short poem that gives a brief insight into what it is to be human—where animal lives side by side with the self—subject to transformation and psychic development.
From the first line the reader is introduced to the speaker as ego—note the me, the two Is and my being—this seems to be about control of a new situation, the speaker clearly aware of a big change, an altered state of being.
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The third line introduces the animal for the first time, as an integral part of this person's being. The animal has made progress (reached) and with it authority, which it is now exercising.
The reader isn't told if this is a good or a bad thing, there is no judgement either way so it seems that this is a natural process the speaker is having to contend with.
Death enters the fray in the third stanza but it's unclear if the animal's new status has caused the speaker to think about death, or some outside issue or event brought about this way of thinking.
Either way the animal did not appreciate the situation. It wanted out and was finally released into the easy eddies of twilight—so the two parted, as if estranged.
The fifth stanza seems to tie up the loose ends, or cause more ambiguity, because the speaker states that there is a spirit living inside her which has a lightening effect and is making her feel much better, perhaps elated.
It's the animal, her saint and soldier and flame, returned with news of what it felt like to be apart, to be separate from the whole. The animal is a saint, that is, feels holy to the speaker, knows right from wrong, is close to the source. The animal is a soldier, it will fight for the cause. The animal is a flame, elemental fire, inspirational and lighting the way.
In short, could it be that this animal is that part of the human psyche closest to nature, able to tap into the universal spirit that the Zen Buddhists say is sacred.
Tone and Diction
'Saint Animal' is a free verse poem of 6 stanzas totaling 15 lines. There is no set rhyme scheme and no consistent metrical beat.
What this poem does have a lot of is repetition:
Four lines ending in me, three lines ending in it.
There is a definite atmosphere of relief in this poem. The speaker experiences an epiphany and is going through a big change. The feeling is one of progress and of final togetherness because the animal has returned, the spirit is home once again, reunited with its owner.
Note the emphasis on the I and the me—the speaker is first person so very much involved in this process of change and discovery. There is the focus on the release of the animal—I let it go. I watched it/ drift out . . . and then veer off and the notion of return—come back to tell me—without me—reached some kind of maturity.
This sets up a natural tension within the poem.
© 2018 Andrew Spacey