The Last Living Thing

A bird on the edge of the Grand Canyon

Transformed into a silhouette, its beak open, the bird on the edge of the Grand Canyon seems more symbol than living creature: something we’ll each interpret under influences as consistent as temperament and experience or as fleeting as a mood. Long time followers may recognise a similar, more uplifting shot, taken nearby.

Coming across the picture and the short poem, Requiem by Kurt Vonnegut, in quick succession, it seemed fitting to put them together here, today.  

One of my University tutors, Philip Davis, passed on a tip that still instructs my reading: “Look for a long time at any word that puzzles you…”. And something puzzles me in this poem. Not the climate change part, sadly. I have no doubts about that. The meaning hangs on the final irony – of course we like it here. Broadly speaking. In the absence of alternative places to live.

It’s even less than a word – a tiny grammatical detail – that derails my understanding. Why isn’t the last line within the speech marks? If Earth is no longer speaking, the statement hangs more awkwardly. That’s where the old teaching kicks in and a scene plays out in my imagination:

Earlier me: “It seems like it’s a mistake. I’ll search to see if I can find another version with the speech mark in the right place”.
Imaginary Philip Davis: “You can’t assume the poet picked his words by mistake or that the text is wrong. Poets pay attention to words. They include or omit punctuation with precision. You’re missing something”.

Looking out over the Grand Canyon

I’m willing to concede I may be missing something – a nuance, perhaps, as the thrust of the poem hits as the poet intended. At least it’s only a possibly misplaced speech mark, not the end of the world.

21 Replies to “The Last Living Thing”

  1. Very nice combination of words and picture. My thought on not having quotes for the last line is that the poet is speaking again; not Earth. The implication is that the poet is making a judgement while Earth is just stating a fact.

    1. It must be that but there are a few little things that jolt. The move from ‘us’ to ‘people’, for example. I suppose a jolt is not out of place when the subject matter is vast and ominous.

  2. My belief is that the Earth will throw us off long before the last thing dies. Earth will go on; humans will not. It may be a thousand years or just a few hundred, but I think Mother Earth will take care of herself rather than let humans destroy her.

  3. I like this. The words and the picture. And I think David has it right. Earth is stating a fact. “It is done” Let us hope that Earth still has a voice after man has destroyed every living thing.

  4. This poem strikes a chord with me. I think though, that it would make better sense with the speech mark right at the end. But who am I to disagree with the poet? My hope is that when humans have ruined everything and brought about their own demise, Earth will begin a phase of regeneration and continue on without us.

    1. Until I started typing it out to make the graphic, I had not thought about the implication of the speech marks and had read it as if Earth was speaking the last two lines. I am still conflicted by it. Earth being concise does seem apt, but there are several things I can’t come to terms with in the idea the poet has resumed speaking. For example, the ‘did’ in ‘People did not like it here’ implies that the poet (imaginatively at least) is able to look back and comment after every living thing has died. I suppose anything that provokes thought is good – there is more inclination to linger over the ideas rather than acknowledging the irony and moving on.

  5. My English and Grammar is well and truly lost in the mists of time (since I went to school/college 45 years ago), but I’m sure the poem speaks in various ways to each of us regardless of the grammatical detail you mention.

    The poet had something to say and the very fact that you wish to share his words means his desire to connect and send a message is successful.

    1. I agree – it is a powerful poem and the hiccup in it no more than a hiccup (although I would love to know the poet’s reasoning).

    1. I saw that report in another publication. It seems incredible to think 60% of animal life has been wiped out in less than 50 years.

  6. I think there are two reasons we care for something or someone: either we value it for itself or we expect to gain something from it. Ditto people: we care for someone for his/her own sake, or we expect to get something from him/her. I think in that last line the poet concludes that, because they didn’t take care of the earth or its inhabitants, people didn’t value any of it for itself, nor did they expect to gain anything from it.

    It seems to me that predatory open beak stark against the stone is an unavoidable metaphor for those people who didn’t like living here.

    Of course I loved the conversation between your earlier self and the poet. I think any poet would be immensely pleased that you’d experiment with punctuation to look for understanding.

      1. The visual can be so eloquent — and we each read it differently. That open beak as warning gives it a different feel. So interesting!

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