Capybara is the measure of all things

Here is one of my favorites from this year’s Best American Poetry anthology, “Unit of Measure” by Sandra Beasley:

The poem gives us the world in terms of a kind of 100-poind ratlike creature.  This conceit exposes our habit of organizing and categorizing the world in ways that are arbitrary but come to seem natural.  The choice of such a bizarre standard as a giant South American rodent defamiliarizes this habit; an example of similarly powerful silliness (probalby brought to my mind by the mention of the Church’s taxonomy of fish and non-fish) is Borges’ famous citation of a supposed Chinese encyclopedia in whose pages

it is written that animals are divided into (a) those that belong to the emperor; (b) embalmed ones; (c) those that are trained; (d) suckling pigs; (e) mermaids; (f) fabulous ones; (g) stray dogs; (h) those that are included in this classification; (i) those that tremble as if they were mad; (j) innumerable ones; (k) those drawn with a very fine camel’s-hair brush; (l) etcetera; (m) those that have just broken the flower vase; (n) those that at a distance resemble flies.

(h) is of course my favorite.

I see a less amusing but more succinct illustration of the same point, that our classifications are our own responsibility, in one of Wallace Stevens’ “13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”: “A man and a woman are one.  A man and a woman and a blackbird are one.”  (That or it’s the Family Research Council’s nightmare vision of marriage equality run amok, but whatevs.)

To get back to the poem, it contains a couple of lovely duckdives, where it seems to be sauntering along and then veers off unexpectedly, like George Smiley plodding down the street and then magically ducking down an alley, losing the agents who have been tailing him.  The first of these comes after the bland tautologies of the opening lines, with “Everything is mistaken for a Brazilian dance craze / more or less frequently than the capybara.” 

Another turn comes later on in the poem’s progression from abstraction to biological detachment and finally involvement in the capybara’s own perspective.  At first the adoption of the capybara as a standard seems goofy but harmless and more or less meaningless, then things grow more complicated with the introduction of its specific characteristics (eating bark, barking), and then the critter gets dangerous as it starts to assume the center and push us into the margins, critiquing our physiognomy (“you have foolishly distributed your eyes, ears, and nostrils / all over your face”),  finally ostracizing, leaving us to gaze longingly at the in-group of fish:

One of us, they say, one of us,

but they will not say it to you


This is what happens when you choose a standard to measure animals or intelligence or language varieties by: it appropriates the center and cause everything else to be viewed in its terms.   A standard has the power to make us outsiders like Prufrock, who hears the mermaids singing each to each but does not think that they will sing to him.

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6 Responses to Capybara is the measure of all things

  1. Megan Kasten says:

    I like how the use of the phrase “more or less” is literal in the poem, yet I can hear the voice in my head veer towards tossing it off as we do in conversation. “Oh yeah, you know, I’m more or less water hog…”
    And the question is: Can Catholics can eat Capybaras on Fridays?
    Great poem.

    • lippenheimer says:

      16th-Century Catholics can. And I think the dietary restrictions were lifted by Vatican 2.

      I totally agree about ‘more or less’: the usual meaning is never officially present but creates an undertow, working against the current of the poem and suggesting that we too might be mistaken for a Brazilian dance craze. Glad you liked it!

      • Megan Kasten says:

        It also suggests to me – more or less – that we humans tend to be a bit full of ourselves in thinking that we are so different and superior to all else. I like the choice of Capybara, for the sound of its name, its exoticism to those of us who may never have seen one outside a zoo, and the absurdity that we would attribute to using a rodent as a measure of, well, anything. In nature a rodent is no more or less (there it is again..) elegant or ridiculous than any other live being, yet we place own notions of beauty and appropriateness on everything around us. A rodent is either more or less frequently found as a figure on a charm bracelet than say…a dolphin… or a horse….now Boodle will be on the lookout for a rodent charm for me.

  2. beth mchugh says:

    Loved the poem, loved your quite amusing commentary , and loved the comments!

  3. Thank you for sharing this lovely poem. To hell with the Desiderata!

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