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.