In memory of Pangur Ban
James Dickey – “The Heaven of Animals”
‘The Heaven of Animals’ by James Dickey
Here they are. The soft eyes open.
If they have lived in a wood
It is a wood.
If they have lived on plains it is grass rolling
Under their feet forever.
Having no souls, they have come,
Anyway, beyond their knowing.
Their instincts wholly bloom
And they rise.
The soft eyes open.
To match them, the landscape flowers,
Outdoing what is required:
The richest wood,
The deepest field.
For some of these, it could not be the place
It is, without blood.
These hunt, as they have done,
But with claws and teeth grown perfect,
More deadly than they can believe.
They stalk more silently,
And crouch on the limbs of trees,
And their descent
Upon the bright backs of their prey
May take years
In a sovereign floating of joy.
And those that are hunted
Know this as their life,
Their reward: to walk
Under such trees in full knowledge
Of what is in glory above them,
And to feel no fear,
But acceptance, compliance.
Fulfilling themselves without pain
At the cycle’s center,
They tremble, they walk
Under the tree,
They fall, they are torn,
They rise, they walk again.
A number of writers have written about animals in the afterlife – Neruda, for example, believing that his dog would be in a doggy heaven, even though otherwise he refused to believe in a heaven for humans (see “A Dog Has Died”). But I think Dickey has written about it the best; if I really believed animals had an afterlife, I would want it to be the one he describes in this poem.
Despite the fact that he describes the predator and prey aspect as the main feature of this bestial empyrean, there’s something very tender about this. They have soft eyes that open to their realm. Their eternal reward is to enjoy that which they enjoyed on earth; but it is not a fulfillment of greed or ego, simply a perfection of what was – the sharpest claws, the most cunning stealth. Theirs is a less burdensome paradise, uncorrupted by any human notions of grandiosity. There, they just are – “beyond all knowing” – forever. It makes me feel like I’d rather go to animal heaven than people heaven!
Even the prey animals sound like they have it good – I wouldn’t mind walking around without fear, feeling accepted, a part of everything, even if it meant I would be torn apart – so long as I knew I would rise and walk again.
Whether it be the mouse, rabbit, gazelle, leaf, or grass, let us imagine the manna of the heaven of animals nourishing our earthly companions for eternity.