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THE LAST TASMANIAN TIGER….

…though striped in part was not, in fact, a tiger,

or feline in any way, but related

to the kangaroo, so a marsupial,

with a head and muzzle a bit like a bear’s,

and the dimensions of an Alsatian dog.

Somebody named him Benjamin – a joke

probably: the last of Jacob’s sons,

and Israel’s progenitor. Some footage

survives, in black and white, of the animal

in his small, bleak cage in Hobart Zoo.

The newsreel’s pompous and slightly smarmy

voice-over, accompanied by tea-dance jazz,

tells us the beast was ‘forced out of his

natural habitat by the march

of civilisation’. Presumably

whoever wrote the script had more in mind than

the penal colony, or the genocide

of the Palawi peoples, whose land

of temperate heathlands and forests,

wind-weathered mountains, rich estuaries

this had been for more than thirty thousand years.

 

The Palawi, watching those wan copies

of proper human beings, who arrived

unbidden, with their extravagant

paraphernalia, in big boats

borne by pale, shifting cloths like clouds,

may have wondered what barren place those angry

impostors came from, showing no respect

for what flies or swims or walks, or even

for the water or the air,  for anything,

especially each other.

 

 

 

© Copyright David Selzer
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10 Responses
  • Tim Ellis
    July 24, 2020

    I’ve long been interested in the Tasmanian Tiger, David, and I still hope I’ll get to Tasmania one day. I went as far as Melbourne once when I was young but time and money didn’t allow for the crossing. Have you ever read ‘English Passengers’ by Matthew Kneale, about the colonisation of Tasmania? One of my favourite books.

  • David Selzer
    July 24, 2020

    I have, Tim – a grand read, and one I think I might re-visit in lieu in travelling around the earth.

  • Sarah Selzer
    July 25, 2020

    As always a thought-provoking piece with rich imagery and creating a desire to google the historic bits! Or maybe reach for a paper version? With your poetry there are always so many levels that I usually focus in on the history and not necessarily the language! But ‘wind-weathered’, ‘rich estuaries’, ‘wan copies’, ‘shift in cloths’… I could go on!

  • Catherine Reynolds
    July 25, 2020

    So eloquent, David, and so beautifully observed. The sadness of extinction is played out in both the animal kingdom and in indigenous humanity. We are beset by two plagues: that of the insatiable expansion of the population into the world’s wild spaces and, more recently, zootropic viruses, the one a consequence of the other. The Tasmanian Tiger is an allegory for our relationship with the planet and our fragile future.

  • David Selzer
    July 25, 2020

    Thank you, Catherine – an eloquent, compelling and moving comment, which succinctly and accurately describes our condition.

  • GERALD KELLY
    July 26, 2020

    As ever with David it’s the focused reflection of the end stanza that hits home without ever being in any way trite or moralising. I love the triple force of the build-up from ‘… those wan copies of human beings…’ to ‘…those angry impostors…’ and on to the emphatic universality of ‘…showing no respect…for anything/especially each other.’
    Colonial (self) destructiveness encapsulated!

  • Jeff Teasdale
    July 27, 2020

    Very powerful imagery here, David. Those eloquently described ‘wan copies of human beings’ are a fragment of our species which, having moved ingeniously from the narrow band of ambient climate that can support us naturally, have adapted to living on, draining, and adapting every surface of our ‘mote of dust’, and in virtually any conditions…at some considerable expense to natural resources and other ‘life on earth’ they/we have come into contact with (‘we’ being of the same fragment-stock, I think). Somewhat confusingly in my mind, that same ‘spirit’ has enabled me to read your poem and respond while an Atlantic storm is raging around me in the very place where the Romans drove the last of the Druids into that same sea in Anglesey. They then cut down all their oak-tree temples so the scattered remnants would have nowhere to gather, worship or fight back from. I know several Celts in Galicia, Wales/Cymru, Ireland, the Isle of Man and western Scotland who felt/feel they were/are going the same way as the Tasmanian tiger, complete with the patronising commentary on Castilian/English newsreels.
    As usual, you have got me thinking…again!

  • David Selzer
    July 27, 2020

    Thank you, Gerald. ‘…focused reflection…’ I like. I think I learned the device aka trick from The Metaphysicals, partularly John Donne.

  • Clive Watkins
    August 10, 2020

    What makes this poem so powerful is not just its naturally charged subject-matter but also your handling. The first few lines point out the inaccuracy of the term “Tasmanian tiger” but, in doing so, highlight the ways in which the animal defies customary western classifications: though not a cat, it resembles both a bear and a dog. That this one survivor was nicknamed Benjamin – “the last of Jacob’s sons, / and Israel’s progenitor” – represents it as if it were a Jew: the relevance of this to the past hundred or more years of European history is obvious. That the naming was “a joke / probably” – and what a pregnant line-break that is – bespeaks the casual anti-Semitism and wider racism of whoever it was applied the name and illustrates the wider use, thoughtless or deliberately demeaning, of ethnically marked names as linguistic “badges”. The black and white film, with its “pompous and slightly smarmy voice-over” to the sound of “tea-dance jazz”, indicates how long ago it was since the last Tasmanian tiger died, imprisoned “in his small, bleak cage”, a detail that reflects both the fact that Tasmania had been a notorious British penal colony and, because of the nickname, the Holocaust of the 1940s with its various captivities and exterminations. In this context, “the march / of civilisation” that “forced” the animal “out of his / natural habitat” recalls in an inverted fashion the forced marches that oppressors everywhere have inflicted on those they would control and destroy.

    In the concluding ten-line paragraph the register changes as the perspective changes: we are invited to imagine the arrival of Europeans though the eyes of the indigenous occupants. This is vividly done. The Europeans are “wan copies / of proper human beings”, where skin-colour becomes a reciprocal marker of racial identity and embodies a value-judgement. Behind “unbidden” we sense the claim of prior right to the land. We got here first: at one time the Palawa were themselves incomers. In “extravagant” the poem tells us not just of the prodigal wealth of the arriving Europeans but also draws in other meanings still latent in the word: straying beyond bounds, abnormal, foreign. And Palawa speculation about the “barren place those angry / impostors came from” presumes a homeland for them that reflects their own necessarily insular view of these Western intruders. In point of fact, the homeland of the first Europeans cannot in justice be described as a “barren place”.

    In “showing no respect / for what flies or swims or walks, or even / for the water or the air” I fancy I hear a distant echo of the first chapter of the Book of Genesis. In verses whose refrain is “and God saw that it was good”, God calls into being the various creatures that occupy the earth (including the Tasmanian tiger?) and then creates Adam and Eve, giving them “dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.” Dominion is a complex and underlying theme of your poem. In this august context, your conclusion is damning and comprehensive. The incomers are perceived as “showing no respect … for anything, / especially each other.”

  • ALex Cox
    August 28, 2020

    Excellent!

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