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Homo dissimilis contemplates the natural world

by James Graham 

Posted: 26 May 2004
Word Count: 213

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1. The Sloth at Evening

I'm fond of animals but in
a condescending way:

collect them, little wood
and pottery tokens of them,
keep them on shelves,

and rope them into jokes
and small grotesqueries.

The sloth at evening
drowsily notes the trees,

how they take their nourishment
from the wormy sky, and feather
the birded ground. All's well.

My words aren't predators
or forest fires, I tell myself. I keep

an aardvark too: my varnished,
polished, russet pear with legs,
brown bottle with a face.

2. Creatures of the Burgess Shale

The little delicate corpses
of the creatures of the Burgess Shale
they have exhumed, and named.

Wiwaxia corrugata, tiny
spiny nut, diminutive dodo
of the ocean sediment;

Dinomischus isolatus,
solitary crocus, animal-flower;

and dream-inducing, rare
Hallucigenia sparsa:

numerous once, oh maybe
even for an epoch. Pioneers
of failure to adapt, they couldn't know
how beautiful they were, or see
the world would have no use for them.

How soon the extinction
of the beautiful misfits

- the knowing animals too, those poor
Neanderthals, arthritic, stumbling beasts
of memory and intellect; Tasmanians; Caribs;
Carthaginians after the Roman feast:

mouse-people, once self-named, now
falsely named, they too must be unearthed.

Mouse-people born for the hawk, they
would have known that they were beautiful.

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Comments by other Members

James Graham at 15:16 on 26 May 2004  Report this post
This is a pair of 'Hujusmodi' poems. When I posted 'Preface to the Book of Hujusmodi' (now in the archive) I said I was thinking it could maybe - maybe just possibly - be the intro to a new collection. Well, two poems don't make a collection, but here they are anyway.

Hujusmodians are people who came long ago to Earth from the planet Hujusmodi (pronounced 'who-use') - 'such a kind' of world, 'a certain sort' of world - and couldn't get home because their spaceship broke down. (It was a write-off.) Over the generations they have adapted quite well, but they still tend to look at this world through the eyes of strangers. Proudly human, and having no extra eyes or limbs and no green pigment, they have designated themselves homo dissimilis. Not surprisingly, a high proportion of them are poets.

Over the generations too, they have made discoveries about homo sapiens sapiens - not least the realisation that surprising numbers of h.saps are remarkably Hujusmodian in character and outlook. They may not actually have come from outer space, but they might as well have. Some indeed can never be sure whether they are true strangers or earth-strangers. The present writer is such a kind.

Burgess Shale is in the Canadian Rockies. The creatures unearthed there are thought to represent, not just species that became extinct, but creatures unlike anything we know (fish, birds, mammals, reptiles, none of these) - whole evolutionary lines that came to nothing.


Ticonderoga at 16:42 on 26 May 2004  Report this post

Dear Mr Vonnegut - sorry! James,
What a wonderful and extraordinary, stimulating mind you have; you constantly 're-perspective' the familiar, if I can put it that way. These poems are exploding with beautiful, thought-provoking imagery and ideas; I think there probably could and certainly should be a Hujusmodian Tome. Too lost in wonder and drunk with images to say anything terrifically coherent; except, this voice is so original and so refreshing that you simply must do more with it.

Grovellingly yours,


roovacrag at 18:01 on 26 May 2004  Report this post
Hi James.
First one reminded me of a slob.

Enjoyed it and laughed.
so visual and so true.
Then what do you expect from
Hujusmodians, in the second.
Think all poets come from this generation.
Always said, only writer,poet and artist from a family with no idea of art.
I must be from elsewhere.

Well done.
xx Alice

tinyclanger at 19:11 on 27 May 2004  Report this post
Glad to see more Hujusmodi, this is all so well realised it makes me want to pack up my pen..
I think they need time with me before commmenting, so apologies for not responding at once..

engldolph at 21:25 on 27 May 2004  Report this post
Hi James and honorary Hujusmodian

Just read your Hujusmodi preface and so now have the philosophical background. Which I liked a lot. Brought to mind Gnostic thinking of separateness and a yearning for return. Not too sure about the spaceship connection..perhaps because it made me think of that crazy cult who committed suicide in order to float up to their passing spaceship. I sense that Hujusmodians have more humour. Although I do like the idea of having cosmic cousins..we know they are there!

And it is the off-beat humour and slightly (wonderfully) subversive quality of Sloths that hooked me. It seemed to start with a slam (a gentle one) against the usual anthropomorphic view of animals…but with an affection that is found in words like: my word aren’t predators or forest fires ..

And choosing a sloth out of all the animals…again, a sly humour that really stuck..
Really liked the inverse sloth-like, upside down thinking about what a tree is…

And the arrdvark! I don’t think I’ve ever come across a more concise, endearing, unique description..

Burgess Shale to me had the same clarity and lightness ..but burrowed very deep into thoughts and psyche…

Really Liked

- the progression from minute creatures to lumbering Neanderthals
- the delicate, exotic beauty of the latin names
- no, more than liked..loved: “they couldn’t know how beautiful they were, or see the world would have no use for them” …made me wish they were still with us
- and the idea of “beautiful misfits”

The ending really talked to me about how we label things as “primitive” in the context of present man being “evolved”….the mouse-people image..how we mis-label… how total and complete these dead-ends of evolution were …how they had perfect beauty and knew it..how they succumbed to the “hawks”..

And it was the word “Hawks” that connected my thoughts to the present world and the fragility of the of beautiful side of humanity in the face of the hawks of corporate commercialism, intolerance, impatience, war………

But we can beat the hawks…we have better words..

I have only two detail questions:
- why “little” in the little delicate corpses … for some reason stopped me momentarily
- why the “oh” in oh maybe… I know you have a good reason

Really impressed by these pieces.


James Graham at 11:23 on 28 May 2004  Report this post
Many thanks for all comments so far. The poems seem to have made an immediate impression, and I'm glad of that because I find it hard to know how transparent (or opaque) they will seem to anyone else. I'll post a longer reply soon.



gard at 13:46 on 29 May 2004  Report this post
Hi james

wow absolutely loved the second set and the second half of the first set from "the sloth" onwards. The first part of the first part had me cringing (yuk ooeer way, not the writing) so I liked the rest best. And all of the above as well...



James Graham at 16:13 on 30 May 2004  Report this post
Mike, many thanks for your commentary saying so much about the poems. You'll know yourself how good it is to see that the language of a poem really has communicated, and that it has caught someone else's imagination. The sloth poem is just a surrender to this attitude I've always had to animals, the Hanna-Barbera syndrome, wanting to anthropomorphise them all the time and be entertained by them. It's naff and disrespectful of their true natures, but you just have to go with the flow. For a while my grandchildren had some chickens and ducks, and they could never quite see why I found the ducks in particular so hilarious. Those ducks were all cartoon characters. So it's the caricature upside-downness of the sloth that appeals, and his rather thick inability to realise that the trees only seem upside-down because he's upside-down. I'm not sure the poem's a slam, even a gentle one, against anthropomorphism - except maybe there's a feeling of slight embarrassment and shame underlying it.

'Mouse-people born for the hawk' - I'm sure you know too how a line can come to you apparently out of nowhere. I believe in the Muse (my only religion) because how else can you explain the way a phrase or a line is just suddenly there, when you seem not to have actually thought about it at all? The Muse is an early bird too - she's good in the morning. Then when you have the line, and have gratefully written it down, you start to see connotations in it, such as our modern 'hawks' - political, corporate - an association I swear I didn't make but the Muse made for me. I was mainly thinking of the bloody Romans, after seeing a TV documentary about Carthage. I tell you, I'm finished with the Romans. That bastard Cato, ending every speech with 'Carthage must be destroyed'. The tragedy of the Carthaginians was they were misfits only because the bloody Romans decided they were misfits. (Not all Romans, just the ones we Scots call the 'Head Bummers - trans. 'chief big-mouths' - the poor sods in the tenements of Rome were mouse-people too.) As for Virgil's Aeneid, nothing but grandiose imperialistic myth-making.

The 'oh' could be an 'oh' meaning 'wait a minute, let me think...' An epoch, give or take a few millennia, not sure exactly. Maybe it's redundant. 'Little' really is redundant - T rex bones aren't delicate, it's obvious these creatures are little.

The spaceship thing seems necessary so that Hujusmodian re-perspectives (a proper Lit. Crit. expression, that!) can be really 'other-worldly' not just the work of an Earthling who's a bit of a anarchist. But when I think about it, h. dissimilis could equally well be descendants of another branch of higher primates, like Neanderthals or Australopithecus (if I've got that right). All these went the way of the Burgess Shale creatures, but we could imagine one that left a few survivors. All of this in a none too serious way, of course.

Mike, Alice, tc, gard, many thanks for your comments. Sorry about the cringe, but it's what I've already said about the Hanna-Barbera syndrome. My kind of attitude to animals could well be a bit cringe-making.


engldolph at 18:29 on 30 May 2004  Report this post
HI James,
I think, from the (lazy) reader's point of view, consider adding the word 'inverted" ( or the like) in the line
"The Sloth at evening"

helps to more clear explain the tree image -
just a detail thought.


miffle at 19:08 on 30 May 2004  Report this post
James, Enjoyed 'The Sloth at Evening'.

Found it a wonderfully ponderous, deliberated poem. Almost a bit of an effort - slothful perhaps!?

'fond' and 'condescending' are interesting words to juxtapose: because I think that 'fond' does have a tendency to sound condescending. Also, 'I am fond' is a word that often means, euphemistically, 'I don't love' - so it's often an inadvertent insult, I think.

Favourite lines:

'the sloth at evening
drowsily notes the trees,'

'brown bottle with a face'

Found the line:

'My words aren't predators
or forest fires, I tell myself'

curious. One one hand it seems alien to the rest of the poem/ out of place - on the other it fits. Seems a glimpse of something important. Quietly subversive, perhaps.

And linking in to this I do find the tone of this poem slippery:

'fond' 'All's well' 'My words...myself' 'an aardvark too' -

aardvark !? almost ellicits a 'blimey' (!) from me! No run-of-the-mill pets for him then!

Read you comments re. anthropomorphising (spelling!) animals. Find it playful therefore that in the poem that you connect your animals to objects/ objectify that aardvark!

'my varnished/ polished...face'

almost seemed to me an spoof of someone 'gushing' re. their adored pet - more usually a cat or dog! Comical!

If humans have a tendency to anthropomorphise animals do you think they 'cathroposmorphise' 'slothropomorphise' us (?) Or am I just anthropomorphising them to think that!

All the best, Miffle

miffle at 19:29 on 30 May 2004  Report this post
Dear James, 'Creatures of the Burgess Shale':

'Pioneers/ of failure to adapt'

Great line! Hee hee! Nice inversion! Think I could well be one of these!

'beautiful misfits': dreamers and the visionaries (as you say the poets and artists). And do we have to be of practical use to justify our lives?

My mother despairs at my lack of 'practical' skills. Someone who can build a house can seem to be of far more use to the world than someone who can write / dream!

On first reading I just took in the names as Latin goobledegook/ scientific burble. On second reading I discover them to be funny, invented -

'diminutive dodo' 'dinomischus isolatus'

'Hallugigenia sparsa' - surprised that a dream inducing herb did not survive!

An escapist poem. You create another world + a new vocabulary too.

Miffle :-)

James Graham at 19:05 on 31 May 2004  Report this post
Sorry, Mike, no need for 'inverted'. If any reader doesn't know that sloths spend most of their lives upside-down, too bad! (They even mate upside down - how about that!)

Yes, Nicola, 'fond' can be rather negative. If so, I'm quite happy with the word here, at least if it conveys that my affection for animals is a bit superficial. I admit it. 'My words aren't predators or forest fires' - the way I caricature or anthropomorphise animals doesn't threaten them. ('I tell myself'...i.e. I'm not so sure.)

The Latin names, even Hallucigenia sparsa, weren't invented by me! These are the zoological names given to some of the Burgess Shale fossils presumably by the scientists who investigated them. The lines that follow the names in the poem are just things the names (and the illustrations on the Burgess Shale website) suggested to me. They're still made-up names, of course, made up for creatures that weren't capable of naming themselves - unlike the 'Tasmanians', for example, the aboriginal people of that big island to the south of Australia, which must have had a name before the Europeans arrived. The people must have had individual names and a collective name for their whole nation, but instead they're remembered as 'Tasmanians' after a Dutch adventurer. In other parts of Australia, quite large numbers of Aborigines survived, but in Tasmania they were virtually exterminated.

As for animals 'animalising' us the way we 'humanise' them, maybe dogs do that, but I don't think cats make that mistake. They're too wise - they know what we are.


engldolph at 21:01 on 31 May 2004  Report this post
yes, I see what you mean...
it was just a long time since I had seen a sloth :-)
but yes, on further thought, it should not be too difficult to make the connection...
Mike (the right way up...sometimes)

fireweed at 10:55 on 05 June 2004  Report this post
james, this comment has taken time to formulate - not in any way an adverse comment on the poem. I liked it very much when I first read it but was bemused by the first section - is there a link between the sloth at evening and the speaker's love of animal figures ? It's an indistinct link in my mind but one that made me smile. I loved the musical sounding latin names in the second part - wiwaxia corrugata and the others - wonderful unusual sounding words that add an air of mystery, which is what in some ways the poem is celebrating. The "pioneers of failure to adapt" are all the more precious because of that. I'm not sure about the idea in the final couplet - mouse-people... would have known they were beautiful - would they? Isn't beauty mainly in the eye of the beholder?

This is a poem I kept coming back to. I love the delicacy and the gentle understatement - speaks volumes.


James Graham at 16:07 on 06 June 2004  Report this post
Anna, thank you for your comment. The lines about the sloth are one of the 'jokes' referred to in the preceding lines. There are really two ideas in the poem about my/the persona's attitude to animals: he likes to collect animal figures (some of which are caricatures!) and also finds some animals entertaining. They're two facets, I suppose, of the condescending 'fondness' mentioned at the start, facets of an attitude that's a lot closer to that of the circus spectator than that of the serious naturalist or zoologist. I don't have a wooden or soft-toy sloth, by the way - though if I ever came across one I'd probably go for it!

As for the Latin names of the creatures, they do capture the imagination, but I have to stress again that I didn't make them up! They're the actual names given to the creatures (the fossils, rather) by the scientists who classified them.

The 'mouse-people' - can we say they would have known they were beautiful? Yes, I think so - the Carthaginians or Aboriginal people of Tasmania, mentioned in the poem, would surely have had an appreciation of beauty in one another. This line was meant too to stress the difference between the Burgess Shale creatures and the later humans who had that added self-awareness, who unlike primitive creatures could look at each other and see beauty, but were nonetheless (for different reasons) doomed.


fireweed at 16:53 on 06 June 2004  Report this post
James, I think one of the strengths of your poem is that is explores the complex relationship which exists between human beings and animals ( the poet's perspective in the poem being one of many) but leaves the reader to make the connections and possibly find their own position by reading and responding to the poem. The relationship between the two sections is also very interesting ; adding more layers of connections/meanings to explore.


Hilary Custance at 11:44 on 18 July 2004  Report this post
James, how words layer up, if you see what I mean. I read your poems and was full of thoughts, then read through all the comments, then the poems again - and they were different poems. I can't get my mind back to that 'first fine careless rapture'. It doesn't matter, but it is a curious thing that you cannot erase the layers of words. On first reading, I remember falling for individual lines and images in the Sloth, but not holding it together in my mind very well. This was mostly because, reading The Creatures of the Burgess Shale, I became so involved with the ideas, with our tiny, extinct, beautiful, unknowing predecessors and with our subsequent gloss giving them the unweildy and utterly delightful names... I picked up only scraps of the bigger themes first time round, just that civilizations delude themselves on the subject of progress and humanity.

After reading the comments, I returned to the top, somehow expecting long, heavy poems freighted with all the stuff I had read in between. It was an enormous delight to find them lightly written, with humour, all the big stuff carried by individual words, concentrated. In Sloth, I had a lovely set of stray connections with the phrase 'All's well!' The changing of guards on a battlement at dawn. I think it was the cry of the lamp snuffers in big cities at dawn, but I'm afraid I had Hamlet wandering in as well as several other strands. Definitely h. dissimilis.
Back to the Creatures, I remember the shock of discovering, as a child, that the Victoria Falls, had had a perfectly good name since time immemorial, then we came along, called it Victoria and that is the name it has been stuck with ever since. It seemed, like much of the history of 'civilization', so blatantly wong and unfair to those who happened not to be on the conquering agenda.

Sorry about the wandering nature of my comment. All in all these two poems gave me great pleasure on a rare visit to the site. I have just written a poem (the first for a year?) and thought I would post it, but I don't belong to any of the groups after this gap, so it will be floating in the archives, I imagine.

Cheers, Hilary

eddieg at 22:06 on 28 June 2006  Report this post
Hi James
as i have said before after reading another one of your poems... i am new to this.
Anyway... loved it... it reminded me of when I read a William s burroughs story. Am i supposed to say why i loved it too.

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