The Problem of the One and the Many

by Peter Saint-Andre

We are all familiar, I should say,
   with the way geese gaggle,
Bees swarm, and oxen yoke -- the way that
   sheep and seagulls straggle
When they unwisely stray from their appointed flock.

But do you have an inkling of the
   strange and wondrous habits
Of creatures as divergent as
   rhinoceri and rabbits?
Animals guard secrets their fancy names unlock . . . .

To begin, we know that a group
   is made of ones who muster,
And our animal friends acquire
   curious names when they cluster --
Like the nightingales, who en masse become a watch.

Watches of birds, though, I dare say,
   are nothing nearly so strange
As troops of kangaroos hopping
   in formation on the range,
Or holy exaltations of ecstatic larks!

But turn from sacred to profane:
   consider the lowly crow,
Whose group is called a murder! And the
   elks, who in numbers show
Themselves to be a gang -- yet still they roam our parks!

A litter of piglets, a pod of
   seals, turtles in a bale:
Shall we tie them with a string of
   ponies, set them out for sale --
On a bed of oysters, for optimum display?

The words are stuck like a knot of
   toads, to tell me who I am,
How I should live and travel: if
   grouped like whales in a gam
Or alone, like a needle in a stack of hay . . . .

A company of parrots may be
   founded by one who dares,
A school of fish or a band of monkeys
   started by one who cares;
The peace of nations dreamt by doves who league in dules.

Hens and chicks, or so I've heard, have
   tendencies to brood and clutch;
The hogs just drift, the hares are down,
   and the foxes skulk so much
They've lost their craft at leaping over spans of mules.

See the mustering of the storks,
   and the vicious hordes of gnats!
Hounds are mute and the woodcocks fall
   'midst the clutter of the cats
While the herons' siege runs strong, sounder than the swine.

But hark, glad tidings of magpies!
   For the finches love to charm:
Bouquets of pheasants (they are aware)
   can surely do no harm;
Sparrows play gracious host, and cast their hawks like wine.

Pride, all but the lions know, is
   commonly counted a sin --
A plague of locusts on your house
   if you let such vices in
As peacock ostentation, and the sloth of bears.

What can one build? Perhaps a nest,
   of rabbits or of vipers!
Or a route of wolves for trips of goats,
   safe from tribes of snipers,
Where cattle drove in fear of dragons in their lairs!

Build and build again: rafters of
   turkeys, colonies of ants:
Seek the aid of an elephant herd
   to help you make your chance,
Ignore the starlings' murmurations while you're young . . . .

What can we learn from animal terms
   against which you may rail,
From teams of horses and ducks, from
   coveys of partridge and quail?
The question, I'm sure, is on the tip of your tongue:

Am I just part of a swarm or clan,
Mere member of some coterie?
Or perhaps, perhaps, am I a man --
Alone, myself, uniquely me?

Peter Saint-Andre > Writings > Ancient Fire