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 animals acquire curious names when they cluster —
Like the nightingales, who en masse become a watch.

Watches of birds, though, I dare say, aren't nearly so strange
As troops of hopping kangaroos that turn out on the range,
Or holy exaltations of ecstatic larks!

But turn from sacred to profane: think of the lowly crow,
Whose group is called a murder! And the elks, who numbered show
Themselves to be a gang — yet still they roam our parks!

Litters of piglets, pods of seals, or turtles in a bale:
Shall we tie them with strings of ponies, set them out for sale —
On a bed of oysters, for optimum display?

The words are stuck like knots 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....

Companies of parrots may be founded by one who dares,
Schools of fish or bands of monkeys started by one who cares;
The peace of nations dreamt by doves who league in dules.

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

See the mustering of the storks, and vicious hordes of gnats!
Hounds are mute and 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 finches love to charm:
Bouquets of pheasants (they're aware) can surely do no harm;
Sparrows play gracious host, and cast their hawks like wine.

Pride, as all but lions know, is widely counted a sin —
Plagues 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 routes of wolves for trips of goats, safe from the 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 these odd terms against which you may rail,
From teams of horses and ducks, coveys of partridge and quail?
The question, I'm sure, is on the tip of your tongue:

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

Peter Saint-Andre > Writings > Ancient Fire