Tag Archives: language

A Fable for Our Time

You, Beast by poet Nick Lantz is a new collection published this month by the University of Wisconsin Press. Winner of the Brittingham Prize in Poetry and published in the Wisconsin Poetry Series, You Beast includes poems ranging from found text to villanelles and from short plays to fables. In this guest blog post, Lantz offers us a fable for our time.

Let me begin with a fable:

The old rabbit was a learned animal who prided himself on being very fair, and the other animals looked to him for guidance. One day, a mouse came to see him.
“I was almost eaten by a wolf,” said the mouse. “I am very small and no one will listen to me, but if you tell the other animals that the wolf is dangerous, they will band together and drive that monster from the forest.”
“Oh, but I can’t take sides,” said the rabbit. “The wolf is also a citizen of the forest, and to be fair I must treat all citizens with respect, and it is disrespectful to call the wolf a monster. Do you see?” The disappointed mouse nodded and went on his way, and that night, the wolf ate him. The next morning, a badger came to see the rabbit.

“The Frogs Who Desired a King” Illustrated by Milo Winter

“I saw that vile wolf eat the mouse,” said the badger. “You must tell the other animals that he is a villain.”
“It won’t do,” said the rabbit, “to go around calling people names. I can’t take sides. It is only fair that I remain impartial.” The badger was angry but went away, and that night, the wolf ate him.
The next day, the rabbit was walking through the forest when the wolf jumped from the brambles and fell upon him. As the wolf caught him by the neck, the rabbit cried out: “What are you doing? I was fair. I never took sides against you!”
“What do I care?” said the wolf. “I am hungry.” Then the wolf swallowed the rabbit, whose fairness earned him nothing.

When I was writing You, Beast, I kept returning to fables, particularly those involving animals. A good fable has tremendous compactness and rhetorical force. In that sense, it’s like a well-crafted syllogism, or a poem. Many fables are political in nature, but by stripping away the sociocultural particulars of a situation, their lessons become harder to refute.

This is actually the second draft of my post for the UW Press blog. In my original draft, I drew a connection between one of the poems in You, Beast and some aspects of the current political landscape. If that sounds a bit vague, here’s why: the Press told me that because of their affiliation with a public, state university, they could not publish something on the Press’ blog that overtly endorsed or (in my case) condemned a particular political party or politician. So, obviously, the Press is the rabbit in my fable, but I don’t mean to let myself off the hook by claiming I’m the truth-telling mouse, just trying to be heard. The fact is, I’m the rabbit too. I’m a professor at another public, state university, and in that capacity, I strive to be a teacher for all of my students, regardless of their political affiliations. But as a poet, I often wonder about the costs of that vision of fairness, about truths I don’t give voice to in its name. The Press’s decision not to publish my original post bothered me because I make similar decisions in my own speech and conduct on a daily basis. And I’m worried that my restraint won’t mean a thing to the wolves who want to gobble us up.

Nick Lantz is the author of The Lightning That Strikes the Neighbors’ House, We Don’t Know We Don’t Know, and How to Dance as the Roof Caves In. He is the editor of the Texas Review, co-curator of thecloudyhouse.com, and an assistant professor of English at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas. He has been a Jay C. and Ruth Halls Poetry Fellow at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and an Emerging Writer Fellow at Gettysburg College.