Marianne Moore’s praise-poem to the pangolin (“impressive animal and toiler of whom we seldom hear”) is a work I often revisit for its luminous vision of a world where humans’ relations with animals are grounded in respect and wonder. This exquisite poem was also my first introduction to the Asian and African anteater whose covering of super-hard, delicately overlapping scales makes it unique among the world’s mammals.
Tragically, the huge demand for these scales in Asian traditional medicine has made the pangolin the most hunted animal on Earth, the victim of illegal poaching and a thriving black market trade. This terrible fate would have made Moore heartsick, for it is a genuine love of this remarkable creature that animates her poem. As readers, we absorb her delight in the pangolin’s artichoke-like shape; its patient nocturnal hunting skills, solitary, peaceable, persistent character and the armature of sting-proof scales so resistant not even a lion can bite through them. We feel her wonder at this “night miniature artist engineer,” “this near artichoke with head and legs/and grit-equipped gizzard.” (Because the pangolin has no teeth, it swallows stones to grind up the ants that are its main sustenance.)
Moore’s degree in biology and histology allows her to bring a scientist’s eye, as well as an artist’s empathy, to her meticulous description of the pangolin’s movement and behaviour. We see him “stepping in the moonlight/peculiarly, that the outside edges of his/hands may bear the weight and save the claws for digging.” “Serpentined about the tree, he draws/away from/danger unpugnaciously, with no sound but a harmless hiss.” She celebrates the pangolin’s non-combative nature, as well as his “fragile grace” which she likens to a wrought-iron vine she once saw in Westminster Abbey. Almost magically, the pangolin can roll “himself into a ball, that has/power to defy all efforts to unroll it.”
Midway through the poem, Moore transports us to a medieval cathedral, where monks rest on stone seats beneath spires and roof supports embellished with carvings of animals. Through many readings of this poem, I assumed it was the emblematic animal sculptures that powered the transition from pangolin to monk. But recently I saw photos of pangolins walking as Moore describes, “on hind feet plantigrade,/with certain postures of a man.” With its front legs folded in front and head slightly bowed, the grey-hued pangolin does indeed resemble a monk, circumambulating a cloister in contemplation. I this stanza, she reveals humankind and animals as cohabitants of a world imbued by spiritual grace. The poem concludes with the image of the rising sun, an affirmation of continual renewal in an ordered cosmos. Although, like the pangolin, we are “the prey of fear…curtailed, extinguished, thwarted by the dusk, work/partly done,” we can still exclaim: “Again the sun!/anew each day; and new and new and new,/that comes into and steadies my soul.”
When Marianne Moore wrote this wondrous poem in 1936, she had no way no knowing the wrenching fate in store for the pangolin of the 21st century: “man and beast/each with a splendor/which man in all his vileness cannot set aside,” she writes. Today, however, “man in all his vileness” has in fact managed to set the pangolin aside — to the verge of extermination. Because of the demand for its scales and its flesh (considered a delicacy in Asian restaurants), this gentle mammal accounts for up to 20 percent of the entire wildlife black market.
Yesterday, I read an article in The Guardian (July 20, 2017) focusing on the millions of pangolins that have been hunted and killed in Africa, putting that continent’s four species as much at risk as the four decimated species of Asia. In September 2016, the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species passed a total ban on the international trade in any pangolin species. This ban can be effective only with the enforcement of international and national laws regulating illegal poaching and trafficking.
‘I am optimistic something can be done,” The Guardian quotes Daniel Ingram, leader of the University of Sussex research team investigating the decimation of the African pangolins, which found that up to 2.7 million are killed annually. Marianne Moore would, I am sure, have cheered him on in his dedication to save this rare creature, “who endures exhausting solitary trips through unfamiliar ground at night…stepping on the moonlight.”