In a rare bout of early morning writing,
I find myself looking out of the window
and staring at a squirrel
on the fence at the top of the garden.
His tail is twitching about
as if it has squirrel tail St Vitus’ Dance.
I don’t know if this particular affliction
is an actual thing,
but if it is, then this squirrel has it.
Perhaps, I think, as I distract myself from
finishing my next poem about death,
perhaps this squirrel is genuinely ill
and has the onset of some form of squirrel Parkinson’s.
Maybe it is dying.
Is this what squirrels do before they die?
I do not know.
It’s at this point that Coleridge’s witty little couplet
about swans and death and singing surfaces.
Swans sing before they die; ‘twere now bad thing,
Did certain people die before they sing.
How very artistic of the swans, I muse;
and this starts me wondering
what acts of artistic endeavour
might be undertaken by other creatures
during that brief shadow which hangs over
the last moments of their existence.
Based on my observations,
you might think that squirrels perform interpretive dance
in the moments before they die,
but bees already have that one covered.
Squirrels, I have decided, recite poetry.
Bears paint pictures of stormy skies in oil on canvas
while mice write the first line,
and only the first line,
of a novel which will remain forever unfinished.
Butterflies make deeply ambiguous short foreign-language films
about either the weather,
or anything where the subtext is, rather predictably, chaos.
Wolves sculpt wooden statues
in praise of mystic, magic winds,
and lions spray paint metaphysical aphorisms
on hillsides and giant rocks.
Elephants go on a frenzy of demolition
as a climax to their already-established modality of existence,
but this time it’s random, destructive performance art,
and each live experience is always called
‘The End of an Elephant’s Memory.’
Interrupting my thoughts,
the cat asks to be let in.
‘And what do you cats do in the moments before death,
my little arty monster?’ I say, as I open the door.
She jumps on to the table
and gives me her familiar
inscrutable cat expression,
before sitting on my notebook.
Cats, it occurs to me,
have an advantage over the other animals
when it comes to this sort of thing,
for they get to experience death nine times.
How they must tower above their fellow creatures
in their artistic achievements –
the paintings, song-cycles, poems, plays,
choreographed dances, avant garde novels,
satirical cartoons, ambient film scores,
and absurdist collages,
which they create in the moments before
each of their nine deaths.
Perhaps it is this belated awareness of death,
which animals only feel
for the first time
when they sense the shadow fall over them,
which moves them suddenly to create.
Is it, I wonder, the lifetime of foreknowledge which moves us
to spend our years, and not just our final moments,
in pursuit of our creations,
our counter-expressions of finality,
our catafalque of immortality projects?
I see that the squirrel has now gone,
and, with a flourish of poetry
so beloved of these creatures,
I welcome her into my notebook.