Finding The Sacredness of Animal Life

In Ancient Greece the slaughtering of an animal was considered a sacred act of communication with the gods. Each aspect of the killing process was a holy ritual that took place at an altar where every internal organ was honored before it was eaten.

This procedure was a prerequisite to any meat eating by the Greeks, allowing them to witness the truth of the kill before enjoying the culinary result.

Award-winning poet Ellen Bass attempts to bring us back to that truth.

In her poem, “What Did I Love,” she immerses readers straight into the crescent cuts and bloody reality inflicted upon billions of chickens. However intricately she describes the gruesome details of dicing 88 live hens in a single afternoon, the poem reads as an elegant, even beautiful, movement from life to death.

The chicken, the static word printed on nearly every menu, is ironically alive again in this poem about its slaughter. Bass hoists the animal up metaphorically, Christ-like, a martyred creature adorned in its own fluids.

Over and over, my hands explore / each cave, learning to see with my fingertips. Like a traveller / in a foreign country entering church after church,” wrote Bass. “In every one the same figures of the Madonna, Christ on the Cross.

Photo courtesy of Ellen Bass.

Along with her wife, Bass set out to investigate the process farms undertook in killing and selling their meat. They started with chickens. Soon, they found themselves standing on a friend’s farm with knives sharpened, ready for a personal account of the act.

“I felt that anything that I ate, I wanted to be willing to kill, and not have it just appear in a styrofoam package from the grocery store,” Bass explains to BTR.

It was an intense introduction, and as a poet and teacher of poetry, she decided to use lyrical form to expose her compelling contact with this reality.

“One of the sources for poetry is an experience that you want to investigate further for yourself, you want to understand more deeply for yourself, and hopefully to discover something that you didn’t know before you wrote the poem,” clarifies Bass.

She asked herself one question: “What did I love about killing the chickens?”

From the description of the rich, red gore (“Blood like liquor / pouring out of the bottle”) to the delicate cleansing of the innards (“freeing the organs, the spill of intestines, blue-tinged gizzard… easing the floppy liver, carefully, from the green gall bladder, / its bitter bile”), Bass relied upon sound to express the strange joy she experienced in the act of slaughter. It was a reverence for the truth.

These sounds bounce among lines that were purposefully structured to contain words with the letter “r”—an evolved experiment from a previous poem Bass wrote after being inspired by her mentor Dorianne Laux.

“I think that this kind of oral or sonic glue helps to hold the poem together,” remarks Bass. “The ‘r’ sound has a kind of softness to it. It’s not a harsh sound and the poem is harsh—it’s about killing 88 creatures—but it kind of mitigates that harshness.”

The challenge of the poem is finding that sacred experience while realizing the fact of taking another creature’s life, continues Bass. This is has been an area of tension for many civilizations and most notably harmonized within the religion of Native American tribes.

The poem’s praise of animals strikes a parallel with the reciprocal relationship Native American religions deemed sacred between the hunter and hunted. Ritual gestures, like the Ancient Greek sacrifices, communicated respect and gratitude to the spirits. This communication breaks when humans dismiss the etiquette of ritualistic reciprocity.

As modern religions took stake over the western region, the belief that every living being contains a guardian spirit was seen as sacrilegious. The 20th century industrialization expedited the degradation of animal life as it converted the once-intrinsic life of every being to a purely instrumental tool for human consumption.

Bass gives hope that respect for animal life, even after it is killed, can be reinstated through the intimate experience of the full cycle of that life.

“Of course from the point of view of the chicken it wasn’t a sacred experience at all, it was death,” admits Bass. “But from my experience it was living for those hours in that space between life and death and trying to fully face what that experience was and to try and honor it.”

Bass felt obliged to the animals she slaughtered herself. Every morsel was eaten, stock was made of its feet and heads, and marrow sucked to its core.

Nothing was to be wasted.

But what did she love? Truth.

Even in just this one thing: / looking straight at the terrible, / one-sided accord we make with the living of this world. / At the end, we scoured the tables, hosed the dried blood, / the stain blossoming through the water.

“In this poem, facing the truth, that every time we eat meat we are eating a life was something that was important,” declares Bass. “Clearly I am eating these chickens so I haven’t said it’s wrong to eat the chickens in this poem or even that it’s right to eat them, just that we should know what we are doing.”

It’s the respectful acknowledgement of animals’ lives that has disintegrated in a culture obsessed with the outcome more than the process. It’s an understanding that stays hidden beneath the easy and the accessible that make up so much of our lives.

“Of course we can write poems about things that have always been written about,” states Bass. “But there’s also this thing I like to do which is to look for what has been overlooked.”

Check out the full poem here and listen to our interview with Ellen Bass on our Third Eye Weekly podcast.

Feature photo courtesy of Flickr user Tabatha Alcina.