In its own way, poetry–poetry being read and also being written—takes part in the struggle against global threats to life forms, human and non-human; this is why this paper focuses on poetry. This paper’s perspective is broadly speaking ecocritical, more precisely zoopoetic. While ecocriticism examines the general links between the arts and the environment, ecopoetics narrows down to how natural elements may express themselves and to the links between this expression and human language1. Both are biocentric in their outlook, finding all life forms, human and other, to be interrelated and to share a common value and legitimacy in inhabiting the planet.
The zoopoetic approach adopted here shares this outlook and the poems addressed spring from ecopoesis since they “engage imaginatively with the non-human”, in the words of Jonathan Bate. (Moulin 2018: 2) In this engagement, poetry brings knowledge about life forms and their interrelations which no other source may bring2. With language, writers help us “inhabit the world”, a world comprising human politics as well as the non-human; to help us understand and respond to the damage done by human politics, writers can put themselves in the position of all human and non-human animal life forms, perhaps because of the common organic origin of all animals — making for a “hybrid community” of understanding — and of the organic roots of writing3. (Simon 2011, 2015) Indeed, literature can communicate the affect and empathy which are missing in a dichotomic worldview separating nature from humanity and ascribing to the former the mere role of an exploitable resource. It is capable too of promoting a holistic view of life forms and, in Jane Bennett’s phrase, of helping to focus on the ever-open possibility of experiencing “enchantment”, even at the heart of this (post-)industrial urban world. (Bennett 2001)
However, in the present perspective, engagement with non-human life (here, an urban fox’s) does not mean pretending to enter the field of sensations and thoughts experienced by other species, which could lead to interspecies undifferentiation4. Rather than representing what the other species themselves feel or think, the process of attention to another life form means entering the “hybrid community” of understanding mentioned and adapting formally to the other species’ movements, paces, attitudes, affects. Verbally, this means a tropism towards animal attitudes thanks to “rhythm, style, points of view, dramatic construction”: then “anthropomorphism is no obstacle to understand animal life and vitality, quite the contrary”5. (Simon 2015 : 119, 121–122) Thus I do not seek to find whether poetry represents non-human thought, feeling or sensation and “translat[es an] alter-species semiotics into human discourse”6 (Gannon 2014: 91) but I will follow Bate’s idea according to which “ecopoesis knows that things have a life, but it also has to recognise that it can only communicate that knowledge in the form of propositions by using the divided Cartesian language of subject (‘we see’) and object (‘the life of things’)”. (Bate 2000: 149) Finally, in addressing fox poems, not only formal features (rhythm, etc.) are important but also the situations referred to and their dramatization7.
In poetic creation, the way of “engaging with the non-human” is through attention, which makes poetry especially well-suited to this end: “A poem is the language of an act of attention”8. (Hartman: 1996, 12) Whether the poem is supposedly prompted by the contemplation of a concrete object which apparently fills out the scope or whether the referent of the poem is explicitly abstract and mental, the concentration is the same in nature and intensity. Poetic creation is a pursuit in the etymological sense, a chase or reaching out for. As a poem may represent an outer object gazed at, so it also accounts for the work of the ‘mind’s eye’ (according to the age-old correlation between sight and thought). The organic function and the scopic impulse form a dual matrix for the mental impulse exerted in poetic creation. This paper will later refer to the analogy made by the historian Carlo Ginzburg and by the poet Ted Hughes between hunting (which needs the hunter’s scopic impulse) and narrating or writing.
We can also connect the intense (physical and) mental glance at work in poetic creation and the “enchantment” studied by Jane Bennett. Her definition of it fits exactly the poetic glance: a “temporary suspension of chronological time and bodily movement […] a momentarily immobilizing encounter”; the immobilisation is also mental: Bennett quotes Philip Fisher’s explanation that
[T]he moment of pure presence within wonder lies in the object’s difference and uniqueness being so striking to the mind that it does not remind us of anything and we find ourselves delaying in its presence for a time in which the mind does not move on by association to something else. (Bennett 2001: 5)
“Not move on by association”: Fisher pinpoints a change in mental functioning. Instead of working along chains depending on controlled ideas and logic (such as definitions of the object or uses for it), the mind ‘stops in its tracks’ and absorbs itself in the otherness of the object; physically, the eyes fixate and mentally, movement is arrested as if spinning in place.
Otherness is essential. Bennett includes “crossings” in her definition of enchantment; her second chapter, “Cross-Species Encounters”, explores “the encounter with beings, including ourselves, who morph from one category of being to another.” (Bennett 2001: 13) In my readings of (urban) fox poems, scopic impulse and poetic impulse are of equal importance with the idea of a “crossing”, not an inter-species one though there is tropism towards the animal, but an inner crossing into a new existential phase accompanying the crossing from immobilised wonder to poetry-writing. This confluence of language and act of attention is pointed out by Bennett’s remark that to “enchant” is “to surround with song or incantation”, i. e. language. (Bennett 2001: 6).
Enchantment also has social and ethical involvements (as pointed out by Bennett’s subtitle: Attachments, Crossings, and Ethics). Indeed, attention and wonderment stimulate a benevolence towards the world at large which benefits other beings (witness for instance the parallelism of Whitman’s equalitarian, democratic humanism and of his admiration and respect for nature in Leaves of Grass or Wordsworth’s “acts of kindness and of love” owed to nature in “Tintern Abbey”).
Ethics are aptly approached via the notion of disenchantment originating in Max Weber; he interpreted the history of western societies in terms of a “dis-enchantment” destroying the sense of relatedness with, and agency upon, the world around:
Central to Weber’s conception of Disenchantment of the World is the rejection of the sacramental mediation of salvation [which] is magic […], since it implies that humans can have influence on the will of God like ancient magicians influenced the will of the gods […]. (Carroll 2011: 119)
Westerners thus moved away from magical thinking, in which nature was partner rather than expendable resource. Weber insisted on alienation as involving
a self-alienation which efficiently relays and perpetuates imposed alienation. He traced this modern desacralisation of the world to the rise of the “Protestant ethic” and the success of capitalism and explained how the key to estrangement from nature was an alienating belief in the omnipotence of humans and their scientific and technological tools. (Mazuir 2004: 120–121)
Weber analyses both public and private life as animated by a complex set of varied modes of rationalisation, each having their values and modes of representation (Mazuir 2004: 120–121) and showed, in Wissenschaft als Beruf [Science as a Vocation], that
“the increase in intellectualisation and rationalisation, far from increasing our general knowledge of our life conditions”, rather meant belief in our mastery of things thanks to prevision and anticipation, inasmuch as we decided to master things. (Mazuir 2004: 120-121. Mazuir’s emphasis reproducing Webers’. My translation.)9
Weber famously coined the phrase ‘iron cage’ (stahlhartes Gehäuse). Belief in the values of rationality and progress, along with all the images and cultural processes connected with these, form the ‘cage’ of (self-)alienation. Such a culture legitimates the exploitative mindset in which humans are to dominate other life forms and natural resources and nonhuman life may be used as a resource, as well as the human life of socially vulnerable classes. The ‘iron cage’ severs humans from the natural world and from one another; it warps the intellect, the affects and even the psyche. Indeed, in the alienating process the psychic life impulse itself is weakened, for the collaborative sense in which it lives gets bogged down by isolation, exploitation and profit being preferred to collaboration and sharing. Resulting in multiple loss of agency and disempowerment, this is direly unethical. Citizens are pushed to pursue objects which are not chosen out of desire but out of consumer pressure and cultural goods are no exception10. In this anti-dynamic environment, individuals may end up intellectually inert, unable to understand and alter their life conditions; existentially empty, dependent on values which are the market’s, and psychically static, passive and discouraged from creativity and bonding.
This is why section 3.3 below addresses a psychic process (sublimation) as connected to poetic creation and enchantment in an experience of both psychic and mental empowerment triggered by an encounter with the urban fox. I will draw on psychoanalytic theory to try and demonstrate that urban fox poems result from and reveal an experience of psychic dynamisation, as outlined below in 1.3 and developed in 3.3.
The works considered break down into three corpora, the focus being more distant on the first.
Due to space limitation, the selection has to be small but I would be pleased to provide more information11.
The first set (2.2 Anthropomorphic fox characters) concerns fox characters which are most anthropomorphic and often portrayed as human beings with some fox characteristics. I focus on cases which function best as counterexamples to the second and third corpora; in particular, because the third corpus is strictly contemporary and urban, in 2.2 I picked some examples of contemporary urban culture, including songs and comics.
The second corpus (2.3 Fox dynamism in contemporary poetry) is used to point out the survival and renewal, over the last decades, of certain features associated with the fox (elusiveness, beauty, significance and the recurrent motif of the mirror situation, interpreted as an avatar of the mythical and agentive value of fox spirits or deities).
Finally, the urban fox corpus of section 3.1 allows to examine a point of arrival and transformation of the fox’s literary history. This corpus is further discussed here below.
The corpus of section 3.1 was produced in the urban world where alienation is so clearly felt. Not all the authors would consider themselves poets, some work in cultural professions, some do not. In any case, “[e]copoetics is a site where all different kinds of poetry are practiced in common, with non-poets as well. It’s a site of investigation”: thus the ecocritic Jonathan Skinner insists on turning audience (or an absence thereof) into authors, for poetry is known to a tiny minority and makes little impact. (Skinner: 2013) This experimental quality testifies to the ability of ecopoetic themes (or rather zoopoetic, in the present case) to trigger writing and open a path to (re-)enchantment and to a more ethical consideration of the world.
The corpus is by contemporary British urbans: in Britain, the fox has a high social importance, witness fox hunting and the highly polarised responses to urban foxes12, which have attracted attention for about fifty years now13.
Emulating Skinner’s approach, I find that the writing of the poems considered has something experimental and democratic in originating from an unsought, now common occasion, an urban fox sighting, available to anyone in today’s cities; the ‘iron cage’ is very narrow there, but the chance encounter triggers a gratuitous, un-marketed, liberating poetic response.
This section aims to present the soil out of which current responses to the urban fox have grown; these responses benefit both from the novelty of encountering the animal in the urban environment and from an ancient cultural heritage.
Foxes have been a commensal animal14 from prehistory; there may even have been prehistoric pet foxes. (Batterman 2018) Commensal species are “an important social and educational resource”, while “human attitude to commensal animals will obviously be highly culture-specific.” (O'Connor 2017: 536) Thus there exists a “complex cultural history of human-fox interactions in England” (Batterman 2017): “urbanisation and industrialisation […] influenced engagement between humans and foxes and re-shaped attitudes”, making foxes “a proxy for human engagement with the environment”. (Batterman 2019)
The urban fox therefore takes its place in a long history of culture-bound responses to foxes. The Dictionnaire des Symboles of Chevalier and Gheerbrant (Chevalier and Gheerbrant 1982 : 805) provides orientation amid the jungle of ancient fox references: the fox emerged as a mythical culture hero, alternately mischievous and benevolent, occasionally connecting humans with the Otherworld, and displaying both intense energy and lusty, irresistible seduction; in myths worldwide, the fox is an image of dynamism.
A notorious shape-shifter and trickster, the fox thus embodies dynamism of change. This invariant is diversely dramatised thanks to physical movement, metamorphosis or reversal of situation through tricks physical or verbal. Fox protagonists of empowerment or disempowerment challenge established existential and / or social statuses and can use language potently, witness Reynard’s renardie15. (Scheidegger 1989: 19–20, 81) The posterity of renardie, too multifarious to detail, confirms the connection between the fox and language, a connection reappearing in fox poems.
In Christianised cultures, the changeful fox was demonised as embodying satanic treacherousness16. Heavily anthropomorphised fox characters (Reynard has clothes and a sword) lost the magic agency they had in myths but their dynamism of change survived in their roles as breakers of social rules. They have kept embodying charm, elusiveness and the joy of independence, and, in harsher versions, vengeful retaliation against abusers or oppressors.
In twenty-first century urban culture too, we can trace elements from the invariant dynamism of change. In France, where La Fontaine’s animal fable “Le Corbeau et le renard” (The Crow and the Fox”) was learnt by heart by generations of schoolchildren, parodies of the fable serve to bridge the cultural gap between popular culture and the classicism of the original, thus breaking cultural hierarchy17. Among artists denouncing the difficult life conditions in deprived urban areas, the rapper Guizmo, aka Renard, released with the album Renard a video clip whose hero crosses class and ethnicity boundaries18. (Guizmo 2018a, 2018b) In such examples, the fox is used to address social injustice and allows the audience to identify with a hero crossing socio-cultural boundaries. However, this imaginary compensation does not envisage a possible change in the social system or in its relation with the environment, and the lyrics even claim the thirst for money: “we all want dollars” (« tous on veut des dollars »). (Guizmo 2018c). The fox character’s dynamism is here limited to swapping powerless and powerful positions around.
Such fox rebels interiorise the laws of consumerism, turning the Weberian ‘iron cage’ into a snug plush shell inside which to curl up, eyes shut19.
In some contemporary fictions, change of situation is reduced to violent retaliation, fox characters just emulating the violence of the world around them. On the globalised cultural market, American comics are symptomatic of this. The characters Fox and Vixen, from different comics series, exert violence in criminal revenge or with the excuse of being a crimefighter.20
This brief perusal of the evolution of the fox character shows a move from dynamism to staticity — from the dynamism of fox spirits to compliance with consumer life, the fox characters being absorbed by mass culture. However, another branch of evolution is less bankable and preserves some of the fundamental features (charm, elusiveness, enjoyment, verbal creativity and the breaking or re-setting of rules), adding to them the motif of the mirror relation.
Parallel with Romanticism rose environmental sensitivity and the critique of modern capitalist society; the medieval demonisation of the fox subsided and the symmetrical projection of affects onto the fox as endearing creature rose, as in the great Romantic poet John Clare’s “The Fox” (Clare 2004: 245)21 No longer physically anthropomorphised nor a mere figure for human cunning, the animal became interesting as such.
The following examples are from the later 20th century, when environmental consciousness was rising. Without believing they can enter the animal’s inner life, poets pay intense attention to it. Animal motions appeal to the imagination and lead poets into an imaginary metamorphosis in which they cross out from the stillness of the writing desk to dynamic existence in the outer world.
Norman MacCaig’s “Movements” is a good illustration: “I think these movements and become them, here, / In this room’s stillness, none of them about, / And relish them all”. The poem delineates the motions of animals, from lark to eel. As for MacCaig’s fox, it is explosive: “Fox, smouldering through the heather bushes, bursts / A bomb of grouse.” The comparison to fuel in combustion and exploding matter corresponds to the features of changefulness and dynamism. Combustion, not a substance but a process (a transfer of electrons, i. e. motion), symbolises disembodied energy; the element of insubstantiality will reappear in urban fox poems. The border-crossing between animal movement and human writing is clear when a snake’s crawling is compared to an act of handwriting: “the cursive adder writes / Quick V’s and Q’s in the dust and rubs them out”. (MacCaig 1990 : 131)22
In Margaret Atwood (Atwood: 1995), the fox is “a lean vixen”, guileful but strongly driven. The lines enhance wilfulness as well as the pull for identification: “The red fox crosses the ice / intent on none of my business” – “my” replacing the expected ‘its/her’. The speaker gazes in vulpine stealth: “pretending to watch birds, / but really watching the fox”. Symmetrically the vixen “knows I’m there” and speaks in her turn: “To survive /we’d all turn thief / and rascal, or so says the fox”.
The symmetricalness and the theme of survival highlight the existential nature of the encounter, the vixen’s vital quest being sensed by the poet. The encounter is both confrontation with animal otherness and union in intimacy.
The poet absorbed in outward contemplation and inward concentration, like the fox which “[s]tarts at his own alertness” (Mitchell 2003: 84), have their senses so tensely open that excitement produces existential openness to possible transformation.
The fox image is a correlate of poetic attention: “Does not sleep / Completely / or for long. Sleeps on the run” (Mitchell 2003: 84). It is also a correlate of vital meaning and beauty, which Mitchell locates in the tail just glimpsed: “a long, / bushy, significant tail which it holds out like a reason for being” (Mitchell 2003: 84; my emphasis). As will be explained in section 3.2, disappearance of the object is key to the writing process. Mitchell narrows in from generalisations in the present simple (“starts […] sleeps […] knows […] loves”) to a singulative face-to-face meeting told in the preterite. The poem ends in mutual approach and final suspension of individual identity, as if the surface of the mirror had been touched: “[The fox] Came once, when called, halfway / across the field. Almost / forgot what we were, where. / The two of us, standing there.” (Mitchell 2003: 84) The unlikelihood of having a fox come like a dog when called underlines the mutual attraction and identification while the eye contact and symmetrical glances so ubiquitous in fox poems manifest the scopic impulse involved in the work of the mind’s eye (Cf. 1.1) and in desire (Cf. 3.3).
As seen above (1.2, 2.1), ancient fox deities or spirits were intercessors between believers and the world, making it possible to establish with the world a symbolical agentive relation which allowed to hope in and / or act in keeping with the dynamism of change symbolised by the fox spirit and thus to acquire psychic energy and social self-assurance.
This magical gesture, as Weber theorised, was destroyed by secularisation and disenchantment. The original, mythical possibility for humans to exert agency through the fox spirit has therefore been long lost, but the legacy of fox images has evolved into a new human / fox encounter. Poems reveal this in sensing the importance of uniting non-human and human in a sphere, not of real identity with an animal, but of equality. In the mirror situation, the copresence of animal and human sets the gazing human wondering, leading to introspection and to a psychic and existential reaching out towards the animal which sparks and fuels poetic expression — the unconscious being engaged in the poetic process.
In this way, Alice Oswald’s subtle dream poem “Fox” (Oswald 2016: 3) introduces a “she”— elegant as she is “stepping across / the grass in her black gloves”. Not only does she have beauty, like a poem, but also self-expression, like a poet: she is a “woman with a man’s voice”. The image is strikingly oxymoronic: the fox is outside on the grass but clings like an outer lining to the poet’s own mind (“outside my sleep”), so close that her breath (or is it the poet’s?) can be heard in “a sharp intake of air”. Like poetry, she conveys emotion: her “bark” becomes language speaking of her “children” in “the heart’s thick accent”. The twenty-first century poem revives enchantment; the fox’s “abrupt and odd […] trespass” arrests the human as in Jane Bennett’s definition of enchantment: it “immobilis[es]” the mind which keeps working but remains fixed on the object of fascination. Oswald’s “trespass” is a signature of the instant when “beings, including ourselves, […] morph from one category of being to another.” (Bennett 2001: 13)
The poets considered above confirm the continuing strength of fox symbolism in general, but in the urban context fox poems involve more deeply the sociological and the psychic situation of the human.
The mineral, technological urban landscape and the socio-economic and cultural constraints of the capitalistic world deeply contrast with the traditional, rural image of the fox. With the fox becoming more diurnal and city-dwellers more nocturnal, foxes encroach upon human territory and meetings recur. As the fox’s physical elusiveness diminishes, its proximity arouses the imagination. City-dwellers compare themselves with it23 and grow curious of its inner life. This stimulates mental dynamism and helps to a slip out of the ‘iron cage’ into psychic activity and poetic creation.
Numerous contemporary British poets publish urban fox poems, in paper form or in blogs and other web support.24 In comparison to the ‘bankable’ foxes of section 2.2, this poetic expression is less marketable, more gratuitous and more spontaneous; in comparison with the contemporary fox poems of 2.4, the fascination for the fox and its features recurs, augmented with puzzlement and existential questioning.
The disturbance of real fox screams of excitement is added to the expressiveness evoked in 2.4. So Kelley Swain is startled by “[w]ild pig-squeals” (the alien-species comparison reinforcing the shock) from foxes mating in broad daylight in her garden (Swain 2009), Ian Dunlop is disturbed by “eerie screeches” (Dunlop 2016) and David Bottomley is
woken in the middle of the night
by an orgy of wild animal cries
that would wake the dead,
a symphony of cry wolf dramas,
over the top, operatic, communal balletic
dance, fight, play, display, circus, gavotte,
punch up, fornicating nocturnal nuptials. (Bottomley 2018)
With the humanisation of fox cries into musical genres, vulpine self-expression becomes a more intense equivalent of human cries — of joy or distress: to Dave King, “Weird sounds the foxes make/like babies crying”. (King 2011)
When humans stop talking and pay attention, they hear “fox claws scratching at/the brain’s back door”25 (Mooney-Singh, 2021) and get ready to welcome new creatures as their equals in the building up of an altered worldview, eventually making place for them in language. Thus Gerard Rochford appreciates his small granddaughter’s facing her first urban fox as a foundational event in life and language. Child and fox equally look and sniff at the Glasgow night to make sense of the world around when the child spots the animal and
something is entering her forever
to settle down in the red lair of her brain.
She then learns the word ‘fox’ and joins us now in a city of words, the city we build together,
where we can sleep with foxes and call out their name”. (Rochford 2018)
Acceptance of the non-human enlarges the shared domain of human and non-human, pushing back the limits of the “city of words” thanks to which we establish our and the animals’ place in the world.
A frequent aspect of the encounter, combined with humanisation, is a hesitant form of competition: Ian Dunlop (Dunlop 2016), entrenched in a “mansion block” in “nondescript Earls Court”, feels challenged by vulpine “streetwise […] hoodies”, full of “disdain”, refusing to “bow before authority”. The speaker’s “ancestors” would have “saddled up and followed the hunt” but he starts on a hunt for enchantment:
all I can do
is stand and stare and marvel at
the animal’s insolence. […] It looks at me with evident disdain.
Bottomley stands up to his fox, addressing it in the second person: “[S]izing up the enemy, / you look me straight in the eye” but he finally ends up relating half-enviously the foxes’ nights of “guffawing” and “fornicating”. (Bottomley 2018)
Similarly, Simon Zonenblick’s “Midnight Fox” pads through “a frosty Wanstead Flats, which veer into the spiderweb of sliproads / pre-empting the M11” when, the speaker says,
Turning down the High Road, into a block of buildings tightly tucked
into the bricked in ghetto of east London, I am startled by his stare […]
What I caught last
was […] its shoot-back glance,
two amber eyes half answering,
half questioning. (Zonenblick 2019)
“[H]alf answering, / half questioning”: the instant of competition in eye contact shifts to self-awareness and mental activity, as when Dunlop grows puzzled: the fox is a potential question mark whose appeal drowns the competitive spirit.
Shedding the I / you enunciative position, Jenny Donnison26 uses the first person to cross into the fox’s position and try the other place:
sky's eyelid is shut
I scavenge pickings of light
pinpricks and thin shine
torn in the world's tarp
swift lope over glitter cold clods
wriggle through hedge roots to hard black
metallic animal roars past
trails miasma of burn
brisk trot along grass path
ignore swoop of flat-faced owl
out back all quiet
nose through heady stink
mould and rot
bread and fruit
manna of fried chicken
parcelled in plastic
carry home to den (Donnison 2017)
The poem, densely imaged, tries to share the animal’s perceptions as it gets “pickings” of light to move by from the stars. Images are concrete (“tarp” for the starry sky) to render the physical points of reference. Objects which make no sense to the animal are defamiliarized (the asphalt road is “hard black”), re-building a world image from sensory data. The dynamic vocabulary (“lope”, “wriggle”) and ellipted determiners and pronouns increase concentration on movement and objects. The lack of capitalisation evokes a reduction to the essentials of life: perceiving, moving, surviving. Elliptic syntax speeds up pace, mimicking the beast’s quick, vital quest and detailed sensations: “nosing” into garbage concludes with a triumphant isolated noun group, “manna of fried chicken”.
Donnison’s fox feels the car to be a “metallic animal”, attempting to make sense of it in adaptive instinct, but jumps in fear at the headlights and roar. The divide between adaptation and fear of alien danger pinpoints a liminal experience of finding significance for the unknown, which the speaker emulates from the fox and passes on to the audience.
Writing this mimetic piece means focusing on animal experience and locating the common ground of survival impulse and perception of the environment where human and non-human animal meet. Seeing and hearing a car pass is no longer part of disenchanted routine, nor is leftover fried chicken consumption residue: it is divine “manna” sent by a benevolent cosmic magic.
Such poems dissolve routine by changing the perspective; they re-enchant the urban world, fuelling it with life impulse and dynamic change, garbage turning into “manna”. Emulating the animal’s self-determination, they renew self-consciousness and help to break away from humans’ identity as workers and consumers.
The breakaway is vital, as seen in Christie-Luke Jones’ “Urban Fox”. It begins in bathetic, sterile self-pity after sentimental breakup:
The soupy June air weighs heavy on my shoulders,
A cruel curse befitting of a cruel hour.
I snarl and thrash and seethe.
I pray for a swift end.
Life is at stake (“a swift end”) — or is it? The ridicule of the hyperbole shows the poor human has lost sense of the meaning of death and of the value of life. Jones’s speaker envies posh “Highgate lovers, swathed in crumpled bedsheets” and piles on clichés (“her cascading onyx locks […] her sculpturesque face”), stifling the reader under syrupy mawkishness, when suddenly the shallow pathos is suspended:
[…] But lo, wrapped in my internal struggle I have omitted another.
One who neither pines, nor laments, nor regrets.
A weightless astronaut, he skulks through the night air with a humble grace.
His sinewy frame, that restless, twitching muzzle,
An opportunist cat burglar, thriving in his concrete woodland.
He slows as I approach. A cautious arc. His marble eyes reflecting the street lights above.
What does he see?
We halt in unison, we share the stillness.
His keen nose analyses my scent, his pointed ears flinch at my slightest movement.
Such devotion to the senses is something I’ve long forgotten.
Suddenly I feel my heavy feet beneath me, notice my short, agitated breaths.
This wild animal has coaxed me out of my own head, made me living again. […] (Jones 2019)
The human has lost trace of the true meaning of life but the fox knows and shows him. The human is enmeshed in a network of social obligations—having a girlfriend, envying snug lovers in fine apartments—while the urban fox, concentrated on his “keen nose […] pointed ears”, lives in the sensations of real life. A celestial “astronaut” free from human burdens, it “neither pines, nor laments, nor regrets”. It is “humble”, not seeking to shape relationships to its liking but just to live freely. The eye contact asks an existential question: “What does he see?” asks about what “I” am. The animal’s “devotion to the senses” re-sets the man’s proprioception: suddenly he feels his body weight and his breaths. Reconnecting with sensory life, he is freed from his egocentric preoccupations (“out of my own head”). From an intellectual and emotional entrapment in his disenchanted role as an overgrown spoilt boy, he has crossed into possible self-redefinition, is made “living again”.
The insubstantiality connoted by the fox’s disembodied aspect (“weightless astronaut”) echoes the ability for disembodiment implied by shape-shifting fox myths, but also points to the psychic process which will come under focus in section 3.3.
Whereas the anthropomorphic fox characters of comics and raps (2.2) only offer compensatory fantasy for an audience oppressed by disenchanted urban life, and finally guarantee adaptation to that life, the fox poems above confront disenchantment by accepting the presence of the real fox as an inspiration for artistic creation, in the margins of mainstream culture.
I will propose an interpretation of the moment of inspiration as connected both to the very nature of poetic writing and to the human / animal relationship.
As Anne Simon points out27 (Simon 2011: §4, §20), both reading and writing involve a corporal dimension, the reader moving across a text as across a landscape, and writing being analogous to, and according to Carlo Ginzburg perhaps derived from, the hunting process28. (Simon 2011: n49)
Animals were once both prey and magical intercessors, as evoked above (1.2). Poetic writing implements a psychic and mental agentive process analogous to the agentive value of the animal-spirit beliefs of our past. In both cases, empowerment is at stake, as confirmed by Simon’s assertion that the very “elusiveness” of animals reveals aspects of the human condition, triggers writing and allows literature to engage politics29 (Simon 2011: §25), indeed a matter of empowerment and disempowerment.
The fox excellently plays this role which, Simon points out, Bailly calls “absented presence”30, as in Derrida’s cat confrontation (Derrida 2006) and Captain Ahab’s chase of Moby-Dick, the writing whale — not because it holds a pen with its fin, but because its absenting presence makes you write, creates the semantic void for new meaning to be generated. As the white whale is the “paradigm of animality and of man’s desire for otherness” (Simon 2011: §7) (my translation)31, its whiteness figuring the blank page of the unwritten and the attraction for the impossible mastery of meaning, so also the fox, with its ancient associations of shape-shifting and elusiveness, stands for an igniter of the desire for self-expression — the spirit fox a shape-shift of the whale’s “spirit-spout”.32
Ginzburg’s hypothesis about narration is strikingly paralleled in the work of an immense practitioner of poetry, Ted Hughes, as he sheds light on the impulsive dimension of the process.
Hughes’ elder brother being a poacher, the poet spent his own childhood capturing animals, later realising that when he started writing poetry, he only resumed the former activity:
[…] it occurred to me that my writing poems might be partly a continuation of my earlier pursuit. Now I have no doubt. The special kind of excitement, the slightly mesmerised and quite involuntary concentration with which you make out the stirrings of a new poem in your mind, then the outline, the mass and colour and clean final form of it, the unique living reality of it in the general lifelessness, all that is too familiar to mistake. This is hunting and the poem is a new species of creature, a new specimen of the life outside your own. (Hughes 1967 : 17)
“Life outside your own”: the hunting impulse is after alien life but in the poetic fox experience this is also one’s own life, whose limits are pushed back to incorporate a measure of alienness. At stake is the generation of new “life” in the “general lifelessness”, a fit definition for poetic re-enchantment in the disenchanted urban world. The “mesmerised and quite involuntary concentration” answers the mental immobilisation noted by Bennett (Cf. 1.1). We note, too, the oxymoronic image of gestating something which is both intensely ours and totally alien (“the stirrings of a new poem in your mind […] a new specimen of the life outside your own.”) Hunting, as a development of the scopic and narrative impulse of the hunter, becomes a matrix for poetic creation. The fusion of self and otherness is to re-emerge in my final interpretation of the poetic process, read as psychic sublimation, in which desire for an outer object and self-desire combine.
Hughes’ marvellous poem “The Thought-Fox” dramatizes the dialectic between animal elusiveness and writing. The poet captures the moment of capture when the fox goes mental and triggers human discourse:
I imagine this midnight moment's forest:
Something else is alive
Beside the clock's loneliness
And this blank page where my fingers move.
[…] A fox's nose touches twig, leaf;
Two eyes serve a movement, that now
And again now, and now, and now
Sets neat prints into the snow […]
Till, with a sudden sharp hot stink of fox
It enters the dark hole of the head.
The window is starless still; the clock ticks,
The page is printed. (Hughes  1995 : 3)
This strikingly images the crossover between physical reality and mental life: “forest” is the actual woods (etymologically the “outside” of controlled spaces) as well as the depths of the mind’s activity, evoking spiritual Dantean disorientation and perhaps the psychic attraction of Freud’s scary ‘dark continent’, feminine sexuality. This is not the place to start a broad interpretation but simply to point out the dynamics of change expressed. From physical animal described in sensory detail, the fox hybridises with the poet’s activity (it leaves “prints” in the snow and the page is “printed”) before collapsing into insubstantiality: it turns into an idea “enter[ing] the dark hole of the head” as symmetrically the head, seat of disembodied ideas, itself turns into the earthy “dark hole” of a den.
As in urban fox poems, here the fox’s eyes, movements and sensory perception are the anchors of animal presence in the imagination (the “nose touches”, the “eyes serve a movement”), a presence felt in sensory terms in turn by the human in due exchange of experience (“sharp hot stink of fox”). As in poems like Christie-Luke Jones’ and Jenny Donnison’s, a common ground of sensory experience is established.
Like a physical hunt, the poetic hunt implies motion and a reach for an object. However, it does not kill but effects vital metamorphosis. A good poem captures images from physical life and turns them into verbal significance, but more than this, the scopic impulse and the mental poetic impulse function analogously, and, in poems accounting for a real glance on a real object or a being, dialectically.
Most of the urban fox poems I have found are the outcome of a real mutual fox / human glance. Poets then find strength to resist the proxy living tendered by mass cultural goods—an essential part of the disenchantment which suppressing our agentive relation and affective involvement with the world—and they respond in poetic creation.
While disenchantment severs one from one’s sense of connection with the world, re-enchantment means repossessing one’s individual value while beginning to share again in the world’s value. The urban fox, a correlate for the life impulse in its adaptiveness and disinhibited enjoyment (witness mating cries and other vulpine pleasures), is a perfect goal for poetic identification and for displaced narcissistic desire.33
Freudian theory is psychodynamic, it studies the psyche as a system of movements or impulses: “movement is the primordial property of the psyche”34. (Mancini 2004: 289) This is why absence is the condition of desire: “absence and deprivation are the very condition and locus of desire”.35 (Péruchon/Orgiazzi 2005: 230) As in Hughes’s allegory, the elusiveness of the goal triggers motion.
In desire for a loved person, our psyche constructs this person not as presence but as a goal to be reached, even should we hold the person in our arms. In artistic creation, sublimation replaces the object of erotic impulse by a secondary object having greater social value: thus art is an “avatar of sexuality”. Besides, desire is narcissistic since it aims at self-satisfaction.36 (Péruchon / Orgiazzi 2005: 227, 231) In these conditions, “the ego removes the libido from the sexual object, turns it towards itself and finally ascribes the libido a new, non-sexual goal […] it is the artist’s narcissism which conditions and facilitates the creative activity of his sublimated impulse”. (Nasio 2001: 129–130) (my translation)37
In the contemporary city, the life of urban humans is saturated with informational overload and goods forced on consumers as the answer to their desires, smothering the scopic impulse which could lead to desire. In its otherness, the fox’s sudden, unsought, unplanned appearance opens a new space for this impulse and when it slinks away, deprivation is felt as attraction towards a desirable object. Sublimated desire then develops, seizing and capitalising on the cultural value of the fox image. The encountered fox is turned into the secondary object of desire in the narcissistic self-loving creative impulse, making the fox a purveyor of self-love.
In the urban fox poems that I have examined, the dynamism of change is twice active. The authors carry out their verbal hunt, turning the encounter into words expressing the beauty, significance and vitality of non-human life and of the human / non-human meeting, and the fox makes vital change possible as poets cross into renewal of self-narration: urban humans can now start hunting again, after new selves.