My previous post -‘Where are the Great Rabbit Poems?‘- was a tongue-in-cheek article about the absence of rabbits and the abundance of cats on the internet but it has unearthed some wonderful rabbit poems, and one from me, which I’m sharing today.
In a variety of ways, these eight poems closely observe rabbit behaviour in the wild and in domestic captivity and are a reminder that although not native to the British Isles, rabbits thrive in our countryside while remaining vulnerable as prey-creatures and neighbours of cat-owning, car-driving, rifle-carrying humans.
Rabbits were introduced to Britain by the Romans as a food source and have continued to be used this way through the ages, particularly during times of hardship, since they breed with abandon and are cheap to feed. In the wild, rabbits graze on grasses and flowering weeds but they can become a problem when they overpopulate an area and devour crops. Male rabbits are known as bucks, females, does, and baby rabbits are kits or kittens.
There are numerous rabbit appearances in popular culture and fiction, including Brer Rabbit, Bugs Bunny, Lewis Carroll’s White Rabbit and March Hare and Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit and Benjamin Bunny. Watership Down, the 1972 adventure novel by Richard Adams (and the subsequent film), featuring a small group of wild rabbits, has been mentioned by more than one poet as an important influence and some have incorporated the language and tone of the book and film into their work.
Sometimes mysterious and macabre, sometimes wildly joyful, I hope you enjoy the selection included here. My warmest thanks to the contributors of the poems, Polly Atkin, Kim Moore, David Morley, Angela Readman, George Szirtes and Colin Will. If you keep reading right to the end, you’ll find a bonus poem, kindly sent by Bill Herbert and I’m delighted and grateful that even more poems have been added in the comments section – so far, Polly Clark, Don Share, Rishi Dastidar and Angela Topping have sent poems or a link – the rabbit poems are multiplying!
rabbit in morning
by Polly Atkin
When I wake in the morning you are waiting for me,
sat in the yard, still as a tree stump,
only your eyes and nostrils moving,
and the wind in your fur, and the rushing shadow
of leaves crashing over your curve, a green
sea of waves on shingle, combing
your sandy flanks, your reddish back.
After a pause, sure you are watched,
you stretch out into a living leap
and plunge in the pool of long cool grass.
This is the reason I won’t cut the lawn:
to see you so, only ears above water
then arcing over like a dolphin saluting
the sun, playing in the wake of the house
as it sails me on, for sheer pleasure
of throwing yourself up. I want to invite you
in, or to stay, or to not go away,
but you are a wild thing. All I can do
is believe you will keep on being the warm
vaulting life, ravelled round mine,
although I may never hold you.
by David Morley
I wandered the heath in raptures among the rabbit burrows & golden blossomd furze I dropt down on the thymy molehill – John Clare
‘Conies’, whispers Wisdom Smith, ‘require calm,
dawn craft and a down-wind’. ‘While my riming’,
murmurs John Clare, ‘obliges a simpler psalm:
I cannot sing for my breakfast when ravening’.
Both men flex their full shanks before kneeling.
They paw the grass aside, then slide askew
like stoats slinking sidelong toward their prey
before the wide mouths of the warren’s holes.
Rabbits rebound from a moor russet with molehills.
Bucks bite, dash, stamp, scrabble and scuffle.
Kittens suckle under dozing, sun-stunned does.
‘As if Heaven fell and Hell surfaced on the same acre’,
whistles the Gypsy, raising the rifle sight to his gaze
while chewing softly on the stalk of a wildflower.
Sexing the Rabbits
by Angela Readman
In the years war dragged behind it, my father bred rabbits,
built hutches out of kitchen cabinets, ketchup and batter
on the walls, he nailed a mesh of silent radios to doors.
On the edge
of dinner he hovered by Mother’s knife, and sloped
out to feed his miniature cows scraps.
He took a hook from an eye, cabbage quivering,
twitchy bouquets of green roses in his hands. Rabbits
nosed out, ran circles around minutes,
cotton tails swabbing his dry boots.
nibbled their way towards strokes or stews, or trade
on a kid’s birthday for a sleeve of Lucky Strikes.
When they were born was the best,
in those early weeks, the man hardly moved, hand resting
just inside the hutch to be sniffed, and pick up a kit
on the dot of a first whisker of trust.
He whispered rabbits unscared,
blades of light flickering in his fingertips, ears
held steady as a match.
Later, on one knee,
he sorted the pies from the pets, took a rabbit
to blow on fur by its back legs – something showed itself
then went in. I watched, with a fistful of burdock,
my father pucker-up
as if wishing a year away on a candle, time tolled
by a dandelion, in a breath a rabbit was sexed;
the does left be; and only one or two males kept.
by Colin Will
My pregnant neighbour came to the door
cradling her frightened little boy.
‘There’s a baby rabbit in our garden.
It’s been injured by a cat;
can’t walk; I think its eyes are out.’
I caught it in a plastic bag.
The hind legs couldn’t kick.
Have you ever felt a rabbit kick?
I took it away, out of sight,
and swung the bag hard
against a wall.
From a torn corner blood leaked
but no more trembling.
I opened the wheelie-bin lid
and dropped it in. Only later
I remembered the visiting foxes.
I should have left it for them.
If I’d really been compassionate
I’d have left it for them.
(fromThe floorshow at the Mad Yak Café Red Squirrel Press, 2010)
by Josephine Corcoran
They watch through the mesh
as my husband pumps me. I stare back,
dead as taxidermy and just as mean.
Our home is lined with words
on strips and ripped up pictures,
bleeding black tattoos when wet
with rain or my husband’s urine.
Sometimes I chew on dangling strands
of piss- and rain-laden words
but my husband tends to forage
inside my mouth before I have a chance
to swallow. He’s using his teeth
as a vice to clamp me still while he drills
into me at high speed, spitting up sawdust.
She’s giving us the evils, they laugh
out of their doughy faces, soft enough
to slash. Today, they’ve thrown roses,
marigolds, dandelions and sweet-smelling
herbs over our shit. Sprigs of basil float
in our bowls. He climbs on my head
to pinion me with his claws. He vibrates
against my face. After he’s sprayed his
scent in my fur, he bows deeply beneath me,
expecting tenderness for hours. I dream
of gnawing through wire and wood. I dream
of biting the hand that grooms me. As I bury
my tongue deep in his palpitating skin I dream
of violence. And what is she dreaming of,
the one who’s exchanged her fur for my flesh?
What is she imagining as she licks my cashmere
scarf and inhales the leaves I left brewing
in my pot? The smallest of things will now
give me pleasure: my own set of keys,
a waterproof coat, paper and pens
and most of all the sound of my voice
which must have made her look
like she’d been caught in the headlights
the first time she heard it and knew it was hers,
for singing and laughing and protesting.
(from the anthology A Complicated Way of Being Ignored, Grist Books, 2012)
The Rabbit and the Moon
by Kim Moore
Let me tell you the story of a high, lonely place
where sight and sound carry with the pylon
that gives its shadow to the hill, and the farm
many fields away, and the long straight road.
A bird calls kehaar, kehaar to the moon
and trains are falling, falling into the night.
The black rabbit waits outside the caravan
and come morning, the booted feet of gulls
will be telling us to leave, but if we stay
the dogs will lie like rugs at our feet.
Somewhere, there are other rabbits, and a river
to sail away on. Somewhere, there’s a boat.
(from If We Could Speak Like Wolves, Smith/Doorstop 2012)
by George Szirtes
The rabbits are about their business
of softening. They congregate in gangs
by hedgerows as if waiting for an event
of greater softness to overtake them.
The cloud overhead grow rabbit scuts
and bolt across the field in evening dress.
The whole sky is purpling with the scent
of evening. A clock opens and shuts
time out. Flowers bend on a single stem
and wind plumps wings to leaves.
Rabbits flicker into open spaces
all by themselves, exploratory, vague,
bristling in the wind, apologetic.
Out of sight they settle
delicately then hop away, their faces
dreamy and purposive. They are a thick-
ening in the dark, a curl of soft metal,
a wholly benevolent plague
for which woolly words have to be invented,
something earth- and dropping-scented.
They lollop about in silence for a while,
shiver and bob, nibble, dart back
into their holes, peek out. Soon the field
swallows them whole. The clock claps
its hands. They run off scared. The wind
bursts from a hedge and over a stile.
Leaves mumble, their lips are sealed.
The train swoops down its sinister track
and the clouds make dramatic shapes
in the sky which is dropping like a blind.
Something of terror remains in the grass
where the rabbits have been. Night
comes on as the negative of daylight. Where
is the bristling gone? Something is shaking the train.
An old man holds his cup in trembling fingers,
waiting for the tremor to pass.
Insignificant stations swim through the air
in a fog of names.Some warmth lingers
in them and hovers there like a stain
or a bird or a figure in mid-flight.
(from Portrait of My Father in an English Landscape, 1998)
by Polly Atkin
First kill: a rabbit. She didn’t see it
waiting in the slipway dark,
not quite there or real until
it burst out in her headlights’ spotlight,
pulsing star of blood and fur.
She couldn’t stop to look and learn
but heard the crack of thinnish bones,
jellied in their sack of skin,
crush beneath her wheels like
branches clogged with muddy water:
crunch/squish. She felt its shudder
move through her own bones as though
its spirit burrowed up her spine
to reach clear sky. So this was death:
the road ahead, the orange light.
(from bone song, Aussteiger, 2008)
And a postscript from Bill Herbert who writes “Dear Josephine, Something about the sight of Juliette reminded me of Black Bun, the Hogmanay cake handed round at the New Year here in Scotland as a gift, especially by First Footers. A sort of rabbit poem, perhaps?”
by Bill Herbert
Like a brick of hash for Hogmanay;
peat formed in a bed of ancient vines,
layer upon layer of fruit pressed into turf
till a black hole density of raisins
has been achieved; a treacle well bung,
a dice-large piece of which takes six men
to coffin the Old Year out and bear this in;
a plug of time’s edible tarmacadam;
cecotrope of the New Year’s coney Janus,
Black Bun himself, handed to the young
in its hard shell of pastry by their grannies
to lure them from past’s warren into day.