Ricky Garni’s “The Tarsier” [Read the poem here] (First published in Issue #18 of Cha)
If you read the Wikipedia entry under “Tarsier”, you will find that the facts conveyed in Ricky Garni’s poem about the animal are true. The tarsier is, indeed, native to Asia. It is small and carnivorous (in fact, it is the only extant primate which is purely carnivorous) and each of its eyes is equal in size to its brain.
What is striking about this poem, however, is that it does not merely describe its subject. Nor is it a simple catalogue of facts. Instead, it situates the natural world within a field of human associations.
Attempts to understand the tarsier quickly run up against the surprising and unexpected. To begin with, the tarsier ‘sounds so french. / it’s really from asia’ (S1). This alerts the reader to the discrepancy between surface and substance; the tiny animal is not at all what it sounds/seems. ‘[T]he tarsier eye is as large as its brain’ (S3). This unfamiliar body structure (to us, anyway) confounds our normal perception of proportion and size. We are also told that the creature ‘likes to go out at night and is oh so furry’ (S4) – it is a nocturnal predator but it is oh so cute and cuddly.
Thinking like a scientist doesn’t get us far in understanding the tarsier because suddenly ‘you see his cute little pink nose and can’t think like a / scientist’ (S7). The animal knows how to bewitch. And by invoking ‘the scientist’, Garni suggests how even the supposedly most clear-headed people are helpless in the face of the tarsier and cannot comprehend it objectively and reasonably. This unknowability wears a double aspect. On the one hand the tarsier is ‘cute’ (S7), but on the other it is ‘crazy’ (S9). It is ‘tiny’ (S7), yet it is merciless toward its prey – ‘it eats the meat of insects’ (S5) and ‘make[s] the insects scream and die’ (S12). For some readers, these lines will undoubtedly be associated with the stereotypical Asian femme fatale.
Being an animal, the tarsier is naturally excluded from human discourse – ‘try to make a tarsier apologise / it’s impossible / just plain impossible’ (S10). (If we continue with the femme fatale metaphor, however, these lines may assume a different meaning.) Worse, the tarsier transforms humans into its prey, especially since the reader is asked to ‘imagine being an insect’ (6). The speaker warns: ‘you don’t hear its scream as it jumps toward you / but make no mistake: it jumps toward you’ (S8), the ‘you’ here unmistakeably referring to humans rather than insects, although at this point there is a conflation of the two. Contemplating the tarsier is a dangerous act, for it leads toward self-destruction.
The last stanza (which is also ‘the point of the tarsier’) is haunting: ‘they make insects scream and die / and have big green eyes filled with trees’ (S12). Regardless of how we interpret the tarsier – literally or otherwise – the last image we have of it is that it has devoured its victims and other living creatures. What is reflected in its large brainy gaze is an eerily impersonal nature, in which the tarsier remains as cute and cruel as ever.
Ricky Garni [website] is particularly fond of manhood for amateurs. His poems appeared in Everygreen Review, Sixth Finch, The Bakery, Reprint Poetry and many other periodicals. His latest work, 2% Butterscotch, was released in 2012. His first, Peppermint, in 1995.