Patchen’s “The Orange Bears”

I’ve finished the middle third of Patchen’s Selected Poems, and generally I find that I react very much the way I reacted to the first third of the book. I don’t like most of the poems, but I continue to read because I find a few poems that I like very much.

Here’s an example of the kind of poem that I generally don’t like, though this is actually my favorite of this genre:


The lions of fire
Shall have their hunting in this black land

Their teeth shall tear at your soft throats
Their claws kill

O the lions of fire shall awake
And the valleys steam with their fury

Because you are sick with the dirt of your money
Because you are pigs rooting in the swill of your war
Because you are mean and sly and full of the pus of your pious murder
Because you have turned your faces from God
Because you have spread your filth everywhere

O the lions of fire
Wait in the crawling shadows of your world
And their terrible eyes are watching you.

I don’t really disagree with much of what Patchen says; I agree that money, greed, too often seems the root of our problems rather than the answer to them. You know I’m tired of pious wars. Right? That should be a given by now.

I suppose what I object to most is the tying of God to the “Lions of Fire” and the general apocalyptic tone of the poem. Filth and pus strike me as far too hysterical to be effective.

And this is the best of these types of poems. Many lack even the restraint shown here, and are reminiscent of Ginsberg’s “Howl.”

About the time that you decide you really don’t need to read any further, you find a gem like this one:


The Orange bears with soft friendly eyes

Who played with me when I was ten,

Christ, before I’d left home they’d had

Their paws smashed in the rolls, their backs

Seared by hot slag, their soft trusting

Bellies kicked in, their tongues ripped

Out, and I went down through the woods

To the smelly crick with Whitman

In the Haldeman-Julius edition,

And I just sat there worrying my thumbnail

Into the cover—What did he know about

Orange bears with their coats all stunk up with soft coal

And the National Guard coming over

From Wheeling to stand in front of the millgates

With drawn bayonets jeering at the strikers?

I remember you would put daisies

On the windowsill at night and in

The morning they’d be so covered with soot

You couldn’t tell what they were anymore.

A hell of a fat chance my orange bears had!

The anger’s obviously still there, but here it’s been channeled better, and the ideas driven home by their very understatement. What a beautiful contrast between Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and a world where the daisies are covered in soot in a single night.

What kind of world do we live in where the gentlest people are crushed by an economic system that puts profit before lives?

One thought on “Patchen’s “The Orange Bears””

  1. I tried to send you a recording of Patchen reading “In Order To” (Sel. Poems 123), but it wouldn’t go through, which is a pity. His voice matches so beautifully with his words–tired and sincere.
    Regarding Lions of Fire, keep in mind he was writing as a pacifist during World War II (the poem appeared in Teeth of the Lion, in 1942), so what seems to us today to be well-worn sentiments for poets was, at the time, pretty bold. He tried to publish Albion Moonlight right after Pearl Harbor.
    I’m attaching a happier poem of his; he wrote many love poems. His wife was named Miriam, which, I suspect, is Mirru in Finnish.

    I tiptoed into her sleep
    And she was a little girl
    Listening to her father clearing the snow
    From the sidewalk in front of their house
    And it was sweetly mixed-up
    With funnypapers on Sunday morning
    And black, surly-friendly tomcats
    Smelling of New England and
    Finnish bread but Finns talk too long
    And little girls get tired and father calls
    I’ll be asleep before you will
    And after a moment calls again
    Aren’t you asleep yet? and when you say no
    He adds triumphantly
    I told you I’d win, I’m asleep
    Leaving you to puzzle over it
    And later when she has nearly “grown-up”
    Sitting with her mother in the warm kitchen
    Reading Mystery Stories and father asking
    Are you two going to stay up all night?
    And her mother assuring him that
    Just as soon as this chapter is finished
    We’ll stop but somehow they never did
    And holding squirmy little flower-eyed rabbits
    And watching for Santa Claus at the front door
    While the snow swirled so prettily on the lawn
    Like a white queen in a beautiful dress.

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