FitP Poet Highlight 38/82: Marilyn Nielson, “Sheep

To speak for those who otherwise can’t, to give the unvoiced a voice, the other languaged means by which to understand and be understood by others: these seem to be fundamental functions of the gospel of Christ, at the center of which rests the atonement. In this eternally-in-force act of mediation, Christ descended below and experienced all things in order to enter into relation with all things and so to close the gaps among them—including the gaps inherent in and created by the imperfections of human language and even of inter-species communication.

Marilyn mirrors this mediatory act in “Sheep” when she gives collective voice, well, to a flock of sheep. Of course, said sheep could simply be read as a representation of God’s flock—Christ is, after all, the Good Shepherd; and I think such a reading is legitimate. But I also think that reading strips these sheep (as hypothetically actual sheep) of their voice. By making them metaphors for humans, it essentially denies them the awe “the beasts of the field” must have felt at Christ’s birth. Because that’s how this poem comes across to me: as a rumination on what it may have been like when “the heavenly host” appeared to shepherds, “praising God” the moment Christ came into the world (ref). Surely the sheep must have felt something then, too. I mean, He was their Creator and He did come to renew “the heaven and the earth, and all the fulness thereof, both men [sic] and beasts, the fowls of the air, and the fishes of the sea” (ref). I’m sure they have some feelings—beyond instinct—in the matter. And they deserve, I think, for us to at least imagine that possibility.

By imagining this possibility through her language, by putting on sheepskin and sheep consciousness with her words, the poet suggests there may be more to sheep—and by extension, to the lives of animals—than just eating, sleeping, and propagating the species; that there may be more to their experience than just the objects immediately surrounding them; that they, too, may long for “moment[s] / that [hold] more than trees, grass, sky,” moments beyond the immediate contexts of instinct and survival. And with this suggestion the poet points to the transformational possibility that the hope made available through Christ’s atonement extends to the experience and awareness of animals and can ultimately perfect our relationship with them.

As something of a counterpoint/complement to my reading, hear what Marilyn herself has to say about the poem here.