Inner Gates — Beso the Donkey: Poems by Richard Jarrette

Beso the Donkey

Beso the Donkey
BY Richard Jarrette
(Michigan State University Press, 2010)

Beso the Donkey is a collection of eighty-one short poems all dealing – as the title suggests – with an aging donkey named Beso: his craftiness and desires, his relationship with the narrator, and his place in the universe. It is a strange and wonderful book, worthy of joining donkey-inspired classics like Stevenson’s Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes and Juan Ramón Jiménez’s Platero y yo, which I have loved for years in Eloise Roach’s English translation.

Beso the donkey has come into the poet’s hands after being abandoned by his previous owner, and now inhabits a worn, battered body. We do not find out much about his past life, but he is not a trusting donkey, and we come to feel that this is a sensible response to his experience of the human world.

Like Stevenson’s Modestine or Jiménez’s Platero, Beso soon emerges as a distinct personality: ornery, curious, lazy, and thoughtful (in various combinations, depending on his mood). His days are filled with sleep, grazing, and explorations of both his enclosure and the world beyond. He reads the peculiarities of the boards of his fence “with his nose like braille,” and keeps an eye on the latch of his gate in case an escapade is in order. When safely back in pasture, the donkey is disappointed when any request from his owner is not accompanied with an apple. Beso’s individuality, like Platero’s, is so vivid partially because he no longer does much work for humans — it is easier to be yourself when no one is insisting on his or her own demands. Beso can, however, occasionally be convinced to carry someone on his back.

Ask Beso

Are you wonderful?
Ask Beso
what he thinks about
the drinking song
he endured
when he carried you home
last night.

— p. 48

Some of the poems in the collection are slight. Even the whimsical verses, though, contribute to our sense of Beso’s character. Eventually, this sense of understanding deepens into something profound. Once one begins to appreciate an individual animal, in life or literature, a long-held sense of human uniqueness starts to give way; the inner gates open a little and the self seems to prepare itself for some wider embrace. Then, for comfort, convenience, or survival, most people work to shut these gates again — and this human habit of selective empathy is one of the issues that Beso the Donkey convincingly explores.

The narrator acknowledges that he has drawn a circle around Beso by thinking “You are a donkey, here,” but that the donkey is continually escaping this mental enclosure — as animals will often do. If we want to have our categories blurred and perhaps invalidated, all we need to do is pay attention, as Beso does.

Beso Attends

The waxing moon
bends its bow toward
Venus in the west.

Beso carries the stars
on his back
and one in each eye.

Crickets fill the soft
night air
with love songs.

When they suddenly stop
he startles and fully
attends to why.

— p. 22

There is a danger in this book, as in all books about animals, for a writer to pretend to know more about its four-legged subject than he or she actually does. But Beso the Donkey always senses and resists its own urge to anthropomorphize. If one poem relates Beso’s thoughts, and another narrates his dreams, there will usually be a third that acknowledges how little the author actually knows about this particular donkey’s experiences of life. One of the book’s best poems describes how a human misapprehension is at the root of the donkey’s name.

Beso the Donkey
lives out his days in a small pasture.
He appears stoic in the rain
and stands still
beneath the merciless sun.
You could almost believe that a rock
to eat, dust to drink,
are all that he needs.
You would be more wrong
than the one who named him Beso
thinking that the kiss he gave
for a sliver of apple
was love.

— p. 12

There is a balance throughout Beso the Donkey of skepticism and receptiveness, the earthy and the mystical. While recognizing that the barrier between humans and the non-human world is, in many places, permeable, the book still respects the essential mystery, the parts of the gate that simply won’t be unlatched. This respect fills the book, and gives the poems both their charm and sense of truthfulness.

Printed from Cerise Press:

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