A rooftop will do in a town
with no cliffs. A Friday night
with cheap Merlot and a cheaper
radio will do. The wind
stirs, faint skunk then honeysuckle.
She tucks her arms and head into
the front of her T-shirt to light
the joint. I picture a cloud of smoke
between her small breasts.
Her shirt, stretched and faded,
says Save the Tigers across it. But
there are no more tigers left
on this earth. We smoke on the edge
of the roof, sneakers dangling. Crackling
music from a time and place
we’ve never been. It will do. The day’s
heat still holds to the shingles.
She’s lying on her back, looking up,
saving tigers. Don’t tell her, repeats
in my goddamn head. Don’t tell her.
— from Transmitter and Receiver, Nightwood Editions, 2015, reprinted with permission from publisher
At first glance this reads like a sweet if awkward seduction poem. The speaker (presumably male) finds himself on a rooftop in a city without cliffs, feels mild contentment in his surroundings (“It will do”), admires his female companion while she lights up a joint, and warns himself not to tell her that the desire expressed by her t-shirt (Save the Tigers), and whatever efforts she may have engaged in that pursuit, have not been in vain.
The first question, then: why not tell her about the tigers? Likely the speaker believes that he is protecting her from the pain or disappointment of learning the truth. He wants her feeling good about her commitment to saving the tigers, even if all that commitment amounts to is the money she spent to purchase the shirt (probably a long time ago, seeing as the shirt is “stretched and faded”). Presumably he also wants her feeling good because the likelihood of a successful romantic consummation of the evening (“it will do”) is predicated on her good spirits. So he’s a nice guy, it’s a nice evening, he doesn’t want her to be sad, and he is sensitive enough to know that she’s much more likely to kiss him if she doesn’t feel sad.
If that’s all the poem is, it’s still an evocative little bagatelle in a collection that fairly often portrays a speaker whose sensitivity is the defining feature of his character. But I believe there’s more going on in this poem that makes it darker and more interesting than this first reading suggests.
Let’s go back to our first question, then. Our speaker says “there are no more” left on this earth. Last time I checked, this wasn’t actually the case yet. That means one of two things: either the world of the poem is a fictional one, slightly in the future or in a skewed imaginary present, in which tigers are extinct; or it means that the speaker is wrong.
If the speaker is just confused, then frankly he’s not worth our further consideration. A well-meaning simpleton, or a severely uninformed pothead who doesn’t know that tigers still walk the earth. Google “tiger,” doofus. So let’s leave that possibility aside. Although I admit that the after-effects of this line of thought, even after I dismiss it, make me read the poem with a bit more suspicion of the speaker as we continue. I’ll come back to this.
The more likely answer is that the world of the poem is one that is slightly skewed, or slightly in the future, in which tigers have indeed gone extinct. The deliberate enjambment of “But / there are no more tigers left / on this earth” seems to support the idea that our speaker takes this fact very seriously and knows it well. So then I find myself returning to the beginning of the poem, trying to find out more about this damaged world in which there are no tigers. What else is different? If it seems normal enough on the surface (people still go to secluded rooftops to smoke pot and/or have sex, there is still the smell of skunk and honeysuckle, radios still exist and stations still play old music…), what else might have gone astray?
It brings me back to the first sentence: “A rooftop will do in a town / with no cliffs.” My first reading above of this phrase suggested something like, “If your city can’t provide a natural way to find a nice view, a rooftop will suffice.” But then why “cliffs” specifically? Why not “mountains” or “hills” or even “scenic viewpoints”? The mention of cliffs always connotes the possibility of danger – you can throw yourself off a cliff. You don’t throw yourself off a scenic viewpoint. So now I’m beginning to wonder about the usage of “will do,” which occurs three times in this short poem. A rooftop will do for what? For a romantic encounter or a suicide pact? Is it “will do” as an expression of contentment, or an expression of impact sufficiency?
And what does our companion think of all this? Doesn’t she know that tigers are extinct? Does she really care much about them in the first place? Maybe it’s just an old t-shirt she got at the vintage clothing store. In fact the woman in this poem is hardly more tangible than the tigers are. The feminist romantic reader in me grows impatient with this poem – she has no agency and never speaks. She unquestionably an object of affection, with a merely physical presence – she has small breasts, she’s adept at lighting a joint against the wind, she sits down in sneakers, she lies on her back. But we have no idea about her real mind or emotional state. We can probably presume that she came to the rooftop willingly with our speaker, that they have some sort of friendship. But her one defining characteristic – that she wants to save the tigers – seems built on very flimsy evidence indeed.
So then we turn back to our speaker’s flawed state of mind. What seems crucial in the poem’s process is not whether the woman wants to save the tigers (“She’s lying on her back, looking up, / saving tigers.” No, obviously she’s not.), but that the speaker believes she wants to save the tigers. He needs to believe she is. Moreover, it seems just as important that – in the speaker’s “goddamn head” – there are no tigers, that the woman’s efforts are doomed to failure. And finally, it’s crucial to the speaker that his ability to withhold this information from his friend is what can save the evening from devolving into despair. Our speaker has invented a whole world for himself in which his friend is idealistic but vulnerable, he is worldly-wise but protective, and that the sum of this “will do” to keep them both from falling off the edge.
So instead of a quaint portrait of an awkward young man’s inner monologue as he remarks on a pleasant romantic evening, the poem becomes a dissection of the series of acrobatic self-justifications he must use in order to convince himself that he shouldn’t throw himself off the roof. The title, after all, is “Life with Tigers,” so the poem lives in a state of denial of some of the very information it contains. If the poem is about ‘life with tigers,” then the speaker is trying to will himself into his companion’s (perceived) ignorance, so that they can both lose themselves and not think of the darker edges that are closing in. But they are closing in, and we can’t help but know it.
Did Fernandes intend all this, or am I giving the poem unearned credit for undermining its own assertions? The fact that I’m not 100% sure speaks either to Fernandes’ sleight of hand or to my own ability to invent a lie to protect myself from jumping off the building of this book. But Transmitter and Receiver often articulates a sense of the precarious, of trying to enjoy life’s pleasures while drifting close to psychological or political or environmental danger, and so the poem seems to fit into that spirit and does so with a seductively blank look that I find very compelling. I keep returning to the poem to see if I still believe in it.
You can buy Transmitter and Receiver here.