Penn State Professor Robin Becker's Poetry Highlights Dwindling Wildlife

  • Photo courtesy of Robin Becker.

February 21, 2014

From the pet poodle that she saved at an animal shelter to the Northern Flying Squirrel and the habitat loss it faces, down-on-their-luck animals figure prominently in Tiger Heron, the latest collection of poems by Penn State professor Robin Becker.  Becker speaks with us in advance of her book-signing in Webster's Bookstore and State College at 133 E. Beaver Ave., Saturday at 4:30 p.m. Click on the audio link to listen to the interview.

Becker is the author of seven poetry collections, including “Domain of Perfect Affection,” “The Horse Fair,” “Giacometti’s Dog,” and “All-American Girl,” winner of the Lambda Literary Award. She is a Liberal Arts Research Professor of English and Women’s Studies at Penn State.

"The great American poet Maxine Kumin died," recently, Becker said. "Fifteen years ago in her book, Nurture, she was addressing some of the pertinent issues that have to do with species loss and habitat loss. I have been very close to these poems and close to Maxine for the last 30 years and have learned to pay attention to these themes, partially through reading her poems. I recently read an article about the northern flying squirrel. I was moved to do some research, and this poem came out of that research.”

Elegy for the Northern Flying Squirrel


Not exactly a flier but a glider
  between trees,
the squirrel soars by shifting

  her cape, tightening
and loosening the parachute that stretches
  from ankle to small

cartilaginous wrist bones. From Canada to
  the Appalachians,
she seeds, through her scat, the conifer

  forest with spores
of truffle-like fungi the trees require.
  will anyone notice

the dwindling of unbroken stands
  of spruce and hemlock
that cool off mountain streams?


  We have words
for this: fragmentation, disappearance
  of ecosystems.

Once the cambered airfoil
  of furry tail
struck an Olympic landing on a trunk.

  We did not witness
or admire the aerobatic, nocturnal feats,
  visible only to other

canopy dwellers and the field biologist.
  But have you seen
the small, wingless insects infesting

  the hemlocks
by your house? The cottony tufts?
  The dying trees?


The fast decline of the Northern
  Flying Squirrel:
symptom of larger malaise

  and contributor
to it.
Today you can purchase one
  as an exotic pet

at six weeks old and keep it warm
  in a pouch you wear
under your shirt between hand feedings,

  so that it bonds to
you and learns to come to the human
  for comfort and safety.


"Dogs have featured in my poems throughout my career," Becker says. "I've always had a fascination for creatures that live in our homes, in many cases in our beds. We feed them, we pick up their excrement, we care for them when they're sick, we anticipate their needs and mostly we bury them. It's a long and complex relationship that humans have had with dogs throughout history. And I feel like I participate in this long history of human-dog interaction," said Becker.


The Dog I Didn’t Want

ran in anxious circles around the room—
stacked crates of dogs in need of homes.

I drifted toward a puppy, nonchalant;
the assistant said he hadn’t, yet, been fixed,
and returned the dog I didn’t want to his cage.

An older couple, looking to assuage
a recent loss, sat with the spaniel, transfixed.
The dog I didn’t want yipped and cried

in his metal pen. “Take him for a walk,”
the keeper called, gave me a leash. Outside he stalked
the mailbox post and tugged to come inside.

He wouldn’t meet my gaze or lick my hand
or charm with any doggy gifts. Instead,
the dog I didn’t want curled up and tucked his head

into the coiled spiral of his body, color of sand.
Quiet, eyes closed, snout down, he awaited his fate
like one bound for the gallows or the chair.

Resigned, unloved, the dog I didn’t want
in his despair won me his small estate.