Last Chance for the Tarzan Holler Poems
Comparative Analysis of “Ant Farm” and “Running Out of Choices”
“Ant Farm” and “Running Out of Choices” express two distinct ideas. The first is how experience, knowledge, and instinct can influence our actions or view of things. The second is that a life with restriction may be more satisfying than the burden of choice. When juxtaposed, the poems can work together to provide a fuller message. However, the poems deliver their messages differently. “Running Out of Choices” uses a series of events and memories in a traditional poetic structure, while “Ant Farm” uses paradoxes and images in a structure resembling prose. Though the poems’ styles are different, they share a few themes: religion, a fascination with cruelty, the female reproductive experience, insignificance of life, and a return to early memories. “Running Out of Choices” is more approachable than “Ant Farm”. It is divided into stanzas of reasonable length, each investigating a distinct memory. The first stanza describes the speaker’s first impression of hearing news from foreign media. The second discusses how the speaker cannot mention another country without thinking about its involvement in the wars that have plagued history. The third is about how talk of Mississippi resurrects the story of Medgar Evers’ murder, and so on and so forth. In spite of its seeming space gaps, “Ant Farm” is structured more like prose, containing a few dense stanzas. It contains unimpressive line breaks, whose sole purpose seems to be to categorize the poem as poetry rather than prose. The first stanza discusses the speaker’s recollection of drowning an ant hill, which ends with “I didn’t know ther’d be few/ [new stanza] survivors; I expected in…” (T.H. p.21). Some may find that this line break does not add any value to the poem and may cause unnecessary confusion. Moreover, the text of the poem itself is very complex. Its difficulty is apparent in “meat’s indigestible until the fontanels / seal fate.” (T.H. p.21) compared to the more straightforward text in “Running Out of Choices”, “I cannot even say Mississippi because someone might recall / that Medgar Evers was murdered there.” (p. P.B. p.17). Though the poems’ are aesthetically different, that does not necessarily make the messages of poem harder to juxtapose. However, the poem’s different approaches can make them seem disconnected. “Running Out of Choices” uses an extensive series of memories and events to provide substantial evidence and insight into the message of the poem. “Ant Farm” analyzes ant life while using seemingly intangible images and paradoxes to spark thought in the reader. In “Running Out of Choices,” each stanza explores a location with which the speaker has an associated memory. When the speaker mentions “Los Angeles, city of mercy, city of angels”, a disturbing memory associated with the location comes to mind: Marvin Gaye Sr. killing his son. Nearly all the stanzas follow this pattern. The plot of “Ant Farm” begins with a story of the speaker drowning an ant hill and continues on to describe what life is like for the ants. The story of the ants is connected with human themes. When the speaker says “trophallaxis keeps ants going, reciprocal feeding, exchange of chemical / stimulation, workers (wingless, infertile females denied or uninterested in sex) tend / the young, feeding them honeydew from raids on aphids” (T.H. p.22), the feeding practices of ants are analogically connected with human themes of care and nourishment. But “Ant Farm” also makes use of seemingly contradictory statements like “stamina a backbone obfuscates”, paradoxical images such as a monstrous view of a baby fetus and a flower, as well as erotic themes when the poem uses words like mate, stimulation, spike, tunnel, lips ,secrete, and pleasure. The poems have very different styles and approaches, but their contents are not entirely disconnected; some themes are mirrored in both poems. A few examples of the female reproductive experience exists in “Ant Farm”, as the nourishment the worker ants give the young and the women in the park who have babies to nurse. In “Running Out of Choices”, the speaker recalls an abortion she had in New York and the nature of her mischievous child. Both poems make use of religious experiences. “Ant Farm” refers to “touching God” and “his misery”, and “Running Out of Choices” describes “Christians fed to lions” and the traditional consumption of the blood and body of Jesus. There is also a universal fascination with cruelty in both poems as “Running Out of Choices” refers to rape, death, and dishonesty, while “Ant Farm” is gritty enough to describe an ant infected with a fungus exploding into spores. In both poems, the speaker returns to her early memories in a cyclical manner. In “Ant Farm”, it is the eventual annihilation of the ants, a childhood memory, in the beginning by scalding water, and at the end, by becoming liquefied. In “Running Out of Choices”, it is the constant returning “home”; not physically, but the “home” as a living presence in the mind of the speaker. “Where can I go without somehow returning to Cleveland?” (P.B. p.19). It may be inferred that the speaker’s present unquiet and confused life mirrors her past life in the projects. Moreover, the lives of those residing in the Cleveland projects may resemble, at least at an unconscious level, the expendable lives of the ants. Neither is ultimately meant to escape. This expendability sadly comments on the insignificance of life; in both poems the speaker speaks naturally of death with little regret. People and ants die horrible deaths and that is just the way it goes. The use of these similar themes in both pieces makes the poems’ content more comparable and help makes their possible combined message more plausible and connected. These poems work in a way as two jigsaw puzzle pieces. Each one has its own message that includes some ideas from the other, and together they provide a fuller picture. “Running Out of Choices” expresses how our experiences and knowledge cause us to “run out of choices” in the way we perceive reality. For example, the speaker describes how she cannot think of “mocha-colored makeup” except “in summer when white people want tans more than they don’t want to be black”. “Ant Farm” focuses on the predetermined life of ants and that even though they live without choice, their life can be very satisfying. While the burdens of choice and freedom are heavy for humans, “busy ants are neither saved nor unsaved nor concerned.”(T.H. p.22). “Running Out of Choices” touches upon this when the poem concludes that the speaker may have suffered “in the projects… had I [she] not been so lucky” (p.19). This suggests that the difficult choices she has made as well as the experiences and memories she has obtained helped her see that what kept her alive was luck or fate. “Ant Farm” connects with “Running Out of Choices” when the speaker states “sooner or later, everything has a turn being vice.” (T.H. p.21), similar to how corrupt “everything” becomes in “Running Out of Choices” Needless to say, there is a prevalent pessimism in both poems. The sum of all these parts is a powerful message: if knowledge, freedom and choices can lead to an unsatisfying or even haunted state of mind, then maybe a predetermined, unexamined life, even though more restricted, may be a more pleasurable way of living.