The principles of concealment

The poetry of David Wagoner asks us which strategy we choose in life. Well known in coaching circles for his poem ‘Lost‘, my favourite poem is ‘The principles of concealment’. You can listen to him read it here.

The poem explores the idea of camouflage as an approach involving hiding, fear, blending in. Rather better, he suggests, to accept our place as part of nature – by extension an equal part of life and people around us – and therefore to stand out in all our glory.

Which strategy do you choose in life?

If you’re caught in the open
In an exposed position, alone,
Disarmed, and certain you may be
Attacked at any moment, you should settle quickly
All your difference with whatever lies
Around you, forcing yourself to agree
With rocks and bushes, trees and wild grass,
Horses, cows, or sheep, even debris
To find what you have in common. You no longer
Want to seem what you are, but something
Harmless and familiar: in a landscape
Given to greenness and the cold pastels
Of stubble and field stone,
Protective coloration may be too much
To hope for, beyond your powers
Like the beatitudes of browsing
And those conspicuously alarming colors
That declare you’re poisonous
Or taste terrible—all may be doomed
To fail with an enemy equipped to kill
From a distance. Your shape betrays you,
And you should try to break it
With disruptive patterns: if an enemy sees you
Not as a whole, but as a head distinct
From a torso, as legs or arms
By themselves, he may ignore you
And let you have your moment
In the sun as an abstraction gone
To pieces, as a surface mottled and dappled
Ambiguously by intercepted light
Like a man canceled. But all these efforts
Will come to nothing if you move: one gesture
May catch all eyes. If you stand
Still then, or stay seated
If you’re sitting down, or go on lying
Down if you’re lying, an easy solution
May occur to you, cheek to cheek
With the hard facts of inorganic life:
That you have no enemy,
That no one is hunting you,
That all your precautions were a waste
Of attention better given to more rewarding
Evasions and pursuits. If so,
And you take your place again
As a distinct departure
From your foreground and background,
You should know it’s possible
For you to feel, after all,
At the first step, at the first crack
Out of the box, that lethal impact,
That private personal blow marking your loss
Of the light of day, the companionship
Of the night, and the creature comforts of home
As you become a member
Of that other civilization spreading itself
Around you, ready and able and still
Called the natural world.

David Wagoner, The Principles of Concealment. From David Wagoner, The House of Song, University of Illinois Press, Urbana and Chicago, 2002

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