Friday, July 27, 2018

Animalalia Liz Hutchinson

Poet Liz Hutchinson

Liz Hutchinson
Salem, Mass.: Yes/No Press, 2017
ISBN 9780692837757, $14.95

Reviewed by David P. Miller

Poems about animals: a keyword search in on the simple word “animals” brings 326 results on July 19, 2018, including titles such as “Four Questions Regarding the Dreams of Animals” (Susan Stewart), “To Pipe the Animals Aboard Noah’s Ark” (Constance Urdang) and “O My Sweet Animals” (Salvatore Quasimodo). I immediately think of Ogden Nash’s poems for The Carnival of The Animals, read by Noel Coward on an LP I had in childhood. The book in hand, Liz Hutchinson’s Animalalia, doesn’t have animal, beast, creature, etc. words in any of the poems’ titles: the titles themselves are mute. That is, the titles are drawings: the contents page matches thumbnails with page numbers. There are thirteen sections, each dedicated to the creature in the drawing. In the drawings (by Scout Hutchinson), those creatures who have faces (not all do) have their backs to us or regard us obliquely. None of them face us. They aren’t performing or posing, and they certainly don’t explain themselves to us. They’re not available to become videos on social media.

Animalalia consists mostly of prose poems, with one numbered statement or section per page. The book design is generous, with plenty of white space to invite reflection or daydreaming before moving on. Most are in four to ten sections; the longest (fox) has twelve. The briefest consists of one unnumbered page: this is for the animal represented by a drawing of a constellation. It would be a spoiler to say more about that one. Three of the sections (rabbit, fox, and cat) are presented in pages of verse paragraphs.

It is difficult to generalize about Liz Hutchinson’s animal-writing, and that’s a sign of the work’s strength. Each creature requires its own approach to the challenge of minding the gap between our (often facile) sense of identification with other humans, and our typical difficulties with “understanding animals,” once we drop the habit of anthropomorphizing. We’re all sentient beings, but the spaces among our sentiences are permanent mysteries. And we just have to keep trying to find our way in: we don’t really know how Dr. Doolittle managed it, say. We can be sure, though, that “Hello, I’m a giraffe, have you ever seen anything like me?” or the like is pretty much played out.

Human/other animal communication is immediately enabled and prevented by the premise of Bear. The reader has been waiting, apparently – “After what feels like a long time” – and the spark almost jumps the gap – “the bear rips the page out of her notebook, folds it twice. When you open it, you see that her folding has marred the ink.” It’s the instant failure of anthropomorphizing hope: the bear has a notebook with a message just for you, available and impossible. “It might have been […] it might have been” a great many things: esoteric bear dance steps, a story about her break-in to the house of Three Goldilockses, a refutation of your intrusive action: “Do I come to your den in the middle of the day? I don’t think so, I do not.” It might have been a berry stain. The bear is gone, and nothing remains but an undefined gesture between species.

Unlike Bear, Skunk lives where we do. Skunks have a knowledge of our extended spaces, but theirs is alien to ours: skunks map. “Skunks map your driveway.” “They have maps for things you’ve never heard of.” “They map out whole neighborhoods in chicken bones, draw slippery trails through lo mein.” We more or less know that our garbage can make their landmarks; we didn’t know that “night, the smell of snow, despair” are mapped too, as well as “more constellations […] more stars, all the things they point to.” Skunk’s knowledge is hermetic to us, but unintentionally: they just make different transparencies overlaid on the same phenomena. We might have access to something like this if, when “stoop[ing] down to pick up one skeletonized leaf” from the driveway, you might then “trace the map of your life: the taste of something sweet gone sour.”

Cat is, of course, famously one anchor of the cat/dog polarity. Is Cat actually there for you, cat lover? Is she, as some insist, faking it for food and housing? Does she maybe have only an orthogonal relationship with what we call affection? “Cat is a cat / accidentally // She didn’t mean / to do it / but there it is”. Maybe both she and you form relationships out of continual misunderstanding:

When Cat is inside
she is a cat

She wears her
self for you

You don’t know
who Cat is
when she’s outside

She looks at you
with big eyes
brings the sparrow inside

You watch its head
turn back and forth
in her mouth

It could be a matter of misread signals — “you see her / out in the neighborhood // looking at you / like she’s never seen you // like she’s never seen anything / on such slow stupid legs” — which have somehow stayed in a wobbly balance for millennia.

Perhaps it is because rabbits are inherently furtive (rarely living with us as pets, mostly seen running away) that the rabbit poems are elusive. Full of suggestion but bounding off into the underbrush. Plums, a jacket, rain, rabbits (but mainly the idea of rabbits): these elements combine and reconfigure in a multiply-folded puzzle. Who is speaking here?

mother told me
not to run
with plums in my

mouth mother
isn’t always

(Note in passing the stark brief line, “mouth mother” and the affirmation of “right” free of the denial “isn’t always.”) Or, what is a rabbit’s paw – a good luck charm or a means of escape? “there is no way // or knowing / which one it means / at any given time”. Perhaps they’re not animals at all, but tokens for “your hands // which you fold / like two rabbits / in your pockets” over-filled by plums. In most of the sections of Animalia, the creatures are named in upper-case (Bear, Crow, Fox), like proper names assigned to individuals. Not here, as there’s barely any actual rabbit anywhere.

Two more instances will further suggest the range of animal being in Animalalia. Coyote is an antihero: his is the outside case here of solo animal readable as solo human. This coyote is one we all thought we knew. His name is silenced, and I won’t tell you, but we know him as an animated figure fixated on a roadrunner. (Oh, that coyote.) What might it be like if his cartoons were documentary, a kind of cinema verité? His obsession blossoms into self-loathing and regret, his ACME bills are out of hand, he becomes the object of his desire, the archetypal Roadrunner, in his dreams. He finds roadrunner roadkill: “consumed by lust and terror … He devours it, bursts into tears and shakes for days afterward.” When he “falls from a great height,” as we’ve so often seen him do in these pursuits, what does this actually mean? “He does not collapse into a limbed accordion. He sprains his wrist, twists his ankle and hits his head. It’s all he can do to crawl home.” Existentially miserable, a prisoner of his compulsion, Coyote goes to the mountain, “dances Roadrunnercoyote, Coyoteroadrunner, round and round.” A new transformative legend arises from the hilarity of the premise: Liz Hutchinson beautifully works a piece of popular culture away from any expected meme.

The final example is the first: Owl, whose section begins the book. Owl is not found to be wise-old, and does not utter “whoo.” He begins in relationship with a dying tree, a state which seems apparent (“The owl rides the tree bareback. The owl and the tree are old friends.”) But the owl’s connections also seem opaque though plainly stated. He abandons the tree as soon as it dies and “takes the long way around the forest” to avoid it afterwards. The longings between owl and tree are asymmetric: the tree wants an owl hat but the owl only wears hats of other owls. The owl might stalk newborn kittens in a dumpster behind Burger King, but we only learn of the owl listening to their “collective, unsorted mewl.” Does the owl deliberately conceal its meanings from us, or are they disconnected by the owl’s very nature? (The opposite of the coyote’s tale.) Was it always impossible to go beneath bare observation? “Nobody knows if owls bury their dead because owls have a different definition of both the word bury and the word dead.” There’s a suggestion of linkage, that we might find owls in ourselves, but it stays empirical: “If I am an owl and you are an owl then we are probably all owls who drink from the same ceramic bowl.” The owl grazes us, scratching If you are an owl into the glass of a bedroom window, but there’s no then to go with if. A suggestion abandoned as soon as made.

I am pleased that Microsoft Word does not recognize the word Animalalia. Liz Hutchinson’s lucidly written but subtle parables could have been brought together under the title “Animalia,” of which the software approves. That could have signaled a more expected approach to the theme, instead of the faceted surprises found here. Congratulations and thanks to Yes/No Press for bringing this forward.

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