Our Animal


Joshua Poteat, For the Animal.  Tucson, Arizona: New Michigan Press, 2013.


The working procedures for Joshua Poteat’s chapbook (described on the back cover) seem pretty strict – “9 fully-stopped lines per stanza, each opening with “For the animal”.  In one sense that’s true, for each poem is made of seemingly independent sentences that give up many other formal possibilities.  And yet there’s a great inventiveness, not in style but in tone and potential meaning.  It might be best to quote one poem in full, and although almost any of the eighteen included here would probably do, I’ll choose the second one.

For the animal in snow chooses what to fear.
For the animal pulls glass from her sleeping foot, golden as fog.
For the animal volunteers its illegible years to live inside the river.
For the animal manufactures the day.
For the animal there are flowers of purpose in death.
for the animal is not ancient.
For the animal is not accident.
For the animal chooses what pain to protect.
For the animal’s labor calls above the drought-lake.

It is a natural impulse to find coherence and meaning in language and I find myself strangely moved and puzzled by every one of these sentences.  There are similarities–a series of active statements followed by a couple of negative definitions, etc.  And there is, for me at least, a sense of flow.  Yet what exactly does any one of these sentences mean?  Take, for example, “The animal volunteers its illegible years to live inside the river.”  What is this sacrifice – or so I take it to be – that the animal makes?  Who or what is asking it to volunteer?  (It’s hard not to anthropomorphize.)  And why does it make the sacrifice?  For us?  Does living in the river relate somehow to choosing “what pain to protect” a few sentences down?  Whose pain is it, the animal’s or ours?

It seems to me that these are questions the poem doesn’t, refuses to answer.  Only we can – if we can, or choose to.  As for the animal, it (I almost wrote ‘he’) seems to me some sort of trickster figure that transforms itself at will.  Here it is, in lines taken from different poems:

A mocker: “For the animal shops for headstones online and gets a good deal.”

A god: “For the animal eradicates the eternal.”

A destroyer: “For the animal holds the nail gun against the rotted foot.’

A time traveller: “For the animal waves to us from across the years.”

A superhero: “For the animal encounters no barrier in its invisibility.”

A dumb American: “For the animal is frustrated by the failure of the Dallas Cowboys.”

A changeling: “For the animal was a girl once and was afraid.”

A Christ: “For the animal dies for you in several ways.”

Reading these poems, it sometimes feels to me that a line is exquisitely crafted and at other times that it must have been made by some online poem generator.  While I didn’t try it, I suspected that the lines could be mixed arbitrarily, with other combinations being no more or less effective.  True, there are occasional repeated words in adjacent lines (“childhood,” “white”) and some have last lines that feel somewhat final, but such things might happen by accident just as easily.

In the end, the animal feels to me like some religious figure, travelling through the years of human history, helping and harming, saving and condemning, sacrificing and just kibbitzing around.  But that’s just me; you might come up with something completely different, the way children lying on their backs on a summer day might find their own mysterious patterns in overhead clouds.


Boys and Trains


Kai Carlson-Wee, Anders Carlson-Wee, Mercy Songs.  Qatar: Diode Editions, 2016.


Mercy Songs is not merely a poetic collaboration between brothers; it is a work about brothers.  And it begins with a nostalgic and resonant evocation of a shared experience, a memory of an acute childhood sensory experience:

  We knew
by the whistle if one was a coal train, or one
was a mail train headed down south.  We knew
by the rhythm and clack of the joiners, the speed
they were taking the turns.  We knew there was
something important inside the sounds.

It’s not only a boyhood being evoked, but also what feels like a now disappearing industrial America of gritty blue-collar jobs: “The factory smoke stacks leaching off  / pillars of heat.”  Are these real memories or fictions?

In this world the two brothers played sometimes dangerous games, in which a hammer became a potential weapon and a pet frog a threatened hostage.  Entertainment was a matter of destroying without getting caught:

…lighting the trashcans on Division Street
on fire, watching the fat police lumber
to the flames.  And my thirteenth birthday,
setting off flares in the train yard, scraping my name
on the rust-lined door.  What became
of those abbreviated years?  Now they slump
inside the passing days like sand.

(“Deer Bones”)

Over and over these poems call on the elemental (fire, iron, wood, rock) with actions to match (stomping, hammering, smelting, beating).  Somewhere along the way the boys turn into men, but their lives seem only older and more desperate versions of what they had before.  They ride trains, beg on the street, survive on stamps and thrown-out food.   While many poems are written in a collective voice (“we”), others are clearly the work of one or the other, such as “Man in the Glass,” in which the damage of a neglected life gets stripped of its allure:

The anti-psychotics I took that year made the world
inside me sublime.  My eyes moved over
the shape of a face, the delicate wind in a tree.
I felt nothing.  I wrote no poems.
The language of beauty divided itself
into basic descriptions of fact.
I wandered from place to place…

And yet the nostalgia and even romance of such a life doesn’t disappear.  The real power of these poems is their muscular description, used to great effect in the title poem in which “Mercy Songs” reverberate in its rust-belt memories:

He heard them in the weight room, in the white
expanse of the courtyard covered in snow,
the way it reminded him always of Sundays,
waking up late in the empty apartment at noon,
pulling his socks on, holding a cold can
of Steele Reserve to his chest.  He heard them
in the mess hall, in the empty machine shop walls,
the drone of the late-night stations on faith…

This piling on of images is effecting, but sometimes become too much of a good thing.  A more careful use of them, combined with a greater variety of line length, space, breath, etc. might have made these good poems even better.  I was refreshed near the end to come upon “The Mark,” a poem that makes use of its three-line stanzas as it considers the question of what turned us into humans:

Some say fire, some say language.
Some say God made us in his image

on the sixth day.  some say tools,

some religion.  Some say whenever
we first dug a hole, marked
a grave – maybe the Neanderthal

family found in northern Spain:
skulls, ribs, jaws, dozens of teeth,
a nearly complete spine, a hand…

Here is still a piling of one image after another, but they are given more room to breathe.  The poem does end on a disappointingly obvious note (“Some say we’re still on the way // to becoming human”).  For me, the last lines of many of these poems are a bit of a let-down, as if the brothers don’t quite know what to do with their promising material.  However, as the saying goes, it’s the journey not the destination that matters.


The Short Schtick


Rebecca Salazar, Guzzle.  Anstruther Press, 2016.


A series of poems, all of a uniform size and shape, can feel almost calming to me, like biking over a sequence of identical and gently rolling hills. Rebecca Salazar’s Guzzle ought to feel that way, give that each of the nineteen poems is made of five couplets with natural line endings.

Calming they’re not. Not when her lines are so knotty, gnarled, bumpy, and stutteringly alliterative. “Black spruce swoop at oil-clots swamp” begins the first poem. “Impossible animals sinew the cranes of your bent neck,” continues the second. An almost fantastical mix of natural imagery and ordinary life, wildness and urbanity, they give to our days the anxiety of a prey-and-predator world:

You can’t reach your pants; the swans
At my bedside are pecking your pockets to bits. 

Resisting any direct narrative reading, the poems pile moments one upon the other, uneasy, physically aggressive, full of shame and effort and hurt and desire. Often I come upon odd juxtapositions that feel like they should but don’t make sense to me, like nights “tasting” of “whiskeyed, brassy orbs.”

Less frequently, the poems offer high romance. One begins

You’re my Brooklyn jazz cellist,
My barefoot, dog-walking cartographer

 and ends, “I ache only to love everything.” This is Salazar at her cleaned-up sweetest, but immediately she’s back to making us squirm as she forces us to watch her “pulling small fish from my skin” or witness “my molten-slag afterbirth.”

The poems are not without a wry sense of humour. When she writes, “I can’t fail to get the short end of your schtick” it occurs to me that she’s giving us both—the schtick and the short end. Reading Guzzle I feel as if I’ve been touched all over by hands sticky with some ripe organic goo, sometimes stroked, sometimes tickled, and sometimes slapped.