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.