This pamphlet (with poems from The North, Brittle Star, Poetry Salzburg Review, etc.) won the 2015 MsLexia prize. At a reading the poet suggested that the pamphlet had two main themes - veterinary life and secrets, especially between family members. Of the 19 poems, 13 mostly concern animals and the others aren't shy of mentioning them. That said, those 13 poems often involve people too.
I like the way that the poems don't anthropomorphize or use animals as mere metaphor. I think animals/humans are on a continuum. A person brain-damaged from birth may well have less of a sense of justice, say, than apes or crows have, and there may be various reasons why people lack a sense of self, or sympathy with others, a dog being better company. This book lets us slide smoothly along that continuum.
The collection begins with "The Complete Science" (which is apparently what anatomy used to be described as). "We" ("We approach cautiously, the dogs in their crucifixion poses") becomes "I" ("I clung to Miller's dissection guide like my first alphabet,/ where A was always for apple, B for Ball") towards the end when the student retreats into the certainties of childhood. In between, "We ... agreed with Harvey that life was more than just ebb and flow ... We had no knowledge yet of the skin's elasticity, its unexpected warmth". Anatomy may only be a science but within it there's much from the humanities too. Observer becomes observed and vice versa - "the splayed exhibits in front of us ... grinned and looked the other way". By the end the medical student's aged and begun to be part of the world of science - "wrinkled latex fingers marked with the indentation of forceps".
This coming to terms with reality (and integration of personal response with the norms of society) progresses through various animal poems (which sometimes replicate the "we"->"I" of the first poem) until we reach "Trapped", about a deer in a goal-net, which begins in the first person singular before introducing the first person plural in the final stanza. Here the book has its volta. The next poem, "In the balance", describes a kestrel poised on the breeze, but it's being watched by a couple who "walked in silence ... Tired of fighting". The interlocking "day ... Bay ... way" and "Tired ... admire ... spires" triplets in the first stanza demonstrate a type of balance, a dynamic equilibrium. At any time the kestrel might swoop. It's followed by "Wearing Gold" about mothers' rings, and what their removal or looseness might symbolise. There are then a few more "people poems" before the animals return in poems where the point-of-view is more animalistic, but the final poem is very much back to people.
There's a sestina, an acrostic, a sonnet, a prose poem (actually I'd call it prose), a poem heavy on anaphora, and a poem that reverses time. Here are a few notes on individual poems -
- "Observations" starts by looking, then looking away from stark realities, then offering to teach us about nature's ruthlessness - scientific observations become more general ones.
- "Play Zoo" grew on me. I like how the reader doesn't know where it's going to lead. First there's restraint, then the male dominance, then love, then sex then blood.
- "Suturing Secrets" itemizes how the body's compartments and (broken) membranes might suppress and hide, a task completed by suturing the secret inside
- "Hounds- Stigmergy" is entitled just "Hounds" in the table of contents. Stigmergy is "a method of communication in which individuals communicate with one another by modifying their local environment" - the way a shoal of fish for example might coordinate their movements.
My favourites (a higher percentage of poems than in most books I read) are "Complete Science", "Trapped", "In the Balance", "Maps", and "Play Zoo".
See Seren's page for more details.