- A Very Different Animal
64 Pages; Print, $25.00
The University of Arkansas Press
190 Pages; Print, $19.95
Salamander—first ingredient stirred into the witches’ cauldron in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Legendary and mythical creature who also happens to be real—its fantastical qualities inspired by and riding its natural traits, a sort of leap-frogging of facts. Hibernating in rotting logs, the creature would manifest in flames when wood was put on the fire, giving it the reputation of some elemental fire being. How fitting and fantastic, then, to see salamander appear in the interplay of poems and woodcuts, each carving out the space between observation and imagination. Salamander: A Bestiary, a collaboration between poet Leonard Schwartz and artist Simon Carr, as well as Cleo (Schwartz’s daughter and frog-catching accomplice), offers us a menagerie of porous portraits, both laughing and probing.
In this book amphibious is the key, kept slipping through our hands. How can we anthropomorphize animals without confining their nature? And what is the alternative of not imagining, not engaging? As Schwartz says of the creative correspondence between the writing and the woodcuts, it’s a game of “capture and release”—a back and forth that fundamentally loses track of which comes first. There is the salamander, the spider, the wolf, and mosquito, and then our perception and interpretation. Or the other way round? There is a slippery dance. Holding onto any creature, “If we release it, it loses resemblance, and if we contain it, we force an identification.” There is a tango of dark and light, solid and void—the face of the woodcuts in this collection. Among these airy poems—spare black on white—and kinetic prints—vervy blanks into black—the contrast is the point of potential touch.
The poems, like the shapes of the creatures they address, vary—from a single line to haiku-like condensations to longer and broader anecdotes. Often they are funny on the sly. Like a koan, they can read like a grinned riddle, as in “Dog”:
People always want to make dogs self-identical. To dogs. Tothemselves. But it isn’t true. Dogs are not dogs. Dogs arenot persons.
Dogs are not dogs.
For the sake of both reality and whimsy, these creaturely analogies don’t take themselves too seriously. What better example than that fantastical-natural being, “Every Salamander”:
If only we learn to make our skinAs poisonous as theirsAt all the right moments,Not internalizing one little bitOf the necessary defense.(It isn’t easy,Not internalizingNecessary poisonsFor one’s own defense.)
Just as the poem puts on weight of philosophy, it slips into the wry smile of parentheses, repeating and levitating the analogy. A very salamander move. Also good for our survival. When “All we see / Has the solidity / Of elk”—solid and formidable, yet, mere flesh, flashing past, barely glimpsed. Our oceans, horizons and identities—those things that seem solidly composed—are, we’re reminded, mutable and ephemeral as muscle, as an “Orca Calf”: “...bones spongy and light / With space for air.”
Capture and release is a game of boldness and humility, as well as losing track of the order. Perhaps the more turned around the better. In this bestiary, bewilderment cuts space into solid woods. “A blonde raven, not driven by rules / Anyone of us can obey or even recognize, / Disrupts the color in everything else.” Without power of true emulation or comprehension, we project our inner world onto the otherness all around us. It’s only human. This collection shows the amphibious advantage: a doubleness, a neitherness, a name and its opposite. Says Schwartz in his introduction, “Because our relationship to the animal is often characterized by entrapment and confinement, by detachment and blindness, I wanted to imagine another way.” As owls “occupy certain dark niches of our common space,” we, “as animals ourselves,” are invited...