Animalities by David Dodd Lee

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Animalities, David Dodd Lee’s ninth collection, is prefaced by a quote from French philosopher Michel Foucault: “The relations with animality are reversed; the beast is set free.” This quote can be found in Foucault’s Madness and Civilization, his seminal work tracing the history of madness as a concept. In his discussion of the Renaissance, Foucault points to the obsessions with the unnatural as a way for man to access some normally inaccessible truth about the human experience, to find “one of the secrets and one of the vocations of his nature…reveal him to his own truth.” But the only means of admission to this reality is animality; man must be unbound from reason and human law if he wants to understand himself completely.

Animalities looks for the truths that can be found only amidst such freedom. Its imagistic, subversive poems both question and exemplify the unnatural, maintaining a critical eye on man’s suppositions. Like the chimeras of Renaissance art, these poems embody contradictions:

                                                                           I almost want to say
I know what I want now, this trail of “no light” in all its remedial

   brilliance, unfollowable.
But I don’t know, do I? I’m stuck with this carnage and joy.

Constantly, the figures in these poems re-evaluate reality. The result is a world at times amorphous and austere. What feels like a long time need only be measured in minutes; after eight minutes, the sky can lose all traces of the coming storm one was once certain of. Earlier in “Carnage,” the above-quoted poem, the speaker realizes,

One can’t really say one was lucky to have lived. Though perhaps
it seems so to you, to me. There aren’t any stars, just bodies blown out

   of consciousness
along with all consciousness; everything is abstract, retreating from form.

The tone of this assertion carries an insistence for clarification, like a teacher presupposing a pupil’s confusion or question. Like many of the figures throughout Animalities, the speaker in “Carnage” craves some kind of order, even if the only means of achieving it is through the observation of disorder. The speaker is an explorer, and despite the inaccuracies of our perceptions, these poems still look for answers.

One of the most striking qualities of these poems lies in their astute, dream-like imagery. Lee artfully partners abstract thought with both the familiar and the fantastic. In “The Soul as a Skiff,” straightforward, narrative sentences are complicated by the surreal:

Today my door facing the lake blows wide

open. A cardinal standing on my lawn is swallowing
an emotional rabbit. It is not upsetting. The sun is shining on Baugo Bay.

With beauty and delirium, the speaker leads us through this reality of “carnage and joy.” These images resist 032simplification. Like a magic show, any moment the rabbit will vanish; the crowd will be left in awe. But we are assured that the grotesque image of the half-swallowed rabbit should cause no concern. The rabbit’s demise is “not upsetting,” the speaker says. This impermanence causes no sadness, no darkening, but a bright light.

The book is divided into three unnumbered sections. The middle section contains one three-page, five-section poem: “For the Country,” the only one in the collection to exceed one and a half pages. Set in a Wakarusa, Indiana café, this poem shifts against reconciliation, setting the mood of the rest of the book. “For the Country” is uninterested in straight-narrative, or even staying in one setting. Instead, this poem leaps from place to place, speaker to speaker. It embodies multiple moments in one—another half-man/half-beast hybrid of this collection. What begins in the present of the café soon moves to an italicized scene in someone’s home. The first eleven lines of the poem utilize perfect punctuation; by the last two sections, the punctuation is almost all missing. Several poems following “For the Country” continue to use punctuation sparingly, underlining the effects of this acuteness.

From “Room for Rent”:

The house is a cove, the house
is a cove, the house is a cove, the

house is
a city, a stone’s throw, a kindly

regurgitation, I’ll admit

Perhaps my favorite aspect of Animalities is simply hearing such lines roll off my tongue. The charismatic musicality of Lee’s poetic ear accompanies me as I delve into the unnatural, the confusing, and the difficult to parse. The surreal and the subversive survive in an appetizing proposal structured by a dynamic melodiousness. I’m constantly struck by the desire to hear a line again and again.

The final poem in the collection, “The Impossibility of Loving Mankind as a Whole,” scrutinizes the unfortunate circumstance of a goose that is “simply shot.” As a truck with a deer in the back drives by, the speaker considers how the deer and the goose differ:

deer in a pile, hooves separated; there’s no divinity like making
a sale, cleaning the hills to a burnished luster. This other wasn’t

   for meat—
dead wings in the water—or sport. Goose as fragment of the benevolent

imagination of oceans, lord of the sea-skies—we pray.

How is one to understand the violence with which mankind approaches other living creatures? The poem asserts that we pray “[f]or the bird, / not man.” But what we’re left thinking of when we finish this poem, when we finish Animalities, is not the goose or the cardinal, or the rabbit disappearing before our eyes. We’re left with man and his sterile madness—his toes clenching into hooves; his shoulders sprouting wings.

Jessica Guzman Alderman is a Florida native and the daughter of Cuban immigrants. Her work has appeared in Barely South Review and Sleet, among others. More from this author →