A Big Box of Mind Candy

Interrupting Infinity Exclusive Content. © 2012 by David St.-Lascaux

A review of the poetry anthology It’s Animal but Merciful (great weather for media, 2012)

30 September 2012

Its-Animal-but-Merciful-front-cover-243x300IF YOU ARE A NUMEROLOGIST, the number 58,000 might interest you. It is, for example, the number by which Bertrand Russell claimed the global population increased every day in 1951, the Census Bureau says the U.S. population increases per week today; the population of both the continent-sized Greenland and one of the world’s smallest countries – the Marshall Islands, and, eerily, the number of stray dogs said to have been intentionally killed in a three-month period in Baghdad in 2010 (ho-hum, collateral of empire). The number 58,000 is even more interesting because it is the lowest number down to which Europe’s human population was calculated by an evolutionary scientist to have possibly once declined. The prevalence of the number 58,000 is enough to make one superstitious.

Dividing by 1,000, 58 is the number of poets involved in It’s Animal but Merciful, an anthology from “great weather for media,” an international collective of poets, and whose title is from a poem by the late Brant Lyon, the group’s co-founder. Actually, there are 55 poets (you are hereby spared a numerological elaboration of 55), plus editors Thomas Fucaloro, Jane Ormerod and George Wallace. Voilà: 58.

It’s Animal but Merciful draws the reader into a page-turning set of accessible, provocative poems and short stories.

Writing reviews of anthologies is, to say the least, a challenge. On the plus side, there’s the “box of candy” phenom: one is theoretically treated to an unpredictable cornucopia of human creativity and perspectives (in reality, poets are usually complaining about something, or trying to be dazzling or poignant), which is great if you like variety. Conversely, reading mostly one-off poems by a large number of poets poses four main problems: the reader is unable to consecutively access a broader body of each poet’s work, and any continuity is imaginary or coincidental; mental gymnastics are required by the disjunction of moving from one poet’s mindset and poetic syntax to the next; hardly anyone actually has the attention span to read 136 pages’ worth of anything, let alone poetry, anymore; and that worthy work is inevitably left out of the review. (These challenges also bedevil group reading and art show reviews.) Gratifyingly, It’s Animal sails past these dilemmas, drawing the reader into a page-turning set of accessible, provocative poems and short stories, validating the prefatory hyperbole. Impressively, the editor-poets have practiced the rarely seen self-restraint not to include their own poems, further increasing the collection’s credibility.

Highlights of It’s Animal include Puma Perl’s humorous short story prose poem “Squeeze Play,” about a blue collar Southern boyfriend with a big, dysfunctional family (and her pliable breasts). Aimee Herman’s “Body, No Body Here,” is a pudendal time travelog arriving at Human Papillomavirus, which, according to the Center for Disease Control, “is the most common sexually transmitted virus in the United States. At least 50% of sexually active people will have genital HPV at some time in their lives,” and which we may therefore probabilistically assume will resonate with its audience. Daniel Aristi’s “Single Female Ice Cream, 08:34 p.m. – Liverpool, UK,” provides a menu for glacemancy –  divination by frozen dessert:

… For the beginner
I’d recommend Bulgarian Yogurt:
a white canvas piece of life – no fruit chunks doubling as ex-husbands –
and a dash
of fookin’ Tolstoy

(for the revise, make it 20:34 and cut “p.m.”).

Accommodating this review’s numerological conceit, Mary McLaughlin Slechta’s “And Then There Were None,” based on the racist/innocent Native American (and African American) finger-toe-play counting song, begins:

“What kind of Indian are you?”
a Feather Indian asks at the end of the line
in the A&P and Ten signs a trail along her check
and points to Vogue…

Richard Loranger’s fluid, anaphoric “Mud Song” (“May I have your mind. || May I have your sweet please form….”) is an alliterative, musical hymn to corporeality, diminished only by the clunking “claudicant cup” (don’t bother) and a familiar ring:

Your mud in my hands, over the plains.
Grass sighs. Raw breeze. Your sweet stains.
I carry you and you are rain.

Charles F. Thielman’s “Translating Gathered Light,” set among the “tideline broken shells,” contains proverbial hidden gems, including:

Fingering the agates in a pocket, he
wonders if he could sense their
gathered light, then translate

Karen Hildebrand’s “Binomial Nomenclature” intrigues (”I would trail the family tree in my grandmother’s bible, || tracing my finger backward among the branches….”) up to its mathematically convoluted, legalistic closing:

Back then, I had no reason to doubt
the space beneath my name would one day
be filled with anything less than desire.

It’s not clear that Hildebrand intended to mean what she wrote, here with the requisite operations performed: “Back then, I had every reason to believe that the space beneath my name would someday be filled with a lack of desire.” That’s sad.

Riffing Ralph Ellison and Richard Wright, Skoo D. Foo, Da Bom!’s excerpt from “The Ape is Dead,” is an engaging short (I’ll spare you Bildungsroman after dissing “claudicant”) on the minority experience at Columbia:

We ended up at the Cuban restaurant that he had, in fact, turned me on to. We ordered the Broke College Negro Special (oversized bowls of black bean soup with white rice), tall glasses of ice water with lemon….

Rich Ferguson’s rap-like, ambitious “See How We Are” overreachingly attempts to catalog the human condition, and why not:

Born and reborn
into power and imprisonment;
liberation, victimization;
travesties, savageries;
devotions and deities.

We are. We were.
We continue to be:

The collection has its duds (please don’t ever ask me again to read an anthology containing a “poem” entitled “Asshole”), as must be expected, but life is too short to enumerate them here, except to note that Joan Gelfand’s “Bach Flower Remedies” would be hilarious if she had written it, rather than copying wholesale the text of the Remedies’ labels. It’s not OK to do that, even if one regards homeopathy as pathetic. On the other hand, Christopher Luna’s “The Gleaner and I,” which allusively cribs Graham Greene, Henry Miller, Steven Spielberg, Chang-dong Lee and Kanye West – with identifying notes, pulls off what Michael Robbins (and Andy Warhol and Haruki Murakami and David Foster Wallace [OMG! David Foster Wallace! David Foster Wallace! David Foster Wallace!]) utterly fails to do in his low-culture kitchen sink cut-up, Alien vs. Predator (Penguin, 2012), presenting the flarfic Ouija-screen rantings of a post-tech-apocalyptic John Cage chatbot. Once the Polonian advice and the wretched closing simile are deleted, it will be so very “liekable.”

Foreign poets add a detectable international flavor to It’s Animal, which is also national in its American scope.

The collection ends nicely with Flores’s also anaphoric “Just Another Day in Baghdad,” which contains:

the roar of maids having orgasms in castles.
the roar or myth.
the roar of proportions.

Flores – born in Mexico and now living in Central Texas, Aristi, the Philippine Marie Dominique E. Dela Paz and several Canadian poets add a detectable international flavor to It’s Animal, which is also national in its American scope, with poets from the West Coast, Midwest and Northeast. In addition to a substantial number of emerging poets, notable poets in It’s Animal include Peter Carlaftes, Janet Hamill, David Lawton, John J. Trause, and another 37 I’ve unforgivably left out.

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It’s Animal but Merciful is available online at great weather for media’s website at this link.

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