24 July 2011

REVIEW: Correct Animal

In the opening section of Rebecca Farivar's book Correct Animal (Octopus Books 2011), readers encounter the poem “Le vieil homme et la mer” (French for “Old man in the sea”), which can be read as an ars poetica for the collection as a whole:

No matter where you go
you are a small thing
inside a large thing
filling yourself
with smaller things
like the difference
between a fishless desert
and a desert without fish
or an entire plate of fries. (14)

We can read “you,” in this instance, as the text itself, such that the minimalist poem is “a small thing / inside a large thing,” wherein the “large thing” is the particular discourse or thematic field in which an individual poem locates itself. Moreover, the “smaller things” within these already “small things” (i.e. the poems) are the words themselves. What is“the difference,” then, between “a fishless deserts” and “a desert without fish,” which the poem uses as an example of said “smaller things”? Quite literally, “the difference” between them is the difference between eighteen and twenty-one characters. In other words, there is a linguistic economy found in “a fishless desert” that is more frugal than “a desert without fish”; and, at least aesthetically, this economy attempts to undermine “The indignity of needing / to fill empty space” (57), or the belief that “more is better,” by championing poetic compression wherein we discover something as expansive as“land [can be] collapsed into sound” (62).

One maybe compelled to ask, then, what are these “large things” found within Correct Animal? In the first section of the book, one can reasonably argue that the “large thing” enveloping the “small things” is the nature-culture binary in an effort to conflate these distinctions via the aforementioned linguistic and spatial economy. More precisely, to achieve this effect Farivar employs spartan imagery wherein she juxtaposes and combines objects from both the natural and human worlds for the purpose of ornamentation. For example:
decorate the tree.
Ornaments dangling
from every branch. (3)
Other conflation techniques the poet uses are associative logic, wherein beached whales that have been “washed to shore” are compared to the mass suicide of the “Heaven's Gate” (4) cult; and metamorphosis, such that “my breath turns air to dust” (10) so that the human body becomes a organic machine transforming the world around it.

In the second section, the “large thing” appears to be literature and, perhaps, our reception and consumption of it within a contemporary culture that privileges concise and efficient texts (i.e. tweets, status updates, etc) more so than expansive ones. To wit, the titles in section two are taken from famous works, such as Wharton's The House of Mirth, Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury, and Hawthorne's “The Birthmark,” just to name a few. While some of these selections read, merely, as micro-summaries, others employ language so deftly that they equal, if not surpass, their namesakes' beauty. Take, for instance, “The Awakening”:
He disrupts you—you are
a very bad mother—

and moves you
to a mood.

You did sweat
into skin.

You did swim
toward the tear. (29)
The second and penultimate stanzas, in the space of eleven words, manage to capture fully Edna Pontellier's psychosomatic torment, while final stanza does the same for her eventual suicide. It seems what Chopin took over three-hundred pages to accomplish, Farivar succeeds at in four couplets. While the project of re-writing literary classics may seem somewhat pompous, Farivar's tone is both utilitarian and self-effacing when she writes “anything can be / cut and stuffed // in a can” (38), thus making them both palatable and enjoyable.

Finally, the “large thing” found within the closing section of Correct Animal is the human life-cycle itself, perhaps reminiscent of Pozzo's declaration in Waiting for Godot that “one day we were born, one day we shall die, the same day, the same second, is that not enough for you?” That is to say, in the opening poem “Conception,” we find a gestation period that lasts no more than a few hours: “I am pregnant tonight / and only tonight” (47); followed by “all the paths...her body” takes during life in“While Making Love,” which we can “read [in] each line” (49) of the poem; and concluding with a funeral scene in “Horse Forms on the Hillside,” wherein “grievers will inhale the ash until it's breathed away” (59). Birth, life, and death in the same section, the same poem, is that not enough for you?

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