Animals Strike Curious Poses
by Elena Passarello
Published 2017 by Sarabande Books
$19.95 hardcover ISBN 978-1941411391
By Noah Sanders
Animals Strike Curious Poses—the second essay collection by Whiting Award winning author Elena Passarello—is about, well, animals. Elephants, bears, the woolly mammoth, and more – each “immortalized by humans.” It is more than this though: this is a book about how our interactions with animals, have altered and invariably improved, our perceptions, our imaginations and our abilities to fathom the world. Passarello artfully explores how humans defined themselves through the wild spirits of animals, and how, over time, we redefined the relationship until the “animal life” became, “so dependent on humans that it [was] no longer viable alone.” Animals Strike Curious Poses is a quirky, adventurously penned book struck through with a dark idea: for all that animals have given us, we’ve given them the shit side of the stick in return.
Passarello’s essays sprint across the human timeline, touching down every few thousand years to relate another tale of how animal existence opened yet another door for human understanding. In, 39,000BP, the woolly mammoth Yuka kicks off the author’s far-reaching survey of man and natures neurological and artistic connection. “Before it became anything else,” the author writes, “the human brain was first an almanac of living shapes changing in the passing light.” We, as cavemen, recorded the beauty and ferocity of the natural world only in our grey matter the weight of all that retained knowledge eventually needing release, expression even. Leading to a caveman further up the timeline, charcoal in hand, drawing a mammoth in motion on a cave wall. Yuka becomes an impetus for art, for the very act of human creation.
Our entanglement with animals became more complicated as we ourselves grew more complicated. Vogel Starr, the beloved pet starling of a young Amadeus Mozart, inhaled his compositions and spat them back out through the garbled filter of a bird’s indecipherable mind. The strange squawks and croaks it instinctively produced pushing the composer past the boundaries of 18th century composition. Animals, knowingly or not, in art, science and beyond, have imprinted themselves across the human conscious. About Arabella, a spider who accompanied NASA’s 1973 Skylab III crew into space, Passarello writes, “The distance from a spider to the end of her six-inch silk tether is a man drifting on a sixty-foot umbilical. A man tumbling from end to end of a space station is a spider free-falling down a four-foot web.”
The latter half of Animals Strike Curious Poses strikes a darker tone, as modern humans find ourselves no longer content with capturing animals on cave walls, instead we capture, and contain the animals themselves. “Jumbo III” recounts the decades of man’s fascination with elephants, and their exploitation as circus acts. The elephant represents the wildness of exotic lands, but when, inevitably, the wildest amongst them turned against us, our only response was to showcase our control over their mortality. As the author jumps closer to the present, man needs more than even control over the physical beings of the animal world, we make them talk, we animate them, we shape them to our own whims. Near the end of the book, Passarello writes of her own interaction, and the guilt in her own enjoyment of a goat altered at birth so it could be shown as a unicorn. She writes, “I didn’t grasp, or refused to consider, what kind of subjection was possible— the various ways humans open up and alter other creatures.”
Passarello toys with the essay form to best represent each animal in its most prominent era, to which she succeeds to varying degrees. Her fantastic piece on Darwin’s development of the Theory of Evolution is told through the eyes of a 175-year old lovesick turtle. But, her essay “Jeoffry,” a confounding take on English poet Christopher Smart’s Jubilate Agno, seems so amused by its own playful form, that the intent and meaning of the piece is lost. Passarello is best when she’s working loosely within the traditional essay form; her eccentric writing and fiction-like tellings of each animal’s existence livening up what could be dry facts, emboldening the philosophical themes that underlie her writing.
“Once, and for a very long time,” Passarello writes, “[animals] surrounded people and culture in a close circle that connected to both the everyday and the spiritual.” Times have changed though, as Passarello tells us, and our cultural reflections of animals are relegated to “neutered pets, as kept zoo creatures, or as ‘commercial diffusions of animal imagery.’” “Cecil,” the final essay in the book, is a barely a page long, a transcription of an interview between Dr. Walter Palmer, the dentist who killed the famed African lion Cecil, and The Associated Press. He says, “Obviously, if I’d have known this lion had a name I wouldn’t have taken it.” We created art because the wild nature of animals inspired us, and now, tens of thousands of years later, we’ve hidden that wildness behind cute names and stuffed representations. So much so that without the stamp of human nomenclature, animals have become nothing more than an acceptable trophy to hang on our walls.