In Animals Strike Curious Poses, Elena Passarello presents seventeen essays about famous animals, ranging from a 39,000 year-old frozen woolly mammoth to Cecil, the lion killed by a recreational hunter in 2015. Throughout the book, Passarello (author of the essay collection Let Me Clear My Throat) engages with myth, textbook, science, and art, while weaving in her own imagination and reflection. With precise, meticulously researched detail, she tells each animal’s story in its own right while also reflecting on how animals have shaped the human imagination and our understanding of mortality.
Made up of seventeen distinct essays, Animals Strike Curious Poses is best read not in a single sitting but with a break between chapters. The essays are similar in voice, but the forms of each essay—as well as the investigative questions being asked—vary starkly, as each essay adapts a new form to match its content. “Jeoffry” reimagines the missing sections of Christopher Smart’s famous poem/essay, “My Cat Jeoffry.” “Vogel Staar” incorporates musical arrangements as it contrasts the avant-garde song stylings of starlings, one of which was kept by Mozart in his composition room, with Mozart’s own work. “Osama” alternates between sections from a textbook about “literary description” and Passarello’s reflections on naming and projection. Each essay warrants some individual ruminating before the reader moves on to the next.
With perhaps one exception, the various essay forms all click. In particular, “Jumbo II”—which presents a chronicle of America’s development in the nineteenth century through parallel narratives about the development of electricity and the circus elephants that began touring the country around that time—is haunting for a long time afterward. Another high point is “Sackerson,” an essay about a fighting bear in seventeenth-century London, which is made up of iambic, highly stylized sections that could be as accurately described as stanzas as they could paragraphs. An excerpt: “Elizabeth, who never said hullo, loved him enough to ban all Thursday sport. Upon the mildest Thursdays, he’d parade out past the playhouse, down to London Bridge. He’d smell the ragmen, actors, punks in stews who yelled for him in ripe cacophony. The bulls, in ribboned horns, all marched behind; the cocks-in-boxes and the dogs behind. The Only Bear That Ever Led the Dogs.”
“Harriet,” a direct address to a lovesick tortoise from Darwin’s HMS Beagle, is the one essay I wasn’t quite sure what to make of, but that might just be the predilection of one reader. Otherwise, each essay thrives—and does so according to new, distinctive terms each time.
In most essays, Passarello relies primarily on research and imaginative asides, generally eschewing explicit personal reflection. The notable exception is “Lancelot,” an essay that engages with John Berger’s influential essay “Why Look at Animals” while simultaneously reflecting on Passarello’s own formative experience seeing an alleged unicorn in the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus as a child. As an adult, Passarello has discovered that the unicorn was in fact a goat, though this revelation has not reduced the formativeness of the experience. It’s worth quoting Passarello exactly regarding the goat unicorn, as it shows the precision and clarity with which she commonly renders research throughout the book: “. . . an enterprising human with a fresh goat on her hands can divide the kidskin forehead into four dermal flaps and rearrange them—in a process called ‘pedicling’—so that when the horns form, they fuse over the pineal gland and erupt as a single keratin pillar.”
Passarello’s use of personal reflection may be sparse, but it’s economic and impactful. “Lancelot” showcases the kind of thinking and reflection that represent the personal essay at its best and most exciting. The essay appears toward the end of the book, and the reflection from that essay casts a light on all of the essays that preceded it, leading to an enormous payoff.
The bibliography for Animals Strike Curious Poses is extensive, and Passarello is an expert at distilling a wealth of texts into the most essential, compelling statistics or most startling, hilarious quotes. While presenting the researched stories with the attention they warrant on their own, Passarello also gives herself permission to interject her own imagination in places that can’t be known for certain. She explores and interrogates the implications of the many desires and fears we have projected onto animals—the fears they reflect back to us, and the ways we understand the will to live through them.
And by the end, despite the variety from essay to essay, the book does cohere as a whole. In some instances, the essays speak to one another explicitly—an essay about the current efforts to “re-wild” parts of Siberia by bringing back the woolly mammoth echoes the book’s first essay about the frozen woolly mammoth—while in other cases, the questions raised in one essay may also add a layer of meaning to the reading of the next. At times devastating, at times hilarious—and guided by Passarello’s force of a voice— Animals Strikes Curious Poses is lively, engaging, and surprising throughout.
MICHAEL PALMER’s work has appeared in Bellingham Review, The Georgetown Review, Alligator Juniper, Cobalt, and elsewhere. He is the nonfiction editor of Arcadia. He lives in Chicago, Illinois.
Animals Strike Curious Poses, by Elena Passarello. Sarabande Books, 2017
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