Inverse Anthropomorphisms and Animistic Animals in Recent Literature




























From the Arcade Dictionary of Word Origins:

Etymologically, an animal is a being which breathes (compare DEER). Its immediate source was the Latin adjective animālis 'having a soul,' a derivative of the noun anima 'breath, soul' (which also gave English the verb and adjective animate). Anima is a member of a set of related words in which the notions of 'breath, wind' and 'spirit, life' are intimately connected: for instance, Greek ánemos 'wind' (possible source for English anemone), Latin animus 'spirit, mind, courage, anger' (source of English animosity and animus) Sanskrit ániti 'breathe,' Old English ōthian 'breathe,'Swedish anda 'breathe, spirit,' and Gothic usanan, 'breathe out,' The 'breath' sense is presumably primary, the 'spirit, life' sense a metaphorical extension of it. 






















Memorials to Dead Animals ( courtesty of Gabriel Gudding's Conchology)













Speaking of flora and Kathryn Rantala's The Plant Waterer, I have had fauna on my mind a lot lately--not that I have had much success yet in getting it off my mind and on to paper. In the past I have favored more vegetative states, as expressed in my collaboration with Wendy Sorin, P.S. At Least We Died Trying..., of which Geof Huth gave an understanding and mathematically accurate review of the deep-rooted plant morphology. But lately, animals have been popping into my dreams and thoughts and figuring prominently in any new stories I have been writing.

I am not the only one with animals on the brain. To go back and give a full account of the history of animals in literature would be daunting (especially if we went all the way back to when Native Americans were alone on this continent speaking their myths), but I've noticed at least in the past 3 books I've read, animals have figured prominently. 

James Tate: return to the city of white donkeys

  • In The Memories of Fish, the narrator Stanley mocks the very fishiness of fish.

  • In Suburban Bison, the narrator and his friend are on their way to go bowling and get distracted by a herd of buffalo.

  • In The Camel, he receives a photograph in the mail of himself riding a camel in the desert even though he has never ridden, let alone dreamed of riding, a camel in the desert. 

  • In The Greater Battle, he is at an aquarium when a Great White shark, who evidently harbors feelings for him and starts ramming the glass walls of the tank.

  • When a fortune-teller in Half-eaten, tells him that there is a cougar in his future and he starts to believe this, it almost causes his girlfriend to leave him.

  • In The Great Horned Owl Has Flown, he is haunted by a stuffed owl he buys at a tag sale, that eventually disappears from his mantle place on its own accord.

  • In the last, and most telling piece of the collection, The Search for Lost Lives, he is chasing a blue butterfly, something he had "known in another life, even if it was only in a dream." 

... and many, many more from the master of anima-mating the subconscious into words. 

Much like "a picture says a thousand words," so does the choice of animal. As the saying goes, an animal's phylogeny recapitulates its ontogeny, so the choice of animal carries the impact of all the traits that animal has evolved and curated over the years. And their ontogeny is also recapitulated within our own human phylogeny-- meaty pieces of all animals are manifested in our collective unconscious.  


In Remainland: the Selected Poems of Aase Berg (translated by Johannes Göransson, published by Action Books), Aase Berg gets a lot of mileage from animals. In the Guinea Pig Cave, "There lay the guinea pigs and waited with blood around their mouths like my sister." In the Heart of the Guinea Pig Darkness, the guinea pigs evolve into more than the domesticated rodent that are eaten or experimented on by some human cultures: "The guinea pigs are swarming and crawling around on the gigantic guinea-pig queen's sensitive, swollen egg-white body." 

Berg's early poems (from With Deer) are full of primordial biological language and elements--besides the animals, her poems are teeming with gristle, "gunk blood," cancer, "slop flesh," and embryonic and placental juices. This is what we are born from, we are told, "Out of the hole that screams and screams as gristle encloses the embryo like and eggshell and a jail, and the little squirrel in my little hand has broken all the small bones of its entire skeleton." Foxes and crows come in and out of the picture, basting in a broth of "deer water." Berg's animals become grotesque morphological beasts, bits of ourselves, "it is an animal of flesh we eat," and "we have touched black animals." 

By the time we get to the poems from Dark Matter, more evolved lemurs hit the stage, and animals are treated more as objects from the physical sciences, "And on the shelves of ore in the inner caves of Skrea, volt-racked glass animals shriek, climb." In 4.4 The Animal Gap, Bergs tells us her mouth is made of what animals are made of. "We saw each other's faces like blisters beneath membranes, a sunken city of singing fossils anemones." An interesting choice of animal in anemones, the English of which etymologically has the same root as animal

By the time we get to the poems from Transfer Fat, "poems" that are in structure becoming more poem-like than the previous more prose-like poems, animals of the nether regions of Scandinavia start to take hold, smelt, hares, and perhaps Berg's predominant inner anima, the whale. Not just the whale that flops around in the north seas, but the whale that is cut up on the deck of a ship--the meat, the blubber, the fat. Not knowing Swedish, it's hard to imagine what titles like Späckhuggaren (Blubber Biter,) or Hålval (Hole Whale,) really mean, suffice to say the words are onomatopoetic, and we trust that Göransson's translations impart, perhaps, even new meaning in English. In Mamma val, you can almost understand the short poem in Swedish, even if you don't read Swedish:

amma val


Ge harmjölk,

all val är

samma val 

and deduce the mammalian meaning, it translates to: 

Breastfeed whale


Give hare-milk

all whales are 

the same whale

Regardless of which language you read them in, Berg's words are words that impregnate you with their hidden meanings, that inject milk into your eyes, that transfer fat, that take you back to the time before we were human.


Also from Action Books, Lara Glenum's The Hounds of No, is also very primordially biological in nature, unless it is just me reading into it. From How to Discard the Life You've Now Ruined:

Carve tiny beasts out of the teeth & wrap them in strands of black hair

Sew the animals into your stomach

Advertise your crimes as "the failings of a zoo"

Coincidentally, the above three books all teeter between prose and verse. Tate's "poems" look like poems, but really they are anti-poems that read like prose. Berg's are always poetic, though sometimes, especially in her earlier works, they look like prose. Glenum runs the spectrum--prose disguised as verse, or verse as prose, with everything in between, and also always as dense as poetry. Just as personally animals are more interesting to me than humans (the drama of March of the Penguins was far more interesting to me than any other human-based drama last year), prose to me is more interesting than verse poetry. Lined poetry is self-conscious and self-aware like humans are. Prose carries that conviction of form evolved for purpose, for the intent to communicate, not even aware of it's own self, but merely reportially recounting the stories generated and regenerated through countless years of evolution. 

Animal-wise, Glenum's inner animal would have to be a "sock-monkey". We are introduced to the sock-monkey in a letter from a Kriemhilde, defining a sock-monkey as "a piece of shit floating in the cosmic cream" that pleads, "suck the sputum out of my threadbare crotch." 

In Oedipus Sock-Monkey:

... I think the recent convergence of museums and 


execution chambers is the main reason that I continue to mistake you for a 

bloody exhibit on totemic animal corpses instead of thing of you as my 

father. Your underwear is atrocious. The stains look like an intricate map of 

an archipelago where the dead are trying to shove their faces up out of the 


loamy ground...

Glenum's bestiary is gothic and sexually charged, rife with "pig-skin candelabras" and like Tate also features a stuffed owl on a mantel and a pet goat. Like Berg, Glenum's poems are packed with milk and meat, and even pink anemones. We are also introduced to obsidian dolphins, zinc seahorses, pinned moths, and reoccurring pigs.

And speaking of pigs, I had the opportunity to have a sneak peak at Christian Peet's upcoming release from Palm Press, The Nines, of which, the pig is definitely his animistic mantra. I have been working on the cover art for it--to see the evolution of the cover, click here.

In memetic terms, perhaps the concept of an animal can be thought of as an intelligent meme that fills a niche in our informational ecosystem, influencing the behavior of other animistic memes, and occupying our heads. There are traits associated with certain animals that we identify in ourselves, and by using them in literature and art, they can go a long way in characterizing a person or an event and inducing thought. 


(c) 2006 by Derek White