Review by Angela Micheli Otwell
by Elise Paschen
Red Hen Press
P.O. Box 40820
Pasadena, CA 91114
2009, 80 pp, $16.95
I received Bestiary (uncorrected proof) by Elise Paschen for review from Rattle a long time ago. I received two books that day, the other of which I read and reviewed fairly promptly. I believe it was providence that I didn’t get to this one until recently.
Between when I received the book and today, my cat died, some of my best friends had a baby, my grandfather died, my mother died, and my peers began to become grandparents. I’ve been firmly drawn into a biological world that I really haven’t inhabited for much of my life.
So. The cerebral side of me loves this book! The language is clear, each idea or message unmistakable, but the text is artfully studded with alliteration, consonance, rhyme, and other linguistic devices. One gets the impression that Ms. Paschen writes much like her mother (a prima ballerina) danced. She makes it look easy, but I’m sure there was a great deal of practice and effort behind the scenes. However she achieves it, though, Ms. Paschen’s meaning is never obscured by the wordplay and the wordplay never seems contrived or artificial.
As an example, “Moving In” contains the this playful passage:
Two hammers, two flashlights, two pots for tea,
a pair of ironing boards (yours, unused),
plus several teams of cutlery.
Each object, once spotted, seems reproduced.
I love the image of teams of cutlery (spotted?) pulling a pair of ironing boards.
“Disappearing Act” is another favorite of mine, with its gentle rhythm and haunting repetition:
The elsewhere husband doesn’t care.
Inside their life, she’s on her own,
Inhabiting the house, the air.
They share their meal, both unaware,
each one distracted by the phone.
The elsewhere husband doesn’t care…
Such simple, clear language! Such beautiful use of rhythm and rhyme!
“Feast for the Living” joyfully winds it’s way through a meal:
he would declare, “Let the wine flow,” and we,
his family and friends, would travel down
a garnet river, bubbling, rippling, clinking
under the wind-blown stars, swapping the stories
of our shared adventures, the tales of places
he had navigated across the globe.
But it’s the “beast” part of Bestiary that engaged me most. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition, defines bestiary as follows:
1. A medieval collection of stories providing physical and allegorical descriptions of real or imaginary animals along with an interpretation of the moral significance each animal was thought to embody. A number of common misconceptions relating to natural history were preserved in these popular accounts.
2. A modern version of such a collection.
This “modern version bestiary” spoke to the parts of me that have recently been forced to acknowledge primordial biological imperatives, mostly sickness and death in my case.
However, “Monarch” refers to a fetus cocooned within a womb, “Engagement” feels “hormonal” to me, and “Barn Owl and Moon” is tense and sexual. “Behind the Swan” refers to Leda and the Swan from Greek mythology and contains more pain in just a few skillfully crafted lines than I’ve seen in whole books of confessional poetry on the subject of rape. Birth is a major theme in the book but one I don’t feel I can speak to directly and can only observe from afar, not having children myself. Still, the language is compelling. “Trapeze” moves from the swinging of a garden gate in spring to a baby’s movement in the womb.
In “The Broken Swan,” Ms. Paschen describes her mother’s physical decline:
When my mother’s body is seized with uncontrollable
twitching, she begins to reminisce about dancing in Venice.
since my father died: every day wearing the same black tee-shirt,
demanding, “Where are my pills?” or “Turn on the TV!”
We are all beasts in a way, subject to the laws of biology and consumed by needs that loom larger and narrower as our lives draw near the end. But this ballerina is still on stage, and the audience, poet or reader, can only watch, helpless, unable to alter the tragic choreography.
“Ash” and “Threshold” refer to Ms. Paschen’s father’s death. I still have my father, and part of me doesn’t even want to look in this direction. But it is very likely that he will die before me and I won’t be able to avoid facing a world without him then. I very much want to retreat to the cerebral and not face this particular bit of biological truth. I feel I am much like the young raccoon in “Raccoon on a Branch”:
The creature stares straight at us. A dog barks.
The animal limps away, climbs a trunk.
He fumbles, ascends to a higher branch,
looks down, trembling, unfocused, blinks his eyes,
unaccustomed to the blazing sun. Leaving
behind the raccoon, clinging close to limb,
we understand he wants no company.
In solitude, it is easy to ignore how we are like the beasts, to ignore our own biology, our own mortality. In relationship, it is impossible to ignore that we are like beasts, frail creatures subject to natural laws, needs, hormones, disease, and death.
Ms. Paschen apparently shares my hope, though, in a God that transcends nature and death and will make all things new. From “Mary of Magdala”:
He stands alone. His words, like fish,
swim through my bones. So I will follow.
Where you seek permanence is death.
Where you seek change, there you find life.
We are not just beasts. We live in a fallen world but there is hope. The hope is not of our own making or of our design. Although it challenges the legs we try to stand on, it breathes new life into our hearts.
Bestiary is a literary gem, and I highly recommend it.
Angela Micheli Otwell is an artist/writer living in Greensboro, Georgia. You can find her at www.amopage.com .