Reviewed by Lara Glenum
In What Animal, Oni Buchanan’s debut book of poetry, the language, like the animals she allows to graze among it, constructs a semiotics of grief. The grief is an explicitly animal grief: mute, visceral, uncomprehending of anything save intolerable shock and pain. The landscapes Buchanan deploys are shifting and abstract, threatening to rupture at any and all points, to devolve into a system of illegible signs: "The sun snapped from its elastic/ cord and catapulting back, the shadow/ cast itself on every side." The landscape cannot hold because trauma cannot be scaped. Buchanan’s is a poetry of deletion, of the space pursuant to a critical traumatic shock--the shock of love that has spoiled or is violently terminated, shock at her own capacity to participate in violence--and part of the marvel of What Animal is Buchanan’s ability to articulate this non-lingual space so deftly. These post-traumatic landscapes contain within them, however, ingots of hope--often false--that neatly crystallize into the bodies of its animals.
It is significant that Buchanan’s animalia are domestic or semi-domestic: ducks, guinea pigs, horses, yaks. They inhabit the liminal world of the domesticized animal, with all its tenderness and enslavement. Above all, they are not human. Human transactions are perceived as a series of deceptions and subsequent brutalities. In "Minutes from the Tuesday Meeting," Buchanan interrogates our cruel fetishization of the animal body:
We worshipped the animal by
cutting off its horns and grinding them
to bits of dust, which we contained
in small glass beakers. We worshipped
the animal when we unwrapped his inner
workings from his skin, peeled him
with special scissors, a sharp metal ...
The voice is cult-like; the irony is deadly. Throughout What Animal, the speaker compulsively engages in human relationships, and at the same time she begs to be delivered from their cruel terms of abandonment and deceit, either by changing species or by shedding her physical body altogether:
When the body is taken away the bed becomes lighter.
When the rings and golden teeth, when the gold pin though the hip,
when the gold stone in the pit of the blood sack is taken away, the body
becomes lighter, the body can rise from its trappings, spread
like a mist over the field ...
Unable to cast off her physical body, the speaker frequently implores other species to intervene. Buchanan’s animals are radically intelligent, expressing complex modalities of longing and bereavement. They are at times wistful and nostalgic, and frequently suffer from devastating mistakes in perception: a lone yak falls in love with a sheep, a guinea pig attempts to befriend a green balloon. The speaker pleads with the animals to magically alter her species or to take her among them. "What do I deserve," asks the speaker in "Night Shift":
... The silver bullet
in the gullet.
The miniature ponies outside, so small,
with high whinnies and kneecaps ready to splinter.
I begged them on my tiny knees.
I begged them with my jewel case open, the velvet pockets, drawers of mirrors
and the hooks where the filigree necklaces, diaphanous--
The speaker of these poems has found the human body to be tortuously enigmatic in its configurations of desire. Buchanan, writes Mark Levine, is a poet "who finds herself compelled to replay intricate dramas of estrangement and yearning." This obsessive drive to replay--"Give me your skin, Rewind."--is not merely a hallmark of trauma, it functions here as the poet’s interrogation into the her own agency, particularly her agency in catastrophe.
Buchanan’s relationship to violence is complex: while the voice is excruciatingly sensitive to violence, this is complicated by her willingness to actively participate in it at critical moments, and to deploy it, often against herself, to a seemingly fetishistic degree. I say "seemingly" because Buchanan does not ultimately fetishize violence, she merely acknowledges the terrible fact that mutual violence is often taken as a form of intimacy: "... I do not understand what was meant / to happen and what was a mistake--but know the bursting, / the sickening snap of ecstasy wrenched back to the body."
The most radically troubling poems in the book record the speaker’s direct participation in brutality, which when transacted in an erotic space becomes spectacularly dangerous: "One of us will open the earth for the other of us / and then seal it behind." By writing explicitly about female violence, Buchanan does much to explode the outworn myth of violence as the exclusive instinct or prerogative of the male. Several poems, "The Term," "Quota," and "Room 40" among them, explore an erotic space in which violence has become compulsive. These configurations of desire are, literally, tortuous, as in the passage in "Quota" where the speaking self has split into an "I" and a "she," the "I" actively participating in her partner’s torture of the "she":
We prod behind her Cartesian coordinates
as indicated. Adapted from his demonstration, the grid
over her face strapped with leather belts and silver buckles.
Polished silver dipped in vinegar,
And poke holes B and H through with a penknife.
M and U with a corkscrew.
I undid her garters and poked
at the holes it made there.
Handwoven by organic farmers.
Her swollen throat bulging at the razor.
The speaker is convincingly destabilized by her own anarchic desire; her longing to escape what she perceives to be the punishing terms of human existence are very real, as are her grief and self-loathing. "What animal has a coat of the desired color," Buchanan asks in the book’s title poem, a poem about "the paring of the needs down to one"--the need to recreate the violated and exploded self. She describes a failed attempt at this, identifying herself with a frozen, punctured animal:
the center puncture that spilled
the center star and explosion, frozen
flash of light, a burst
Fist the nerves, (the layered transparencies,
one on top of the other), then the organs, skeleton, then
the muscles, the skin, first
the dirt, then the dirt, then the dirt, the dirt,
then the dirt spilling from the inside.
Breathe into my mouth.
Let the dirt fall into my mouth from your mouth
What animal can be built from the dirt.
Throughout What Animal, the speaker’s compassion for the damaged animalia is remarkably striking. There is an persistent keening over the indissoluble distance between one creature and another, over "all our bodies caught apart." Buchanan’s creatures are ultimately irreconcilable to one another, and in these lacunae lies her agony: "in the gap / that’s where my crying is." It is her gift to us that, from her bereavement, from "the dirt" and the gaps, she constructs such a radically intelligent map of grief, both hers and ours.