Beast, to Be Your Friend by Jennifer Moss. New Michigan Press, $8.
Reviewed by Sara Lockery
Jennifer Moss’ Beast, to Be Your Friend is a collection of dense, kaleidoscopic poems whose dynamic energy propels the reader through a world in which trapdoors hallucinate, clouds are “arranged by pain,” and “smoke rises like seraphim.” Sharp, burnished, and fiercely original, Moss’ poetic voice animates the static and grants precision to the most intangible and abstract of concepts. In fact, the atmosphere is oftentimes just as (if not more) alive than the poem’s subject. Skies “noose” horses and “rush over startled skins,” sentences and voices “uncoil over the square acres,” “fasten down the land,” and “twist in the air.” Tension and contrast are alive, not only in the form, which fluctuates between narrative past and the lyrical present, but also in style and tone, which alter from mythological and detached to distinct and personalized.
One staple of Moss’ poetry is the ambiguity of the speaker’s attitude toward her subject. For example, in “Ducking in and out of Shadows,” the goat is initially portrayed in a sympathetic, humane manner. “I felt a debt to the goat,” the speaker confesses, her “womanish head bobbed up and down, one yellow eye turned toward the sun.” However, the tone darkens as the speaker almost immediately goes on to describe the unsightly gash in the side of the goat, which she then hits “with a switch.” Similarly, in “Beasts Framed the Field IV,” the speaker gallantly declares, “Beast to be your friend I’d gather the clouds swarming / over the river,” after which she goes on to threaten/propose, “I’d like to feed you…the suffering inborn / disease of my blood.” In each case, the tonal transition occurs in such a way that it almost suggests manipulation on the part of the speaker. By initially personifying the animal subject, a sense of connection with and sympathy for the animal is established. Therefore, when the animal is ostensibly hurt or threatened by the speaker, the reader almost feels deceived. At once menacing and inviting, coolly detached and warmly humane, Moss has generated a daunting atmosphere of unpredictability in which the reader is left susceptible to her whims.
Throughout the book there looms a general sense of interconnectedness. In “Making the Centaur,” the will of the horse is “fiercely tangled” with our own. “Portrait” creates a similar situation, in which the speaker unites the isolated man waiting atop a building to commit suicide with every other living thing with the statement, “You know he is going to die sometime…everything does.” “The Storm” displays signs of cerebral interconnectivity in its opening statement, “Where one mind stops, another begins,” as well as in the speaker’s portrayal of the sky as a giant, cohesive spider web in which “the dead bees of memory” of all living beings are housed. Related to a sense of multiplicity and interdependence is the recurring phenomenon of projection; internal emotions are often transferred into external entities. “I fill his body with my mind / to give my thought a shape,” the speaker informs us of the zebra in her poem “In Mammal Hall.” Such cohesiveness and interaction between subjects not only blurs the line between individual humans and all other humans, but also between humans and animals, calling forth a surreal landscape in which animals take on human characteristics; beasts and centaurs speak, and octopi are depicted as “aristocratic.”
Moss’ stylistic treatment is equally as compelling. Throughout the book, the speaker intentionally universalizes, or lends abstraction to, a particular image. For example, in “Making the Centaur,” the atmosphere is portrayed as “earth’s symbols.” All elements of nature, presumably sun, sky, and other natural manifestations, are grouped together under a single blanket term, thus blurring distinctions between them. Likewise, in “Beasts Framed the Field II,” the speaker equates the beast’s act of digging a hole to digging back in time to his “red and black birth.” Moss’ generalization of these images establishes an atmosphere of mystery, opening up limitless possibilities as to the precise visual representation they will form in the reader’s mind. Additionally, the act of symbolizing grants these poems the weight and feel of legend. The use of the phrase “earth’s symbols” harks back to ancient Greek and Roman mythology, and the act of digging has become a universal emblem for reaching an earlier, more primordial state.
Furthermore, the use of such generalized language provides a counterpoint to Moss’ equally consistent use of precise, pared down imagery. In fact, the same objects Moss lends abstraction to are elsewhere sculpted into sharp, specific images. Several lines up, the same beast who is portrayed as a distant figure of mythology, “digging back to [his] red and black birth,” is perceived so clearly by the speaker that she can “see the vein jump in [his] neck / and the salt shimmering over his lip.” Likewise, at the end of the poem, the same horse who is situated in the legendary position of being chased by the “earth’s symbols” is so real that the “foam smeared over his flanks” is visible and the “tingle in his nerves” can be sensed. This sense of clarity and immediacy directly contradicts the formerly vague, allegorical treatment of these subjects. The effect of this is twofold; by pairing mythology side by side with realism, each acts as a foil to the other, emphasizing their differences. At the same time, however, portraying the subject of the poem in manifold ways blurs the distinction between them and suggests the possibility of their interrelatedness.
Beast, to Be Your Friend masterfully balances surrealism with minimalism, violence with humanity, and past tense narrative with the first person lyrical. Just like the “silver thread blowing in and out of visibility” in “Fields,” the seamless movement of Moss’ poems explores the discrepancies as well as the connections between these disparate elements, reflecting the larger theme of an underlying connectivity and multiplicity. “The signs sit in everything / They are true, but untranslatable,” the speaker tells us. Indeed, delivered in a detached, elusive voice and peppered with furtive allusions, one could say the same of Moss’ poems themselves.