1911 A ‘strange convergence of animal and human personas’
The Animal in the Room
By Meghan Kemp-Gee
Toronto: Coach House Press, 2023
$23.95 / 9781552454602
Reviewed by Jane Frankish
In The Animal in the Room, Meghan Kemp-Gee develops a poetics of the Anthropocene. In fact, this collection of poetry can be seen as a compendium of reflections on the age of human impact.
One important theme revolves around the connection between humans and animals as similar sentient beings. Animals are shown having a hard time since they are personified in the extreme; and humans just seem unable to grasp the sentience of animals. Instinctual behaviour is a thematic thread that runs through the poems, whether exemplified in an animal, manifested in a human business environment, or established in a human relationship. These poems address survival, collapse, loss and extinction while, at the same time, address abuse, trauma, stress, and the very real anxiety of being alone.
Kemp-Gee’s first poem is “YOU SAW A DEER THROUGH BINOCULARS.” A zoologist, tasked with enumerating a herd, is looking at a deer through binoculars. The speaker appears fixated on the deer and notes, with some disappointment, that it left the herd and “did not even look back.” Instead, “It moved to California. It settled / for a steady paycheque, it ran errands / in fabulously obnoxious yoga pants.”
The poem speaks directly to the reader, ‘You know where this is going.” It feels like the deer has escaped objecthood, to live as a subject in ways the zoologist could not observe or imagine (with or without, binoculars). By the end of the poem, the deer seems to have bought a pair of used binoculars and, “It looked / through them, second-hand.”
This mirroring or mimicking dismantles the object/subject relationship, and once it is dispelled, there remains only a limited understanding of the animal world based on the assumptions of our own reality. We experience the animal world through the refractive surfaces of the human lens and can only appreciate what is happening “second-hand.”
In “DISAPPOINTMENT AT 10 A.M.,” the deer has wandered into a Los Angeles yoga class—“something with cloven feet / and big bad teeth crawls in quadrupled from Main Street.” The deer appears confused about the dynamic of the class and is awkward and uncomfortable. The animal watches and attempts to participate but does not really know what to do.
Part-time Vancouverite Kemp-Gee presents the deer as trying to emulate the body language and attitude of the yoga class regulars but it seems that they do not understand how to act in this odd environment. The deer has the correct clothing but cannot comprehend the instructions that seem strangely out of sync with natural experience. This ‘lostness’ of the deer underscores the ludicrousness of the class, as the teacher says, “We are spiritual beings having a physical experience.”
Is it a wonder that the deer is confused?
In the four-stanza poem, “YOU EMAILED ME YOUR RESUMÉ,” the reader encounters typical suggestions one might receive when getting help from a guide to improve their resumé, along with questions one might ask when practising for an interview. There is, for instance, a search for words to succinctly suggest “a good team player.” There is an overarching impression of a concerted effort being made to find much needed employment. At the last stanza, the poem takes a surreal turn as the poem begins to contemplate what a wolf may say,
my question is why do we keep
using the same words and how would
a wolf talk and what would it say.
At this point in the poem one wonders whose resume is being corrected, is it a wolf’s? Kemp-Gee creates a strange convergence of animal and human personas. Later poems clarify that the candidate is, indeed, a wolf.
In “THE WOLF EMAILED ME ITS RESUMÉ,” the wolf is competitive, has strong academic credentials and “thrives in highly structured environments”—it’s the perfect candidate. The wolf was,
the one who went in first when
it heard the herd-lost calf call out,
certificate program master
of business administration
The wolf seems to be at the top of its game. Kemp-Gee uses the detailed resume as an extended metaphor that aligns the spectre of an apex predator at work with the image of a go-getter job-hunter.
In “THE WOLF MAKES AN APPOINTMENT AT THE OBS/GYN,” the wolf—or is it the author—asks some sharp questions of the gynaecologist: “My next question is what do you mean by contraindication.”
Does the wolf have a pre-existing condition, other than the fact that it is a wolf who should be visiting a vet and not an obstetrician? Well, of course, the wolf is the poet’s fancy, a device, a mere conceit. The extended metaphor is carried to its limit, as the wolf appears to implicate the author:
Look, is this one of those things where the story’s author finds itself
complicit because I was just asking questions I was not following orders
I was just writing things down and didn’t ask for any of this.
The wolf takes no responsibility, and reflexively challenges the ontological assumption of the poem.
In “THE WOLF RETURNS YOUR CALL,” this ontological problem is explored in terms of questions about exactly what the wolf is, and how it ought to appear—
it does not know
what seeming is, so it
can’t tell. You tell it
this is a question of
The wolf does not know what to make of taxonomy and has questions about the human classification and ordering of things.
Throughout this collection, Kemp-Gee alludes to the familiar idiom, “wolf in sheep’s clothing.” Perhaps she is trying to allegorize the killer instinct that pervades the contemporary work environment, full of predators in business suits! This is exemplified in the following lines from “THE WOLF EMAILED ME ITS RESUMÉ”—
stumbled home the morning
after wearing someone else’s
and in the poem, “THE WOLF RETURNS YOUR CALL”:
Keep your hands to your-
Self. Come home wearing someone
There is an echo of a modern-day serial-killer here, and of primal hunting and skinning. One cannot blame the predator for its instincts, as the wolf confirms in “THE WOLF MAKES AN APPOINTMENT AT THE OB/GYN”: “I‘m just saying / I was hungry, it was just a hotel room I paid for. I was only baring my / teeth for show.”
In nature, the wolf seems to kill without reflection but in these poems, the wolf attempts self-inquiry and is involved in polite gestures. There is this inquiry in “THE WOLF RETURNS YOUR CALL”—
Do you find it
confusing for some
reason, when it licks
your face and asks you
questions. What happened,
it asks. You’re crying.
What does crying mean.
As highly personified as Kemp-Gee’s wolf is, it remains innately, even innocently, wolf-like.
The Animal in the Room contains a number of poems that explore and critique the classification system. “THE BRONTOSAURUS” finds the poet denouncing fakery in the world of palaeontology while, perhaps, also voicing a complex authorial desire to be discovered and revealed: “I want them to fill my mouth with pig teeth / and call me Nebraska Man.”
Curiously, she wants to be challenged as a fake while being celebrated at the same time:
[…] I want Steven
Spielberg to direct the movie, I want
Charles Darwin to feast on my flesh at
Cambridge University, and I want
fundamentalists to call me a hoax.
Kemp-Gee debunks the hypocrisies of scientists and their popularization in the movie business. The relationship between the creation of knowledge and its dissemination seems fraught with untruths and misinterpretations.
In “A NEWLY DISCOVERED SPECIES OF LIZARD WITH DISTINCT TRIANGULAR SCALES,” the poet develops the disturbing reference to Darwin that was mentioned in “THE BRONTOSAURUS”: “I am Charles Darwin. I eat owl flesh at Cambridge University.”
The founder of the theory of evolution is exposed for being the leader of a Cambridge club of gluttons who consume various species of birds. In the poem, Darwin eats one species, while categorizing another: “I am busy / with taxonomizing it’s most peculiar and three-sided / armour.”
Darwin is elated in his epistemological/culinary adventures and yet, he has had enough. He is more than satiated, over-full with his findings. Darwin and the author are both gluttons. Like the wolf, they seem to be driven by natural instincts, only, they are gorging on taxonomies, analogies and allegories: “I am / deliriously pleased. I find myself full of discovery. / I am homesick, boat-sick. I am hotel room sick. I want to go home.”
In poems that turn to endangered animals, there is a vivid identification with the anxiety of extinction. “THE VANCOUVER ISLAND MARMOT” speaks to the reader (typo)graphically. It consists of lines made up of short words that seem to form a graphic block; it ‘stands’ tall, like a marmot trying to ward off predators. There is a sense of danger and sacrifice as one marmot is selected to serve as a lookout:
we will send
out a look
out we will
send one of
us one of
one of us
It seems that, as of 2003, there were under 30 marmots left on Vancouver Island. There is a sense of urgency in the poem as we learn of the ‘genetic lifeboat’ organized to breed the marmot in captivity. The ‘life’ of one saved marmot must become a ‘lifeboat’ in order for the species to survive:
life can be
The poem as a whole seems to have an onomatopoeic ring to it as the short, shrill phrasing mimics the marmot’s anxious whistle.
Kemp-Gee makes use of repetition and enjambment throughout the collection to produce different effects and, in “THE FUGITIVE,” this technique is used to evoke distance and duration in the context of a car-chase—
and miles he tracked us, tailgating big
rigs in the passing lane,
The sense of the entity being chased is heightened by the repetition of the subject pronoun, “we.” At the end of the poem, the distraction of the pursuit possibly leads to an accident. This time, enjambment brings a slow-motion quality to the final couplet of the poem:
We were watching for his headlights so we
didn’t see what lurched into our way, lit
up in the fast lane not knowing which way to run.
The poem ends abruptly, at this moment of imminent collision.
The title poem seems to exemplify the collection’s concern with the abject condition of the victim, as it aligns human anxiety with the terror of a prey animal:
the deer with hard black eyes
and one bright painful spot of blue in them. They came
into the room. Your terror wanted them to watch
what happened and your terror saw the blue spot […]
[…] your terror drank too much, your eyes summoned
them, they saw your story shrink into a fist.
In Kemp-Gee’s writing, humans and animals become hyper-aware of each other, become one another. As terror is, for example, articulated through the light in the eyes of a deer, the poet is caught in the same flight or fight response.
Who will lead us out of fear and look after us? More importantly, who will know us and know what we have done with this earth and our fellow creatures? Is there a truth to tell in our wake? In “THE NORTH ATLANTIC RIGHT WHALE,” which is about one of the world’s most endangered species, Kemp-Gee presents a sad truth,
Better not listen
for echoes, better not hear the hard answers
about your own longevity. Better swim
Are the whales beaching on purpose, or are they desperately trying to find a way out? Humanity knows that the whale is an endangered species but is the whale aware too? Does the whale feel abandoned and alone? A kindred spirit is found in “THE TRAIN HOME,” where the last daughter of a “wise old king” is exiled: “The last and youngest daughter was a poet, and in his wisdom the old king counted his blessings and banished her forever.”
Is she set free? Will she survive to write poems? Or will she too die alone?
Jane Frankish is a writer of poetry and prose. She holds a Master’s Degree in Liberal Studies from SFU, a Masters in Library and Information Studies from UBC, and works as a librarian at Vancouver Public Library. [Editor’s note: Jane Frankish has reviewed books by Bruno Cocorocchio, Eileen Casey & Jeanne Cannizzo and Jenny Boychuk for The British Columbia Review. She has also published a popular memoir, Chennai: A Place in Between, and Letter from the Pandemic in BCR.]
The British Columbia Review
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Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an on-line book review and journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board now consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Barry Gough, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies. The British Columbia Review was founded in 2016 by Richard Mackie and Alan Twigg.
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