USEREVIEW 022: Between the Body and the Mind
Melanie Power looks at, and beyond, the mesmerizing lyricism of Emily Skov-Nielsen’s debut poetry collection The Knowing Animals (Brick Books, 2020) in this traditional review. With a steady hand, Power unearths the ecological concerns, the philosophical preoccupations, and the sharp snark from beneath the stunning surface of these poems.
ISBN 978-1-771315333 | 104 pp | $20 CAD
As cerebral as they are embodied, these poems marry the ecological and the personal. The book is divided into six sections with titles that portend fecundity (‘Superbloom,’ ‘Rewilding’ and ‘Dream-Damp’), and is guided by a speaker who self-describes as a “recovering psycho- / somatic somnambulating between the body and the mind.” Skov-Nielsen’s debut collection tracks how the human and animal overlap, or fail to do so. Indivisible from the ecological explorations are Bildungsroman poems, as well as poetry on themes of maternity, intimacy, and desire. The book’s title makes reference to Rilke’s ‘The First Elegy,’ lines from which serve as its epigraph. Another line from that same poem could appropriately situate the collection’s concerns: “For beauty is nothing / but the beginning of terror.” Or, as Skov-Nielsen echoes Rilke in ‘Epiphany’, “Terror and Delight: twin sisters swapping clothes.” In The Knowing Animals, Skov-Nielsen creates dark and rich linguistic landscapes, each one a universe unto itself, pulsing with the connectivity between the self and the natural world.
The collection’s opening poem, ‘Menstromania’ perhaps serves as a reminder of how few poems exist that explicitly depict menstruation. Skov-Nielsen braids together the animal and human, weaving language in a long string of shifting images:
Loose and bloody in the bathwater, a crossbred
sea star/sponge/jellyfish of mucosal tissue,
A strand of uterus, a small stringed instrument,
a nest, a tuft of down feather fallen from a bird
in the hand of my body (a hedge sparrow) —
or maybe it’s a knot of spider silk.
In one of the poem’s most memorable lines, she writes that her body’s aching is “a pain / lit from the inside like a paper lantern.” ‘Menstromania’ is a fitting opening poem, as it showcases and forecasts the consistency of Skov-Nielsen’s craft — her verbosity and powers of observation, as well as the musical rhythms that complement them.
This poetry houses the cosmic philosophy of the worldly ordinary; a couple on the cusp of having a child are “sickeningly bright and cute, like two palomino ponies / drinking from a blue-sky pond, practically Platonic, / a pair of pure Forms.” The couple’s unborn baby is the mother’s “tiny mimetic mammalian.” The clinical denotations, observed here and elsewhere, complement the intimacy of the scenes they depict. The mother/daughter poem ‘Orbital’ describes the speaker’s daughter as “birthed / from the fetal ejection reflex.” ‘Orbital’ is reminiscent of ‘Night Feed’ by Eavan Boland, in that both poems are intimate depictions of a nocturnal feeding of their daughters. Skov-Nielsen writes: “My daughter still feeds from me / at night: milk, drained in sips, / shapes her, orbicular.” Boland, in her description of a similar moment of nocturnal reverie, writes: “A silt of milk. / The last suck. / And now your eyes are open / Birth-coloured and offended.” Skov-Nielsen veers from Boland by complicating the connection, and ultimate fragmentation that occurs between mother and child. After the cord is cut, she postulates that mother and child embody the “two-body problem,” as they endlessly “[fall] toward, but never /into, the depths of each other.”
Moving from human maternity into the mysteries of animal life, Skov-Nielson explores the phenomenon of cryptozoology, which is defined as the pursuit and examination of animals whose existence is challenged or doubted — examples include the yeti, or Loch Ness monster. Skov-Neilsen’s poem ‘Cryptozoology’ is a highlight from the collection, opening with a confident, earnest series of questions whose tone proves unsustainable:
If we found you all, would we be kind?
Could we comfort you with a four-star
cage or a penthouse suite of formaldehyde?
Would we bring you to the beauty salon
upon release, cut and dye your hair, slip you into
something bright, perhaps cerise?
The tone quickly becomes biting and self-aware — cynical about humans’ best intentions, which are often undercut by more sinister urges for expansion, domination and commodification. A few poems in the collection have moments that feel cluttered by their linguistic density and numerous, sometimes repetitive, descriptors (“I watched / the hermaphroditic, hermaphrodisiacal earthworms / attaching clitellum in the wet-slap muck.”) ‘Cryptozoology,’ on the other hand, is a poem that benefits from its comparative bareness; its sparse diction and lucid elocution make it pleasurably permeable.
On the subject of permeability, ‘Worms and Eggs’ imagines a worm reproducing, “squeezing eggs / and sperms from their small pores.” This poem invokes the microscopic detail of Don McKay’s ecocritical poetry. In ‘Rhizosphere,’ he writes: “Let’s pause and listen for what’s happening underground, with the roots, the rhizomes, and / their close associates, the fungi and the worms.” These poems by McKay and Skov-Nielsen carefully speculate about nature’s invisible processes, anthropomorphizing for comedy. As Skov-Nielsen writes: “I swore I saw a scintilla of sperm cells / spraying from their ecstatic detachment.” McKay anthropomorphizes further, gesturing to nature and its “little regard for personal identity and / human rights, such continuous French kissing, / the birch and the russula mushroom.” Both poems also striking, resonant endings — Skov-Nielsen ends with the uncertainty of life, and McKay with the certainty of death.
Complementing these natural studies is a series of sparkling portraits — the human subjects of which are often depicted using ecological imagery. The poem ‘Amanita Muscaria’ describes a Stargirl type of character from the speaker’s childhood: a “weirdo,” and “believer in fairies and gnomes” who both repels and intrigues the neighbourhood. The poem is aptly and cheekily titled, for “amanita muscaria” is one of the most iconic mushroom species — the ubiquitous red toadstool with white spots, popularized by the Mario franchise, to which the poem makes reference. Another poem, ‘Afterlight,’ is dedicated to a person named Shane, a figure Skov-Nielsen captures in vivid, diaristic detail: “a six-foot-three landloping theologian — mascara-eyed / kooky as Coleridge” whose untimely death will prevent further “veering or verges.” ‘Lucida’ is another succinct and compelling portrait. The poem opens:
Queen of collapse, in homeroom
like an overturned drawer
of knives and forks, her sharps
full of hurt — she arrives.
Similarly to the characters from ‘Amanita Muscaria’ and ‘Afterlight,’ ‘Lucida’ shines with specificity.
The Knowing Animals is a book that is alive and winding, hyperfocused on its subjects as it weaves through the ecological imaginary. The collection bridges connections between humans and animals while simultaneously charting the fractures between the man-made and the natural. As the speaker reminds us in the collection’s eponymous poem: “Shh, listen — ”and these poems are best when they are spacious enough for us to do so. In this book, Skov-Nielsen finds her “own dark language,” staying attuned and attentive to the “rustling of the watchful, / who wade unbridled through brushland.”