Brian Deyo reviews Zoopoetics: Animals and the Making of Poetry by Aaron Moe
Lexington Books | 2013 | ISBN: 978-0-7391-8662-6 | 170 pages
Recently I found myself ambling through a local grocery store, reflecting (albeit superficially) on the dizzying variety of food products seductively arrayed for the consumer’s consideration. However, as I began contemplating what to purchase, I began to feel a certain measure of anxiety that, at times, verged toward terror. My thoughts became scattered as I imagined the various itineraries of the “commodities” available for human consumption. Where did the vegetables come from? Who picked and packaged them? Were they fairly compensated for their labours? Were they produced locally in the state of Michigan where I currently reside? Or were they transported from California, where chronic drought and climate change threaten to radically decrease and possibly imperil agricultural production in the region well into the future?
I then found my thoughts turning to the latest barrage of superstorms and extreme tornadic activity in the Midwest, as well as the unseasonably warm temperatures on the Atlantic seaboard, so warm that New Yorkers were ranging about in shorts and flip-flops in December. And then there was the question of the astonishingly diverse array of animal “products” located in the meat and seafood sections. Did they come from factory farms? Or were they harvested from the world’s oceans that are rapidly acidifying due to industrial civilization’s addiction to fossil fuels? And what about the beef harvested from the corpses of the millions of cattle that, during their short, miserable lives—sustained by an unnatural, cheap diet of massively subsidized corn—emit methane into the atmosphere, a greenhouse gas estimated to have an impact 25 times greater than carbon dioxide? Needless to say, these days an apparently innocuous humdrum trip to the grocery store can really turn one’s stomach, not to mention one’s thoughts.
Interestingly enough, while I found myself thinking about the state of the planet—while, I should add, attending to an unavoidable sense of complicity—I detected an inward, largely reflexive tendency to steer my thoughts elsewhere: faced with the magnitude of our species’ collective capacity to irrevocably alter the biological, physical, and chemical dynamics of our planet, it sometimes requires a tremendous, perhaps superhuman effort of will to remain vigilant, thoughtful, and feelingly attuned to our environmental predicament. And just when I caught myself tuning out the “gloom and doom” I ran into one of my colleagues in the English department where I work. My colleague is widely recognized as an expert in modernist poetry, particularly the poetry of E.E. Cummings. That very evening I planned on reading Aaron Moe’s chapter on Cummings in his wonderfully instructive and challenging book, Zoopoetics: Animals and the Making of Poetry. Though my teaching and scholarship is predominantly focused on environmental fiction, I occasionally read and teach poetry; however, I have to say that Cummings is one of the more intellectually sophisticated and technically innovative poets I’ve ever encountered. Knowing that I’d eventually have to write this review, needless to say I virtually buttonholed my colleague for his guidance and insight. I basically asked him for some hard and fast advice on how to “read” Cummings. He grinned, nodded, thought, paused and winced, chuckled cheerfully, then exclaimed comically, “Pay attention!”
We both laughed together as our thoughts whirled around the subject of Cummings’ poetry, and after reading Aaron Moe’s book I’m betting he’d be able to appreciate why. Cummings, like the other American poets Moe investigates in Zoopoetics—Walt Whitman, W.S. Merwin, and Brenda Hillman—has a way of turning one’s thoughts toward new, startling, and unexpected directions. And Moe is particularly keen to turn his thinking (and ours) toward animals, namely by demonstrating how these poets’ strenuous and lively attention to the lives of animals manages to stretch their thinking, enabling unexpected technical innovations in poetic form.
But Zoopoetics is not simply an examination of the way these poets’ respective engagements with the lives of animals yield technical innovations in poetry’s formal tendencies; it’s also an exploration of the human animal’s complex and emotionally fraught relations with its own animality and, by implication, animal life more generally. This is just to say that, yes, Moe is an erudite and adept scholar of poetry and the poetic tradition, and he is particularly strong when it comes to producing fine-grained, highly nuanced readings of Whitman, Cummings, Merwin, and Hillman. However, one also gleans the sense that Moe’s intellectual commitment to the question as to how and why animals come to matter so vividly in American poetry is largely a function of passion—a refreshingly unassuming, enthusiastic, open-minded, and generous interest in poetry, poets, human beings, and animals that should have broad appeal. Zoopoetics ought to attract the interest of literary scholars, poets, and avid readers of poetry alike. However, one also suspects that Moe’s work may inspire those who are less conversant with poetry to expand and deepen their knowledge of the art form—especially those who feel the need to forge more vital and substantial relations with animals and the natural world.
Moe’s extraordinarily exquisite attentiveness to the textual dynamics of the poetry of Whitman, Cummings, Merwin, and Hillman—and, by imaginative implication, the extra-human world, particularly the lives of animals—is exemplary and timely. As I intimated above, living in and through planetary environmental crisis exerts a novel and intense pressure on our intellectual, affective, imaginative, and ethical capacities, so that even the most ostensibly pedestrian sorts of human practices (a trip to the local grocery, talking about the weather) can short-circuit our habitual modes of thought, feeling, or being-in-the-world. This sense of “crisis” is probably visceral for many, and Moe’s work does a fine job of making the case that poetry can help us to stretch our understanding of the extent to which environmental crisis is shared across the lines of species.
All of the poets Moe studies explore “the question of the animal”—what it is or might mean to be a living being—in brilliant, daring, and forthright ways. Moreover, as he cogently explains, they’re all preoccupied with the question of the human animal’s capacity to imaginatively engage with the lives of beings that, for complex reasons, tend to fall outside our traditional habits of seeing. And one of the main premises of his argument is that the human-animal binary that has historically governed human self-understanding (particularly in the West) is one of the main culprits of our collective failure to imagine ourselves and the lives of animals in more robustly nuanced ecological terms. Zoopoetics thus situates itself amidst academic work in animal/animality studies and ecocriticism (commonly included under the heading of the environmental humanities) that is strenuously preoccupied with the question as to how art might work to upgrade our capacities for ecological awareness, which means examining how we might be moved to imaginatively reconfigure our species’ status, role, agency, and place vis-à-vis the extra-human world—i.e., to see who and what we are in a radically novel fashion, which is to say against the grain of anthropocentric systems of thought and conception. As he argues, we need to learn how to see our being as part of a rich, albeit traditionally overlooked or underplayed set of relations. And to think ecologically, as he intimates, is (in a manner of speaking) to think poetically.
Poetry can be a powerful technology for engaging, thinking, and feeling with our animal cousins. Moe wants to argue that, like life on earth, “[p]oetry is not a monospecies event.” In the poetry he analyzes, humans collaborate with animals, whom are invested with the authority and agency to move human thought, imagination, and feeling in ways that powerfully disrupt our signifying practices, which is to say the stories we tend to tell ourselves about our centrality and importance as a species. This means that the “attentive disposition” toward animals—a comportment that is motivated by curiosity, sensitivity, and respect, not to mention a capacity for wonder and astonishment—is crucial to “zoopoetics,” a “process” that enacts a rich array of “energy exchanges between poet and animal, animal and poem, poem and reader, animal and reader, and many more interactions.”
It seems to me that Moe’s most important contribution—mind you, there are many—to our understanding of zoopoetics is the idea that particular poems ought to be construed as “multispecies event[s].” This means that, contrary to conventional assumptions about animal agency, animals are “makers.” For too long we have unreflectively assumed that animals are utterly subject to a set of preprogrammed instincts—that, unlike humans, they lack “reason,” “language,” and “culture,” and are thus ineluctably bound to their “biology.” Though scientific knowledge since Darwin has discredited this assumption, it would seem that we’re still bound to it in ways that radically impoverish our appreciation of the complexity and diversity of animal life. And as Moe suggests, the blithe facility by which we cleave to this assumption may have something to do with the fact that animals communicate in ways that belie our conception of what language is and how it works. We think of language as a system of symbolic communication that is unique to humans; but whereas humans communicate through words that can take on an abstract, disembodied quality, Moe is smart to point out that animal languages are embodied; moreover, as the science of animal behavior demonstrates, animal vocalizations and gestures can be rich, nuanced, and subtle—dense, as it were, with denotation and connotation. Moreover, “zoopoetics opens a space within the poetic tradition” by adopting an attitude of receptiveness to animal communication, what Moe refers to as an animal’s “bodily poiesis” (27). An animal’s bodily poiesis refers to what one might call extralinguistic communication—gesture, the relative intensity and suddenness of a particular movement, posture, the artful and deliberate orchestration of the body to communicate affect or intention, etc. And as Moe suggests, the cultural tendency to valorize language, reason, thought, consciousness, and self-consciousness as the distinguishing hallmarks of the human seems to implicitly demote extralinguistic modalities of communication, or what Moe (citing an ensemble of scholars) sometimes refers to as “animal rhetoric,” a concept he employs to direct the reader’s attention to the diversity and sophistication of animal subjectivity.
In fact, it’s precisely this cultural tendency to abstract language from its basis in the body that has resulted in a rather static, straitened sense of how humans communicate. And Moe argues that poetry might provide something of an antidote. As he states: “In an epistemologically driven culture where Knowledge is Power, gestures [extralinguistic communication or “animal rhetoric”] are often regulated to the periphery. The main event is a word’s content rather than its delivery” (my emphasis). In other words, we tend to focus on what words signify (or denote), rather than how they are delivered. However, poets, as Moe maintains, are invested in making language “sing,” if you will, rather than using it to signify or convey “meaning,” at least in the strictly technical sense. As he notes, “Poets revel in ways-of-being—in ontology—rather than ways of knowing.”
The reigning conception of the “human” vis-à-vis the “animal” is, as Moe argues, mediated by a language (or, to be more precise, a discourse) that idealizes so-called human qualities almost precisely to the extent that it derogates characteristics historically associated with an unexamined notion of “the animal.” In other words, we tend to “know” ourselves and, by extension, animals, via signifying practices that institutionalize (or naturalize) what it means to be human versus what it means to be an animal. And to continue to think the human and the animal in strict accordance with the terms laid out by anthropocentric culture is to radically circumscribe our capacity to see and experience our own lives and the lives of animals in the most salutary and expansive sense. As the poets Moe considers tend to demonstrate, thinking in this way hardly constitutes thinking, at least in the most rigorous sense of the word.
This is why I believe Aaron Moe’s study of animals and the making of poetry is so crucial. It’s the kind of book that embodies what thinking is—and what it can be—thereby inviting us to rise to its demands. It challenges us, above all, to pay attention to realms of being that our “modernity” tends to simplify or trivialize as unworthy of our attention, our love, imagination, care, and respect. Through fine-tuned, intellectually sophisticated, and bracingly affecting readings of poets, poems, and their encounters with (and evocations of) the worlds we share with animals, Moe makes a radical case for the value of poetry and art, which may have the power to enliven and direct our attention to vital energies within ourselves and other living beings—the very material energies of animal life that simmer beneath language, pushing our awareness of what it is to be human into new and unexpected directions.
Header photo of elephants in Thailand courtesy Pixabay.