Creature Features

Reviewed by Tina Northrup

Kate Sutherland’s How to Draw a Rhinoceros presents a history of its eponymous creature as it came to exist in European and North American imaginations throughout centuries. As the subject of rumours, myths, and ballyhoos, its nature was often dubious and unstable. In “A Natural History of the Rhinoceros,” the collection’s opening poem, we read that the rhinoceros has:

Small piercing eyes, red eyes

dull sleepy eyes

that seldom open completely

eyes in the very centre of the cheeks

eyes placed as low down as the jaws

eyes so small placed so low and obliquely

they have little vivacity and motion

eyes that only see sideways

eyes that only see straight ahead
Sutherland’s skill for assembling historical voices is best displayed in the trial-themed series of poems that report the case of Elephant v. Rhinoceros. Drawing on commentaries by figures such as Pliny, Albrecht Dürer, Oliver Goldsmith, the Comte de Buffon, and Richard Owen, Sutherland creates strepitous courtroom scenes where divers and diverse perspectives vie to be heard:

In the encounter it strikes the elephant on the chest

 runs at the elephant with his head between his forelegs

  slips under

  goes especially for

  strikes most of all at the belly

  shoves its horn in the stomach

which it knows to be softer

the softest part

   tenderest and most penetrable part

     weakest part of the body

   thinnest skin

where his sharpened blade will in

How to Draw a Rhinoceros is as impressive as it is delightful, and it merits multiple further readings.

Foreign Park is Jeff Steudel’s first book of poetry. The writing style is casual, sometimes to the point of seeming inattentive to craft; but even though certain poems fail to make lasting impressions, the collection, when taken in its entirety, is poignant and intellectually satisfying.

“The Accident” is one of the book’s most evocative pieces. Here, Steudel’s style works well in a prose form that juxtaposes narrative elements to make meaning. It begins:

I was heading up Victoria Drive when I saw the flashing reds, and I knew. I had just heard the CBC report that the NEB gave their first green light to the Northern Gateway Pipeline. The spokesperson said, “. . . with alarums and excursions,” and I wondered if she was referring to Macduff’s reaction upon seeing Duncan’s bloody corpse. Yes it was treason, and much of it against the First Nations who may now be the only hope left for the coast. I approached the accident scene in the crosswalk by the Edwardian for sale and Tutta Mia Designs.

As the speaker’s attention shifts from thoughts of resource exploitation to the instinctive certainty that his child has been struck by a car at a crosswalk, the poem does a fine job of allowing two effects to hang together: one representing contemporary geopolitics as a scene set perfectly for disaster, and the other exploring how individual tragedies are felt more viscerally, and arrest our attention more sharply, than do the communal harms that loom on the horizon. This tension between individual and communal realities permeates Foreign Park on the whole, and is arguably the collection’s greatest strength.

While the poems in Foreign Park occasionally leave one wishing for more diligent craftsmanship, Patrick Warner’s poems in Octopus sometimes go too far the other way, sacrificing meaningful expression for the sake of linguistic acrobatics. A stanza from “The Tightrope Walker” is one example:

With these will go

the washing-machine-cum-

bisected-turbine that spins,

that basin of sticky wisps,

spun stratosphere glomming

on a dipped stick to confect

edible pink insulation.

It is difficult to see what insight these metaphors give, or what fresh new perspective on cotton candy they inspire. True, poets have no obligation to reorient their readers’ perceptions of the world, but it is certainly nice when they do, and Warner’s own poetry is most captivating when it does. Take this stanza from “Starling,” one of the collection’s finest:

In the bare lilac, a half-robot starling,

his nibs whose song scans shortwave bandwidth,

who keeps a live cicada in his crop,

beneath his iridescent brush-stroked ruff . . .

Warner has a wonderful skill for wielding rhythm and rhyme subtly, and many of his poems demand to be read aloud. At their best, they have the muscularity of works by F. R. Scott, A. M. Klein, and Seamus Heaney, and are engaging and memorable as a result.

This review “Creature Features” originally appeared in Literary History. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 233 (Summer 2017): 167-168.

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