On Animals Strike Curious Poses by Elena Passarello

Jen Hirt

Louisville, KY: Sarabande Books, 2017. 200 pages. $19.95.

How often do we get to thank Prince for the title to a collection of essays? His hit song “When Doves Cry” spins a verse placing us in a courtyard with “an ocean of violets in bloom.” Posed around it, curiously, are the animals. Dream, if you will, a stampede as they find their way to the border on the cover of Passarello’s second book. Then, each gets a silhouetted frontispiece at the start of their chapter—which is to say, this is a beautiful and layered book whose allusions, content, and design make it a natural-born alpha in the latest pack of animal-themed creative nonfiction.

Passarello has made a name for herself as a creative nonfiction writer who eschews the I for the eye, and she guides that particular pony to a blue ribbon in this collection. Only one of these essays is in singular first person, “Lancelot,” about the mid-1980s Living Unicorn circus attraction that Passarello saw when she was seven. Her adult anguish over her childhood awe of this abused creature drives the essay and demands a first-person accounting. “But here I am, thirty years later, trying to explain what happens when I look at animals, and the creature that palpitates my tenderest spot is that hot mess of an animal,” she reflects. Passarello has set a new standard for how we can write about animals real and imaginary—professors of nature writing and lovers of mythical beasts, take note.

The whole book, not just the Lancelot essay, is her attempt to try “to explain what happens when I look at animals.” What happens is that her imagination goes crazy in all the right ways. Passarello’s smartest decision was to harness that imagination and set it on a smart trot down the lane, all the while redefining how writers are able to literally see the animals that intrigue us. Exhibit A is the chapter titled “Harriet,” about the young Galapagos land tortoise Darwin saved for study in 1835. For starters, it’s written in second person: “He’ll pick you up in his small, soft hands without strain. ‘Tortoise,’ he’ll call you, not ‘turpin.’ With your mouth closed, tap your tongue twice and hiss. How fancy.” The reader becomes the tortoise. Nice move. But Passarello doesn’t stop there. She mixes in the lust of a tortoise crushing on her captor. That’s right—the essay takes the reader through Harriet’s broken-hearted longing to be Darwin’s one-and-only girl to study. She—and you—are falling in love with Darwin, only to be met with abandonment. “He’ll move you in with his doped-up brother and wed his nervous, pious cousin, devoting his days to either her or to the finches.” Following the actual course of history, the reader-as-giant-tortoise ends up in Steve “The Crocodile Hunter” Irwin’s Australian zoo, where in one paragraph, she dies with unrequited love, and an omniscient narrator takes over in the next paragraph to chronicle Irwin’s hubris-filled death-by-stingray. The last line speaks to every weird-but-true plot twist in this piece: “When someone puts a barb in your heart, the worst thing you can do is pull it out.”

It’s after such passages that many readers have to set down a book like this and think about what they’ve just read. It’s not just the content, or the insight—it’s the gutsiness of collapsing history and facts into something that starts with history, plays with the fictitious, and ends in the hyperreal.

Not all the essays are so imbued with narrative pathos and play. “Jeoffry” is a difficult palimpsest poem about an eighteenth-century cat held in righteous regard by his demented owner, Christopher Smart. Smart penned a long and florid ode to his cat, but history has it that half the poem was lost. In steps Passarello to finish it. Smart’s lines fill the right-hand pages and start with “For.” Passarello’s lines match up on the left-hand pages and start with “Let.” It reads like a call-and-response, plus a defense. Smart had been committed to an asylum, and Passarello sneaks in a sly commentary; “Let his man not be called mad, though he shows his Tiger teeth.” In a way, she’s pointing out that if Smart was crazy in his devotion to one feline, then we’re all crazy.

In a similar vein, the essay on Koko, the gorilla who knew sign language, limits itself to just the words and phrases that Koko could actually sign, but Passarello arranges them into a joke that she imagines Koko telling. This gambit is explained in an endnote, as is the palimpsest nature of “Jeoffry.” She’s also been wise to include a bibliography of the 255 sources she consulted. Passarello has quite a range of techniques for getting at the truth, and she takes risks with the confidence of a visionary writer who knows her playfulness will be both embraced and questioned (hence the explanatory note at the end).

Is this book a bestiary or a menagerie? A bestiary is an object—an explanatory natural history book, often medieval in tone. Matthew Gavin Frank’s blurb labels it a bestiary inside-out. A menagerie is a collection of strange wild animals, often curated by the eccentric for the public (but, I believe, most appreciated by fellow eccentrics). The press release materials label it a menagerie spanning 40 millennia. It is of course both. So let me give it a third category—a sanctuary.

Animal sanctuaries today are places where abused and neglected and misunderstood animals get to recover and retire. We have sanctuaries for farm animals, circus stars, exotic pets, and even just plain old cat sanctuaries. The residents live out their lives but then often live on—in stories of goodwill that ring a halo of advocacy and empathy around these beings that Descartes once thought of as automata. Passarello’s book is a sanctuary for Sackerson, the brutalized bear forced to fight for entertainment in London, and Jumbo, the elephant that Edison electrocuted, and Arabella, the spider sent into space. With her words, they are all alive and so brave, once hurt by our hands but somehow bandaged with beautiful phrases. Her book is the sanctuary for Cecil, the lion gunned down in 2015 by a dentist who before and after never knew his name; Passarello’s entire chapter on Cecil is 101 words from an Associated Press interview where the dentist stammers about not knowing that Cecil had a name. It’s the final chapter in the book. Flip back through the pages; notice each chapter title is just the animal’s name. Passarello is concluding by asking us to remember and honor the first way we often know an animal—through its name.

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