“Animals” by Ali Alizadeh appears in the Mar/Apr 2017 issue of the Kenyon Review.
We take our own coordinates and variables to any reading of a text—be it a novel, a short story, an article in a newspaper, a film, a poem. The “meaning” of a work is going to be more “intended” and maybe more obvious in, say, a newspaper article than in a poem (though in this age of alternative-news truths, this is increasingly doubtful). Who we are and why we are as we are (life experience, if nothing else) necessarily makes readings of texts infinite and certainly unstable.
I am stating the obvious here, but I feel I have to, as when one takes a particularly overt prejudice or viewpoint to a reading, one can twist a text to mean what one wants it to without seeing the wood for the trees. We could, for example, make a pacifist reading of Tennyson’s “Charge of the Light Brigade,” but we would be working against the noblesse oblige of Tennyson’s imperialism, against his valorising of the courageous futility, along the lines that “war produces annihilation, but it’s certainly noble to die in such a way.” Stupid but noble. As a pacifist, I can make an argument for a slanted reading, but I am pushing against the weight of many other readings.
As a vegan and animals rights person, I might be doing something of the same with Ali Alizadeh’s poem “Animals.” The poem is clearly dismantling the hollow fetishisations of the notion of animals—the separation of human relationships with animals through the commercial idea of animal—as well as the usage of animals as pets to meet the human need to substitute, even “lightning-rod,” their feelings through a creature that is given human attributes but is no human. There’s more than literary conventions of anthropomorphism and pathetic fallacy in this—there is a challenge to an inclination in oneself in making such easeful relations—using relations—with animals, and with the idea of (non-human) animals.
But then again, maybe I’m not slanting it. Take the opening:
Cute, tasty and dangerous
kittens and cows, snakes and us.
Humans—us—we’re in there as “all of the above.” This express stupidity of affinity and condescension. The blurring of both affects, if one can risk this. Inside the cause, outside the symptoms? We are dealing with a language of connection and disconnection, of relationship. It’s bizarrely causal. The term “deconstruction”—sure to strike terror into any professor marking an undergraduate paper—is actually at work here in a metatextual sense.
The poet is playing with our certainties of reception. He is talking to the animal and to us, his readers, as he says: “Well, do you understand me?” Barriers of cognition are broken down and reassembled—the animal self is the perceiving self is the addressed self. Through mixing the registers of affect and language, though playing tones of familiarity and distance, from child to adult, registers of identity between animal victim and animal oppressor (human) are blurred.
The play of human issues of bonding and separation (father, child, divorcee) can seem like a bitter irony and expression of anger, but the irony is multidirectional, and is more about the expressions of angst over social breakdowns, as if to go outside the system of relationship is a breaking of the codes of bonding. It is not adequate to say this is a poem of relationship breakdown, unless we talk of breakdowns in relationships within human sense of an animal-self. “So, let me / understand the impossibility / of me.” A personal angst, sure, but also a questioning of Cartesian certainties, and maybe also the intactness of romantic subjectivity.
Neither science nor imagination works in the distress, in the breakdown of self-respect and desire for self-certainty, confidence. As gender and relationship conventions are played with—“pet” so often a term of familial affection—the struggling affirmation of human individuality is ironized against community (and self-) expectation. We imagine no “release” of the “me,” and the almost-bitter last words, “I’ll be my own beast // and burden.” leave the persona with less subjectivity than the “toy kangaroos.”
Alizadeh is “using” words for animals to show the gross insensitivity of social convention—one in which dingoes are conflated with baby-killing and false accusations of murder (the Azaria Chamberlain case) and sharks with attacks on surfers (a frequent occurrence in Australian waters) which the media turn into an “us or them” scenario, whereby the sharks have to be eliminated entirely to make the world safe for humans. Alizadeh uses slippages between the serious and absurd to show the “inhuman” human as the one who does not buy into the propaganda of animalia that real humans use to address the conditions of their own angst and suffering.
Is this a vegan-friendly poem? Is it actually concerned with animals as sentient beings in themselves in any way? Or is it essentially a poem of human disgust with a world that substitutes faux feelings mediated through “fluffy animals” to avoid facing the pain it inflicts on fellow humans? All of these. And for me, the rights of animals in all of this are actually far beyond the conceit of the poem, far beyond the wordplay and puns. I am sure Alizadeh might feel it is fair enough that I read in this way.