University of Georgia Press, $16.95 (paper)
Oni Buchanan’s haunting and intelligent debut, What Animal, offers nothing less than a menagerie of despair, a bleakly beautiful “petting zoo” where “each injured animal [is] accessible . . . one limping. / One with mange. Others you could not tell / what was wrong exactly, but then, // there they were.” Populated by such creatures—each with its own tragedy and crisis—Buchanan’s poems frequently address struggles with self-awareness and self-estrangement: “I knew then that I had forgotten / what a yak looks like, though I am a yak, / and I knew then that I had been away for a long time.” The poems often hinge on longing and transformation (“my heart aching / as I felt for my face and I was still human”) as well as isolation, each animal alone in its crowd, “tucked together on the green, but frozen one and one and one.” While the poems’ subjects often yearn for intimacy of one kind of another, Buchanan usually includes a sense of detachment within this desire: “I wanted / to be with him on the glacier, just the two of us / freezing and turning away from each other.” Elsewhere, adoration becomes possessive, destructive: “We worshipped the animal by / cutting off his horns and grinding them / into bits of dust.” All the poems’ inhabitants suffer, either from their own nature or by the imposition of another’s will: an animal skin is “scraped clean with a rock” by a human, a body on the beach sits “upright from the sand like a shard wedged in.” Both natural and not, there is a sense of purpose in these actions; the “orphan folded like a fruit bat in the attic window” seems strangely meticulous, but also self-protecting. Terror and loneliness are present throughout the collection, but there is an undercurrent of tenderness and care as well. For all its dark intensity, What Animal is a measured, almost quiet collection; if we come to the book as bewildered onlookers, we leave understanding the yak’s sorrow is much like our own.