Review & Writing Prompt for MK Chavez's Dear Animal,
by José Angel Araguz
Reading through MK Chavez’s Dear Animal, one is captivated by the ways the title phrase can be returned to and given new meaning. From direct address to noun, this title does the work not only of complementing the collection as a whole but also serving as a lens through which the poem’s stakes are made clearer. The collection begins with the proem “Artemis,” which evokes the title’s charge of direct address:
with the captive
The direct address here works twofold, invoking not only the goddess of wild animals, wilderness, and the hunt, but also casting her presence as context for the way in which this poem and the poems that follow view the female body. Through the imagery of “ovarian horns,” a complicated gesture is made. The speaker asks the goddess to possess and charge the physical body with meaning, and, thus, let the body be enough. This direct address also subverts the go-to opening of ancient epic poems (“Sing to me, O Muses,…”), only instead of commanding muses to act on their behalf, the speaker here claims both goddess and the female body as being active by being present. This presence-as-action note is further emphasized in the poem’s soundplay of “speak / my / grizzly / bear / lips,” where “bear” evokes its homonym “bare,” adding bravura and vulnerability to an already complexly layered short lyric.
The short lyric as a form itself, an animal dear to poets since the writings of Sappho, can be seen as the subject of another turn on the collection’s title. In “The Affair,” Chavez uses the short lyric as a crucible where her themes of animal and human relationships mix and mesh:
Nocturnal like most vermin,
we feed on remnants
and on the soured breath
of our lives. We loll
suckling on flesh
Likeness of one
and the world around us.
Here, it is word choice that drives home the emotional tension of the poem. An affair in which the two are akin to “vermin” would seem unflattering except that this conceit allows for the later “loll / suckling” which connotes a tenderness not immediately associated with the word “vermin.” By placing both words as part of the metaphor, this short lyric draws out meanings beyond initial impressions and shows need and want as integral to both animal and human experience.
Another way the title Dear Animal, could be read is as defiance. The undertones of this are implicit in “Not So Ancient Mariner”:
The launch of a ship involves a certain sullying, taking her by the helm and the breaking of a bottle over the breasts of her prow, the spume bubbling in a public spectacle to mark her owned…
In these opening lines, the speaker revisits Coleridge’s poem and mines its materials to create a narrative that challenges sailing tropes, specifically how the ship is seen as female and passive. The poem continues:
Young men are always encouraged to travel, taught they are destined to be gentlemen and explorers…They are told it is their duty to return to land and tell tales, but the rite of passage is hers.
Here, the speaker addresses the other side of the dichotomy, the assumed power of males in the traditional sailor narrative. By stating that “the rite of passage is hers,” however, the speaker takes back agency. The acted upon and passive ship becomes redefined as active via its presence, returning us again to the theme found in the proem. Yet, where in the proem one’s presence as action is an act of boldness, here one is engaged in a mix of pathos and world-weariness. The defiance (against tradition, against gendered tropes) inherent in getting to the wisdom of this ending comes at the cost of disenchantment.
Disenchantment recurs as a theme throughout, but always as fuel for revelation (as in “Not So Ancient Mariner”) rather than resignation. A good example occurs in the aptly titled “The Faculties of Sense,” in which Chavez addresses the controversy around the reading of Michael Brown’s autopsy as conceptual art by Kenneth Goldsmith in 2015. Goldsmith’s “conceptual” act is placed in contrast with the speaker’s own struggle to find “equilibrium” during a “rough year” in which “[in] an effort to explain myself / I sometimes uttered, I am the aftermath / of war.” This effort toward articulation is further conveyed as the speaker meditates:
When the term random acts was first coined
it was not meant to mate with the words gunmetal
and rapid succession. Consider the body
left on the ground for hours. The world allowed to fester.
Word choice again plays a key role in this personal and political reckoning. The phrasing of “not meant to mate” (emphasis added) drives home the nature of words and their power. Throughout, this collection holds that words are human, and “mate” through meaning. With this understanding in mind, when “A solitary man, so used to his podium, / [reads] an autopsy as art,” that act is one of trying to separate language from its ingrained humanity, as if even the words of an autopsy weren’t still about a human being.
When humans—we thinking animals—become the subject of Chavez’s poems, one feels the weight of the word “dear” in the collection’s title. Language in many ways implies distance; our immediate experiences are also at a distance, the distance of memory and understanding. Yet language and memory can serve as a way to cross that distance and connect with our humanity and what, in fact, is dear to us.
Writing Prompt: Pick a favorite mythological deity or conduct some research into mythologies that interest you. Collect facts, interpretations, and associated words that you are drawn to. Then create an invocation in the style of “Artemis,” addressing the deity directly in a contemporary way. What would cause you to invoke said deity? What would you talk to them about? What would you ask their help and insight on? Would you gossip with them, or rage? Be sure to braid your own obsessions/fascinations into the narrative.
José Angel Araguz is a CantoMundo fellow and the author of seven chapbooks as well as the collections Everything We Think We Hear, Small Fires, and Until We Are Level Again. His poems, prose, and reviews have appeared in Crab Creek Review, Prairie Schooner, The Windward Review, and The Bind. He serves as an editor for the journal Right Hand Pointing and is on the editing staff of Airlie Press. He runs the poetry blog The Friday Influence and teaches English and creative writing at Linfield College in McMinnville, Oregon.