Book Review: Jennifer Sperry Steinorth reviews Lauren K. Carlson’s Animals I Have Killed

JENNIFER SPERRY STEINORTH REVIEWS ‘ANIMALS I HAVE KILLED’ by LAUREN K. CARLSON

In her first poetry collection, Animals I Have Killed, Lauren K. Carlson delivers poems that incarnate rare and ordinary alchemies of biology and consciousness.  Through deft deployment of metaphor and syntactic sleight of hand, Animals I Have Killed bears witness to daily transformations of animal into meat, human into animal, and God into word into night.  In Carlson’s hands, rifles become sentences, children become windows, a young woman becomes the unopened mail of her recently departed grandmother.  What’s more, through the keen eye of our poet/witness, each embodiment reveals its tethers to all the others; we are given to see not only the lit stage of the theatre, but the puppeteer overhead, past and future scenes waiting in the wings, our own faces aglow in the darkened house and all the strings.   

Consider Carlson’s startling title, Animals I Have Killed.  Grammatically, the phrase implies the book’s subject is animals, and certainly this is true.  As it happens the poet resides on a family farm replete with goats, chickens, dogs, and numerous wild creatures.  But Carlson’s title is complicated by the startling adjectival declaration “I have killed” which immediately shifts the gravitational power from the “animals” to the “I” that killed them. With these four words, Carlson enacts the violence whereby an animal is extinguished by an “I”, and, in so far as we consider such acts of violence to be the “savage” domain of animals, Carlson concedes to being an animal.  Indeed, the simultaneous transfiguration of animal into weaponized “I” and “I” into an animal at the mercy of another is a recurring motif. 

Take the poem “Migrations” which begins, “of silver air the starlings/ under thunderheads/ tumbling as one/the flock chasing storms”, then startles with “this swoop is not a doom”.  Certainly, the slippery syntax which constructs a parallel between the birds in flight and the storm is a kind of magic.  The phrase “tumbling as one” might refer to the flock of many birds, or the collect of thunderheads, or the flock and the clouds together made one.  Stretched across the page, with ellipses between phrases, the words both semantically and visually represent both birds and clouds, each fragment occupying its own piece of sky. The empty space around the fragments becomes the firmament stitching them together, dissolving distinction between, so that when we arrive at “this swoop is not a doom” we are astonished by the sudden appearance of a threat the speaker claims is absent.  Doom may not be this swoop, but it might be the next. At the close of the poem, the speaker declares “a night with no light” to be  “what else but a room/ a womb/ the newborn once home”.  Suddenly we understand the heightened awe and terror of the speaker beholding the sky when, in addition to the migrations of weather and birds we consider the migration of an infant, of one’s own child, from womb into wide world and from hospital to home.  

In Carlson’s poems metaphor is not simply a mechanical device, but an enactment of spiritual transubstantiation.  We see this in “Mary Teaches Me the Sacrament” which begins:

When I tell					my son
our neighbor					died this morning
he weeps					at eight

his emotions					hovering near the surface

The poem may be read in several ways, both horizontally across the page and vertically down, one column at a time.  This formal play, whereby multiple readings coexist and complicate each other, embodies a metaphysical revelation. Reading across the columns horizontally, we understand the speaker is telling her son that their neighbor has died; the son, eight years old, weeps. The title, with its invocation of Mary and the Christian faith, complicates this reading as we may interpret the word neighbor to be a stand-in for Jesus, and the telling to be that of the Easter story.  If we read each column vertically other meanings emerge.  The second column is particularly resonant:  my son/ died this morning/ at eight.  We may understand the speaker to be Mary the mother of Jesus, recalling her son’s death (at eight A.M). But from the first reading we understand the primary speaker–to whom Mary teaches the sacrament– is also a mother, and as a mother, how can she not empathize with Mary’s loss?  In these first few lines, not only do we witness several transfigurations– the present day mother into Mary, mother of God, the deceased neighbor into Jesus, Jesus into the speaker’s own eight year old son (to name a few), but the choices of interpretation which become the responsibility of the reader, transforms the reader from passive witness to active agent of creation, culpable for the transformations they conceive.   

Indeed, agency and grace walk hand in hand throughout Animals I Have Killed. In the semi-confessional title poem, the poet meditates not only on the particular animals she has killed (do the goats we take to the butcher count?), but the reason and method of death: the rooster  burned alive   for attacking my son.  In these poems the poet reveals the dirt on her hands, washes them in real, coagulating blood.  Such revelations invite readers to consider their own frailty in the wake of all that is beyond our kin alongside our terrifying power in the lives of others.  

The alchemical magic of Animals I Have Killed calls us to our better selves, not only through deft deployment of a poet’s craft, but through a pilgrim’s devotion to the gifts of creation– the starling and the storm, the hunger and the meat. It leaves this reader hopeful, curious and longing for more.   

Jennifer Sperry Steinorth’s books include Her Read A Graphic Poem (2021) and A Wake with Nine Shades (2019) from Texas Review Press. A poet, educator, interdisciplinary artist, and licensed builder, her recent work has appeared in Black Warrior, Cincinnati Review, Michigan Quarterly, Missouri Review, Pleiades, Plume, Rhino, TriQuarterly and elsewhere. 

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