The Animal Part: Human and Other Animals in the Poetic Imagination
by Mark Payne
Reviewed by Stephen Burt
I'm an animal; you're an animal too. And while we human animals have a lot less than everything in common with capuchin monkeys or muskrats or snails -- while we will not ever wholly understand how they experience the world -- we have more in common with them than many earlier writers and thinkers believed. We, too, evolved; we, too, have bodies and chemical triggers and neural wiring that predisposes us to some behaviors and renders impossible some others; we, too, are made of flesh and bone. That twin realization -- we are like animals, but unlike them; we share much with them but not everything -- has turned up in every literary genre, on occasion, for millennia, but only in our decade has it become part of a big, shiny, new kind of academic enterprise. Call it Animal Studies, or Animalia, or our animal time: dozens of critics have now earned attention (and tenure) by looking at figures of animals in literature and culture -- animals domestic, wild, predatory, anthropomorphized and fabular, or anti-anthropomorphic and irreducibly Other, reminders that when we say that we are only human, we do not usually know how to say what we mean.
Mark Payne teaches classics at the University of Chicago: he knows, and shows, quite a lot about famous Latin poets (Ovid), not so famous ancient Greek poets (Archilochus, Hipponax, Simonides), and modern literature in English and French (Louis-Ferdinand Celine, Herman Melville, and especially William Carlos Williams). The Animal Part is certainly academic -- it contains irreducibly academic sentences, e.g., "From such observation [in Williams] there emerges a consideration of how it is that one's own experience comes to take on a distinctive shape, recognizable to oneself and to others as a life lived by a particular individual" -- and if you are one of the people who read serious poetry but can't abide academic conventions, you probably have no reason to read Payne.
If, on the other hand, you are serious enough about your poetry, or about your modern literature, to want to follow really enlightening, memorable, and compactly made arguments about that literature, and if you want to read just one book about animals in texts, you will be very grateful for some time spent alongside Payne's articulately condensed and convincing prose. Payne looks at real animals -- his preface records an encounter with an apparently purposeful beaver -- but unlike many eco-critics he doesn't get so distracted by these critters as to grow stunned, or bored, when he turns back to texts; there, he looks at Greeks and moderns, novels and lyric poems, and he respects their authors, their styles, and their variety, all while keeping one eye on his argument.
That argument is as follows: imaginative writers since antiquity have noticed that we seem to share some emotions, some ways of being in the world, with animals. Those noticings remind us that we can't just do as we wish without consequences; the noticings, and the literary art that reflects those noticings, can humble us, rebuking our arrogance and our aggressions, by depicting or prompting shame. Those noticings might also lead writers to imagine joining the company of nonhuman animals -- to imagine themselves among, say, birds or fish, joining the swallows' or dolphins' collective life. Writers imagine joining that collective life, but they can't quite do it, because we are not dolphins after all: we might well become something else, something other than human, but we can't be as dolphins already are because we are constrained by our bodies, as well as by our ideas and our histories.
That's what Payne says. But why should you spend 150 pages watching him say it, first about Archilochus and Williams, then about Celine, Ovid, Aristophanes, and the rest? First, because watching this kind of ambitious argument unfold so compactly is a pleasure in itself; second, because Payne's look at dogs in Williams, and at feet in Williams, and at bodies in Williams, turns out to be the best thing anybody has written about Williams in at least five and maybe twenty years. Coming to Williams from Greek poems about yucky animals, animals associated with the shameful parts of human life, Payne finds several sorts of shame, damage, incapacity in Williams's poems; dogs' feet are metrical feet, and metrical feet are human feet, able or unable to walk correctly, and birds and finally turtles are alternatives to the grand and untenable human project of making something perfect, something that will long outlast our flesh. That project gets bruited, and perhaps rejected, in Williams's late short poems and in his long poem "Paterson", where the dogs bring him, so to speak, down to Earth. A late poem about a durable turtle asks "us to consider whether the end of animate embodiment in death," the fact that we die, "is a fact the animate human subject can imaginatively embrace." Williams's late answer? Maybe. It's a maybe his late rhythms -- halting at times, at times confident -- act out, a maybe that his legions of readers and acolytes should hear.
Beyond the great chapter on Williams lie other claims about what poets get out of animals, what poets see in the parts of creation that aren't us: Hopkins, for example, and then a series of tales and poems (Decemberists fans, remember "The Crane Wife") about men who find themselves married to nonhuman wives: "Animal bride stories present the possibility that animal interiority might take human form and a human being be embarrassed by being discovered experiencing desire for what is only apparently human," what is actually, say, a serpent (as in Keats) or a crane. We are animals, and we are like other animals -- more like them than we thought, but less like them than some of us have wished -- and out of that likeness and unlikeness have come over 3,000 years of verse and prose. Out of that same likeness and unlikeness, Mark Payne has crafted a durable, thoughtful, short book, one that those interested in the writers he views should amble, swim, hike, or navigate a long way in order to read.