Review: Richard Grossman's The Animals

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The Animals Richard Grossman

The Animals by Richard Grossman (American Letters Press) 424 pages

Richard Grossman has written something way beyond a book of poetry. I can’t possibly do him justice here, but I’ll give it a shot. He calls this “a pastoral,” and that term opens up the vastness of earthly possibility found in these 400 poems written in animal voices, along with 200 dialogues between the “shepherd and the flock.” It’s an “environmental bible” that speaks to you in a way that can’t really be explained, and it stands as not just another book but as an “affirmation of life.”
It’s also the beginning of a monumental literary undertaking by Grossman as one of 34 elements of prose, poetry, art, music, dance, architecture and theater that will be part of a 3,000,000 page book about Heaven entitled, Breeze Avenue. Let that sink in for a moment. The first hundred pages of The Animals include poems named after abstract concepts such as Difference, Emptiness, Ignorance, Hate, Civilization, Simplicity and so on. The next two hundred pages are poems named after animals, taking on their voice and their worldview: Panda, Beaver, Centipede, Grunion, Swan, Opossum, Barnacle, Wolf, Falcon, Tick and on and on and on. The final hundred pages is taken up by the heavy matters of life: Society, Happiness, The Devil, Sensation, and ending with Silence. Singing the songs of the beasts, the earth and nature herself, each animal declaring, “this is what I am” and “this is how you see me.” Much of it is delivered in short bursts and quick couplets. Some poems are no longer than a dozen or two dozen words. Some are very simple: Cardinal, “I was made to make new snow look more beautiful.” Aphid, “We explode, our female anodes sending swarms flying off like electrons in a current that electrolyzes plants. Forming honey, ant money.” Some are much more complex and interlaced with active voices: Tarantula, “Festering in the ground, my black hairs picking up the sounds of surface stalkers, I wait to emerge and conquer whatever falls into a tarantella of knowledge… My digestive juices sluice inside their chitin; my mind becomes their conscience; we merge into a new being infinitesimally larger and wiser!”
Some of the philosophical-literary roots are found in everything from Emerson, Whitman and Frost to Rachel Carson and Peter Singer, but there’s not another post-modern writer anywhere doing anything quite like this at present, and certainly not with such a deep and broad vision, at least not to my knowledge. There’s an encyclopedia of material here, both linguistically and scientifically. It’s so dense it feels like a brick in your hand. It’s an indescribably unique reading experience as you leap from one realm of life to another, and it’s a profound experience to share vicariously the way in which Grossman chooses to represent certain species. It’s one of those books wherein a completely new use of language emerges and as you embrace it you become part of that world. He provides a living caption for copious creatures to which none of us ever give a moment’s thought, and, in the end, he turns the camera-eye around and points it at the human animal, the strangest one of all.