A review of Penned by Edited By Stephanie Bolster, Katia Grubisic, Simon Reader

Published on October 1, 2009

Edited By Stephanie Bolster, Katia Grubisic, Simon Reader

Vehicule Press

Anyone fond of animals will want to read Penned, a remarkably wide-ranging collection of poems about zoos. And anyone fond of animals will be saddened by the book as well, something the editors themselves recognize. The predicament of animals confined for human entertainment can create melancholy. But humans crave the encounter with other beings, and poets understand the need for the enlargements of sympathy and imagination that contemplating animals provides. In Samuel Butler’s The Way of All Flesh, a doctor prescribes an emotionally damaged character “a course of the larger mammals.” Penned has mammals of all sizes, and quite a few birds, especially flamingos, just the bird you would expect.

The selection in this anthology is international and brilliant: Canada, England, Scotland, and Ireland are represented by very fine work. The editors say that after “three years of scrounging, not every zoo poem in English found its way in,” a statement that shows how committed they were. The poets most readers would expect to find are here: Marianne Moore, Ted Hughes, James Dickey, and Margaret Atwood, but there are surprises, like the online poet known only as Woodworm, someone the editors could not track. The single poem limit could have been broken for Marianne Moore, the pre-eminent zoo poet of all time.

The collection is intelligently divided into three sections: “The Ingenuity of Chain Link,” which considers zoos as places to visit; “The One Who Looks Away,” which explores the zoo experience from the point of view of the animals; and “Things All Shaped Like Tigers,” which presents poems in which the zoo is a starting point for imaginative adventures. Each has its own interest, but it is the second part that is most affecting. The volume contains an early map of Regent’s Park Zoo, the first scientific zoo in Europe, and some well-chosen illustrations. This menagerie is worth the price of the ticket. mRb

Bert Almon lives in Edmonton, Alberta. Retired from teaching, he follows the careers of his former students.



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