Sentinel Species: Animals as Witnesses and Warnings

Sentinel Species: Animals as Witnesses and Warnings

by Chase Dimock

During the first months of the pandemic in Los Angeles, one of the biggest changes I noticed was the clearing of the skies. Without the infamous knots of LA traffic, the omnipresent smog dissipated, the skies became a crystalline blue, and air quality improved drastically. Then, animals began to creep back into the city from the hills. Fewer cars and crowds emboldened deer, bears, and even mountain lions to venture into the paved lands their ancestors once roamed. I watched coyotes cross Ventura Boulevard unafraid. Now that LA is starting to reopen, my hope is that we see the decontaminated skies and the flourishing of animal populations during the pandemic as a sign of the resilience of nature and a preview of what we can achieve if we committed to reducing our impact on the land.

I remain cautiously optimistic, though, as many of the animal witnesses in my first book of poetry, Sentinel Species, can attest, humanity has not always been adept at interpreting the harbingers of nature, or capable of mustering the will to address the damage we cause. Defined broadly, a sentinel species is an organism whose behavior can alert humans to a danger that we ourselves are unaware of. Because animals possess heightened senses humans lack, they can often detect the coming catastrophe of an environmental disaster we created. My sentinel species poems explore how animal behavior and the environment as a whole, along with our personal relationships with individual animals, speak to repressed or ignored aspects of our collective humanity.

The most famous of these sentinel species are coal mine canaries used to detect the odorless presence of carbon monoxide. When a canary fell stiff as a board, feet in the air in its cage, miners knew it was time to evacuate. My poem about the canaries takes us back to when they were replaced by modern carbon monoxide detectors in the 1980s and imagines them extending their professional craft as humanity’s alarm bell to other looming threats of the decade.

A new sentinel species to emerge in the last few years is the frozen iguana in Florida. Recent winters have brought unusually cold weather to the tropical climate, causing iguanas to instantaneously hibernate, stiffen, and fall from trees. In “The Falling Iguanas,” I examine Florida lawns littered with frozen iguanas as a harbinger of climate change and the fate of invasive species in a land that cannot sustain them.

My initial interest in writing a collection of poetry about animals and our relationship with the environment began a few years ago when I found a children’s book on Christopher Columbus and the animals he encountered on his voyage. A page about parrots in the Carribean sparked a curiosity for me: another species capable of recording what was said and speaking it aloud witnessed the conquest of the Americas and the exploitation of the people on that land. Two parrots were shipped from the Carribean to Spain as gifts for Queen Isabella. They arrived just in time to see the Spanish Inquisition.

This historical footnote inspired one of my earliest poems from the collection. “The Inquisitor’s Parrots imagines what the birds saw as witnesses of two atrocities against humanity. Obviously I took some creative liberties with the parrots, but it is true that a Spanish general wrote about an occasion when parrots had alerted the native people to the march of the conquistadors in time to flee. The parrots stand in for all witnesses to history whose suffering may have garnered a marginal notation, but was never recorded in their own words.

This theme of animals as witnesses to human history guides many other poems, including an allusion to Mrs. O’Leary’s cow and the ill-defined line between the feral and the domesticated in “Spilt Milk,” a hippopotamus who survived the Berlin Zoo firebombing during World War II, the vulture from Kevin Carter’s famous photo during the Sudan Famine, and the rejected plan to breed “ray cats” that glow when exposed to radioactive waste.

In addition to animal species as observers of the ebb and flow of civilization, I also explore my personal relationship with animals, including my pets, my place in the environment, and how the mythology of animals informs how I understand (or fail to understand) nature. In “Coming Out to a Spider” I think back to my teenage angst in grappling with my sexuality, exposing my most private desires and struggles witnessed by the spider in the corner of my bedroom.

In “The Blobfish,” I riff off the fact that the blobfish we see in photos does not actually look like that in its own habitat. When we pull it from its pressurized depths, it bloats beyond recognition. I imagine that blobfish as a pet in scenes from my childhood through adulthood in which I too felt out of my own depth and was judged based on the shape I took when dragged into someone else’s environment.

While I draw heavily on the symbolism of animals, I am also critical of how I can sometimes fall into the trap of casting them in gold and forgetting the heart beating beneath. In “Shooting the Janitor,” I was inspired by how learning about campus birds from the biology students at my college changed the way I viewed vultures. Pop culture has branded them as whirling harbingers of doom, when in reality they clean up the dangerously toxic corpses of animals that humans are mostly responsible for.

I lay out my aspirations for a human imagination of animals that balances the spirit of the fantastic with the responsibility of respecting the real conditions of animals in “Imitation Unicorns.” When I first held my infant niece and saw the unicorns on her onesie, I thought about the moment when she will learn that unicorns aren’t real. I don’t want other animals to feel diminished in comparison to the mythical unicorn, but I also don’t want to limit her imagination and sense of wonder. In her, I see the hope of finding inspiration and spiritual connection with animals without ignoring the mud and muck of nature, which isn’t very fantastical but remains our vital responsibility for respecting the rights of animals and the environment.

Although most animals cannot speak, their behavior explains the effects of our own human behavior on their lives. The difficulty is in interpreting their reactions in of themselves instead of seeing only what pertains to human interest. While we can learn a lot about humanity from studying the behavior of animals, this endeavor often comes at their expense; even circus elephants and lab monkeys know what it’s like to be a guinea pig.

Sentinel Species is available at Bookshop.org and many other online book retailers.

Jareen Imam author photo

Chase Dimock lives among mountain lions and coyotes in an undisclosed location between Laurel Canyon and the Hollywood Hills of Los Angeles. He serves as the Managing Editor of As It Ought To Be Magazine and makes his living teaching literature and writing at College of the Canyons. His debut book of poetry, Sentinel Species, was published in 2020 by Stubborn Mule Press. His poetry has been published in Waccamaw, Hot Metal Bridge, Faultline, Roanoke Review, New Mexico Review, and Flyway among others. He holds a PhD in Comparative Literature from the University of Illinois and his scholarship in World Literature and LGBT Studies has appeared in College Literature, Western American Literature, Modern American Poetry, The Lambda Literary Review, and several edited anthologies. For more about Chase, visit chasedimock.com.

Disgusted & Enthralled & In Love: A Review of Louder Birds by Angela Voras-Hills

Disgusted & Enthralled & In Love

A Review of Louder Birds by Angela Voras-Hills

In her poem “Splendor,” Angela Voras-Hills writes, “I am disgusted and enthralled and / in love.” The poem has just described the untangling of a mangled worm, half-eaten by millipedes—the millipedes deprived of their lunch, the worm (semi-rescued) but not long for it. After this hinge line, the next is, “The baby grows too big for my womb.” As the poem continues, the reader meets more bodies: flies, a spider, a fourteen-year-old son, an infant daughter. The poem closes, “The difference / between the moment of being and a moment of being. // When there’s a body and when there is none.” Here, each of these bodies is a notion of home—fragile. Hopeful, requiring tending. Throughout Louder Birds (Pleiades Press), Voras-Hills constructs notions of homes and tears holes in them—thin skins and ribs, wombs, papered layers of rooms & structures, old barns, traceries of farms & crisscrossed land.

The world made in these poems is stitched together by fragile associations—half made, tenuous. The language is incantatory, impressionistic. In “Preserving,” the form of the poem moves stanza by stanza with a word or image occasioning the next. The first, “I can spend a whole winter / in the summer of these lemons / if they’ve covered in enough salt,” leads to the next, where “Trucks are salting the roads / so I can drive . . .” An image of walking leads to an image of falling. Although this form is not as pronounced in other poems, overall the poems are made of these associations. Half-starts & skips. They are juxtapositions—a setting side by side of notions of the poet’s imagination (for better or worse). Sometimes, they offer a snapshot of worst-case scenarios or the kinds of ingrained knowledge that accumulate in small towns or rural areas of what could happen—because it’s happened before.

The opening poem of the collection, “Retrospective,” describes a girl holding a sign that reads “Zucchini / and God.” She’s barefoot and bare shouldered. There’s a gray sky, and a cat, and a corn field, and “the boundaries between home and the road // are insecure.” There are signs, and there are signs—sirens, it seems (and if you don’t know what that means—it’s a warning for a likely tornado or terrible storm). “We’ve all been in the presence of something dark // and have chosen not to seek shelter.” This poem, coming before all the others, is a warning of sorts—and it’s borne out in the following pages: in these poems, things will turn quickly. What seems to be only a roadside scene can quickly become something else, something dangerous. There will be loss, the evidence of something awful come before.

“Chateaubriand” is one of those poems that turns quickly. It begins:

Love me here, a tangle in the wire, complicate
my limbs with your mouth. Like the trail,
we’re a handful of breadcrumbs . . .

In the second stanza, “A girl / from another town was pinned against a fence / with the grill of a pickup while jogging.” I thought I was reading a love poem—but here’s brutality, and it’s not random. It’s personal, a neighbor “the guy behind the wheel, a stranger, lived / on her street.” And the poem addresses the reader then, with a “you,” reminding me of the intimacy of the page, the small space I’m caught in: “one day, you’re eating Chateaubriand, / the next, you can barely pronounce tender.” Those notions of home return, complicated by the imagining (?), remembering (?), of that complicating act—the one that twines with the imperative to love. The body that “keep[s] / our organs safe” like the skin of a grape, “making a home of your darkest, inside spaces.”

The cover of the book, featuring a bird carcass arranged over dried flowers, as well as a number of the poems, invoke dead animals, and the bodies of “the beasts / we’d run over along the way.” In “The Rabbit in the Road,” a blood tide rises over the curb, coating feet and leaving tracks all the way home. In “Home (IV),” a coyote eats her young. In “Unfurling” (a poem that ends with the beginning of labor), there is a poisoned opossum, a blanket of glistening cricket bodies. The displacement of human pain onto the witnessing of other pain—often the close examination of animal pain—a kind of alchemic dissection, as if to engage with these safe bodies, at a distance, with some sort of critical analytical eye—is a recognizable strategy. This displacement makes for powerful poetry: close looking, and capturing that on the page in indelible detail, and then snapping the reader back to the real true thing.

The poem “A Small Hole Filled with Mud” calls to mind the beginning of Angela Carter’s “The Snow Child,” where the wife’s desire for a child is crystallized by a perfect blood-filled hole in the snow. All desire, all wanting, a stylized image of perfection in the contrast of crimson and white. In Voras-Hills’s poem, desire is cast in the rural imagery of salt licks and bait piles—those heady tastes that lure the animal in us. The way salt almost burns the tongue with its pleasure; the way fruit rots in a late-autumn heat, a dense sweet tangibly heavy. Called, the speaker of the poem has arrived, and is “waiting / for the man to see me through / the screen door.” Instead of that image of perfect beauty, there’s the hole filled with mud, the mud “up to my ankles.” In that field, “children who won’t exist are calling / my name.”

In the notions of home Voras-Hills suggests throughout her collection, as well as the ways she troubles their existence, she names a particular kind of landscape and place, best articulated in her poem “Maps of Places Drawn to Scale.” The poem begins with a car accident, a van flipping on an exit ramp. “In a small town, a priest / knows the man’s name.” The poem muses that at the Chinese buffet (there’s often a restaurant called this in small towns), no one’s fortune cookie says “you will suffer [ . . .] / but it’s implied / in the parking lot.” Throughout the collection’s accretion of imagery, memory, and imagining, a skeletal narrative has formed—one of a relationship surviving losses of would-be children, finding comfort in the world they make together even as that world is threatened. One of looking out windows into the distance at neighbors—people and fields and animals, the barn across the way—and trying to find one’s place there. This poem ends with the comfort and suffocating qualities of living in one of those small-scale places: “But in a small town, there’s one / name for each baby born, and eventually / it’s on the lips of everyone in the street.”

C. Kubasta writes poetry, fiction, and hybrid forms. She lives, writes, & teaches in Wisconsin. Her most recent books include the poetry collection Of Covenants (Whitepoint Press) and the short story collection Abjectification (Apprentice House). Find her at ckubasta.com and follow her @CKubastathePoet.

Animal Rescue

My position as liaison between the open-admissions city animal shelter and almost four hundred rescue partners skews mostly toward crisis management. An injured gannet arrives, stunned and unable to fly. A shedding python someone tried to mail to California, a neonate squirrel drinking Pedialyte from a syringe, a red dog with matted fur and a mammary tumor—my department rushes them to rehabbers or twenty-four-hour vet hospitals.

I do not think about poetry during my day job, unless coaxing moms away from their two-day-old kittens long enough to gently place the whole family in a crate counts as building a poem. I only write on my days off, in slices between laundry and the long walks I take to process the worst of what I’ve seen during the week. I struggled last year when it became impossible for writing to be my whole world, or even a large part of it. I thought in terms of survival and the next therapy session, the minutes when my ideation quieted as I led a dainty pit mix through the rain.

But reconnecting with animals, my first love, has driven me back to poetry. Caring about the survival of others helps me (most days) to see the value of my own.  

I wanted to share a few drafts from #NaPoWriMo that touch on those feelings:

Draft 1:

I watched a vet tech caress a swan down their neck, down the wing pulled tightly against his body. I watched a man caress a swan with a beak too cracked for panic. I tell him you make me that swan, cut my panic with tenderness. My co-worker sends an email titled “11 Rats, can you help?” with a photo of white rodents arranged in a loose braid of a nausea. Imagine they climb my shoulders, pepper my movements with their lozenge eyes. I’m so unlike the Black Swan I saw last Halloween, cloaked in enough tulle to choke a bigot politely. My rats will make me that polite, crown my body with their tails in the air.

Draft 2 (Radical Revision):

I watch a vet tech caress a swan down their neck, down the wing pulled tightly against his body.

I watch my friend hold a python   as close as she can to her chest, his shed flaking on her gloves.

The only children I love  stray far from what I could make: pinkie squirrels with dark nails,

small lizards in a cricket frenzy. I watch the accolades pile up  when a straight friend posts 

ultrasound pictures. Her fetus somersaults away from the camera.  My own uterus contracts,

the pain elegant and ribbed,  like the ribbon crack in that swan’s beak that made eating impossible.

Draft 3:

The further I get I am a gulper eel, I hope, a mouth like the black box in Are You Afraid of the Dark? I open this mouth and you fall inside. The further I get I am the Black Lodge, a row of tiles that kiss muddy feet, a thick curtain grazing your neck. I speak rewinding cassette, I speak marine snow as my eel body ribbons between water zones. It is effortless to be such a horror, and your clues dissolve like shrimp in my stomach acid, like a face blurred by a net of ink.

The Rise of Genderqueer is available for purchase directly from Brain Mill Press and from print and ebook vendors everywhere.
The Rise of Genderqueer is available for purchase directly from Brain Mill Press and from print and ebook vendors everywhere.

Tender and brutal, luminous and dark, raucous and gutting, Hanks’s poems are so alive that you can almost hear their heartbeat.—Foglifter

A truly incomparable collection, The Rise of Genderqueer constructs a voice with unmitigated and authentic yearning. Its poems soak ink into page from margin to margin, pressing into the reader’s assumptions about gender unmercifully. These poems demand, carry authentic wisdom, deliver keen argument, and disarm with sly wit. Wren Hanks challenges the status quo as neatly as a flower slid into the barrel of a rifle. These are utterly convincing prose forms studded with rhetoric he’s deftly remastered and sampled from our culture and conversations right now.

I’ll never be denatured, // I am nature,” Hanks’s poems insist, as the reader bears witness to a bigger world, light flooding into every corner, revealing what has always been true, vigorous, and expansive.

“We are witnessing the birth of an extraordinary voice in these poems.”
—Roy G. Guzmán

The Ghost Incites a Genderqueer Pledge of Allegiance

Wren Hanks

Deny girl and the blood galaxies trailing it; there is a ghost in me who loves each egg, who won’t let me throw up when I’m seasick from my period.

There is a ghost in me riffing on fertility & chocolate almonds. We grow organs in pig ribs, ghost. Surely swelling and blossoming are not the same.

Swelling’s for an injured brain, a uterus drunk on the repetition of cells. I place my hand on my bound chest, pledge allegiance to the rashes and the scales, the fold and petal.

It’s a mess inside me, ghost.

Wren Hanks is the author of The Rise of Genderqueer, a 2018 selection for Brain Mill Press’s Mineral Point Poetry Series and a finalist for Gold Line Press’s chapbook contest. A 2016 Lambda Literary Emerging Writers Fellow, his poetry has been a finalist for Indiana Review‘s 1/2 K Prize and anthologized in Best New Poets. His recent work appears or is forthcoming in Indiana Review, Waxwing, Foglifter, and elsewhere. He is also the author of Prophet Fever (Hyacinth Girl Press), an Elgin Award finalist. He lives in Brooklyn, where he works as a liaison for Animal Care Center of NY’s New Hope program, a proactive community initiative that finds homes for pets (and wildlife) in need. He lives in Brooklyn and tweets @suitofscales.

BMP Celebrates National Poetry Month

For this year’s National Poetry Month, Brain Mill Press & Voices want to add to your #TBR pile, sing siren songs of unsung heroes, and signal boost living poets we should be reading more. By the end of the month, we hope you will have acquired 30+ new books of poetry and that they continue to multiply in the darkness of your library. Explore new voices & new forms — re-read some old favorites — play if you liked this poet, you’ll like… the old-fashioned way, algorithm-free — just poetry lovers talking to poetry lovers, as the Universe intended. Happy #NaPoMo2019 from Brain Mill Press.