Reading Sara Ryan’s Never Leave the Foot of an Animal Unskinned is like finding poetics, a philosophy, a mini-manifesto.
It’s fitting, too, that the work is described as “hybrid”—as it mixes lineated poetry with prose endnotes that read as a mix of research notes and essay. She blends childhood memories of visiting museums, layering the remembered visions of taxidermied groups of animals with visiting taxidermy shows, excerpts from how-to manuals and articles about the meaning of skins and mounting, with a poetic voice that is quiet (fragments and small i’s) and loud (calling attention to the sheen and color of faux-blood and bright eyes). Altogether, this micro-chap from Porkbelly Press is an examination of the ways we preserve both ourselves and the animals we regularly pretend not to be.
A particularly strong poem is “Bad Hunter,” set at the Taxidermy World Championships in Missouri. The speaker describes women who “flock around like smart pink birds” and “men wearing leaves” who “chew on toothpicks.” The poem continues to contrast these genders: men and women, boys and girls. Judges walk through, taking the measure of all the animals there: “this is how wet the nose should be, this is how / cocked the hoof.” The final lines showcase the juvenile of the species— “a girl dusts paint flecks off her road-kill / beaver. a boy licks a pearl of blood from his thumb.” How color-rich and sensual these details. The reader’s understanding of the poem is only deepened by its accompanying endnote, which describes the gendered divisions in the field—hunting is masculine and so women in taxidermy “encounter sexism and gender stereotyping.” However, the footnote informs us women’s numbers are increasing: “young, academically driven, and largely female.” The endnote concludes with lines that could be back in the poem: “Women in polo shirts. In poodle skirts. In camouflage. Combing dead birds as if they were still chirping.”
Another poem with the (literal) cold-belly moments, the juxtaposition of the sensual and the unsettling, is “Prehistory.” In it, the speaker is discouraged from being an archeologist, but tells how she “identified the difference between / a shoulder blade and a pelvis in middle / school science. I dug into a fetal pig’s / cold belly while a boy pulled my hair.” I am there with her, in the poem, the black lab tables, the chemical smell, the pairing up (of lab partners). At the end of the poem she promises her mother she wouldn’t “dig up bones / for a living” but explains “I only meant the bones / that didn’t belong to me.” The poems are peppered with small moments of memory (a childhood visit to the Field Museum, the middle-school science lab, sitting across the table from “wily foxes on two legs”) that explain the adult intent in looking beneath the seams, sifting through sawdust and glass eyes to discover what the illusion is for— “are we mourners? Are we searching for sweetness?”
I admit it: I’m a sucker for skins, the animals they once were, and the strange things we do to them. I’ve begun my own collection of weird vintage accessories that I wear, often unsettling people I meet. I have the requisite foxes-biting-their-tails stole, complete with claws and glass eyes; a baby alligator purse with the whole small body intact; a skating muff with loose fox tails that waft in a breeze. I keep a small cache of porcupine quills, some blue jay feathers in a box, a raven hairpiece I should probably only wear for costume. As Ryan writes in “Beast Fables,” “we are all animals here” —the speaker goes on to invoke even the tiger mascot on a volleyball jersey as part of this menagerie: “the animal in all / our skins.”
The poem continues “this is a lesson in fake dead / and real dead. in learning / all the lies.” And here the poem breaks away to an endnote (and this reader along with it), a discussion of an art exhibit with photographs of taxidermied polar bears, accompanied by the bears’ biographies. From an article (cited in the footnote and included in the chap’s bibliography) by Rachel Poliquin, she includes the quotation, “. . . the bears become mysterious and ambiguous objects.” The endnotes are poems in themselves, a treasure trove of ideas to linger over—I found myself reading them as prose poems. They revisit key ideas: when does the animal cease to be animal? (Especially when we invest so much time and effort in re-creating it as if it were still living?) How does the process of turning the animal into a taxidermied object change our relationship and understanding of it? What does this process of “othering” look like? How does it function?
There are small quotes here and there that read to me as a statement of poetics, encapsulated:
“a sharp knife is important—always is.” (from the poem “The Specimen Dealer”)
“Through making things, people make themselves. Without things, we could neither be ourselves nor know ourselves . . . Without things being things, we are just as much human as we are animal” (from endnote 12, paraphrasing Patchett’s “Animal as Object: Taxidermy and the Charting of Afterlives”)
“The various reasons and purposes of preserving animals are ‘underneath and between,’ meaning that they are liminal and surface-level reasons, that cover or make glossy the visceral aspects of human desire . . . to prove something happened” (from endnote 13, referencing Rachel Poliquin)
There is a poem about the literal making of a taxidermied animal, “Of Men & Birds” that takes the reader through the process: “thrust your hook into his pelvis / and suspend him in midair (the better to work with the body) . . . be gentle with his neck (remember he was once other than object) . . . fill him up (a list of suitable materials follows) . . . when you take him home / notice his body (be filled with wonder) . . . you have never seen such a bird, / not even in your dreams.” The poem goes on to ensure that in its instructions for constructing this thing that is both object and subject, both animal and not animal, it shows its once alive-ness, while also showing the care given to the illusion. “he should have a few stitches / at his back, but not too many. / for obvious reasons. // you wouldn’t want him / to look a fool.”
Here, too, I don’t think the poet is talking about taxidermy, or not only. I find this a useful instruction for making a poem or thinking about how a poem could—or should—be made. Work with both hands; disjoint bones carefully; what wings! such feet! he is some good genius! But be sure a few stitches, a few seams (not too many) show, because it shouldn’t be too perfect an approximation of life either, there should be some intimation of a made thing, a thing touched by human hands, a thing that is not fully a recreation. Like taxidermy, a poem is “a dilemma of realism.”
The final poem is entitled “Extinct” and even more than the others in the collection makes use of fragments, half-starts, and dismembered sentences. This is heightened further by its form on the page, two columns that can be read in columns, or across, or both in sequence. The subtle shifts in the poem—depending on how one reads it (columns or across), and then how/whether/if one doubles back to the other reading occasions a contrast between things that survive: “fossilized sequoia” and “gold of an oil slick”—that final of final moments “eating the sun” and the already disappearing human who would witness these things: “the bone museum” that we’ve peopled with artifacts we collect and reconstruct for our comfort. I love the stop and start of this form, the way it sounds like an incantation of strangeness, the disjointing of images, pauses like unguents.
I highly recommend picking up this strong-voiced micro-chap that engages with all sorts of bodies and making and uncovers various ways of understanding what any of this means—asking far more questions than it provides answers for. The cover art by Rachel Allen is beautiful and perfectly paired; what a gorgeous specimen of a book. Together, the images of fur and feather and claw—and the hands that make use of them—give new life to the beasts of the woods, whether seen in their natural habitat or behind museum glass.