“OF ALL the images that make up our world, animal images are particularly buried inside us,” Corvallis essayist Elena Passarello writes in her new collection, Animals Strike Curious Poses. “We feel the pull of them before we know to name them, or how to even fully see them.”
Passarello, who will be reading at Mother Foucault’s Prince Party this week, made her debut with the 2012 collection Let Me Clear My Throat, an adventurous and surprising journey through the possibilities of the human voice. For her follow-up, out later this month on Sarabande Books, she turns her attention toward animals, particularly those that have been, at least in the human world, famous.
From a sketch of a rhinoceros that created a cultural mythology, to a sitcom horse trained to move its lips on cue, to a wild goat that begins the de-extinction craze, the book’s 16 essays look at the odd ways we as humans have expressed our pull toward animals throughout history. Packed with an assortment of facts, myths, and unexpected connections, each of the book’s essays is a deeply researched ride that presents an almost staggering amount of information.
But the essays are also highly playful, never taking themselves too seriously. In a number of them, Passarello takes some bold chances with form: She fills in the lost sections of a famous cat poem, builds an essay out of a gorilla’s sign language vocabulary, and tells the story of a crocodile inside an Australian student workbook.
And in many of the pieces, Passarello speculates on the history that wasn’t recorded, the parts we can never know. She imagines a prehistoric mammoth hunt, recreates the working relationship between Mozart and his pet starling, and—in the book’s most gloriously absurd moment—delves into a tortoise’s unrequited love for Charles Darwin.
Throughout, Passarello works as a sort of critical ringmaster, announcing both the sideshow act and our short-sighted desire for it. She entertains as she exhibits our missteps, and points to the ways we project onto—and define ourselves in relation to—animals. In an essay about the most famous bear in the London’s Elizabethan-era “beargarden,” she considers the animal’s spectators. “What did they see?” she writes. “They saw themselves, of course.”
Animals Strike Curious Poses
by Elena Passarello