Colorado State University Center for Literary Publishing

Book Review

Literature for Nonhumans

By Gabriel Gudding

Reviewed By Jacqueline Lyons

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Inhumanity remains a human invention and exercise. The best attribute of our species may be our complexity, and in Literature for Nonhumans, Gabriel Gudding appeals to humans’ intellectual, artistic, and political selves by braiding fact, lyricism, and manifesto into a force magnetic and powerful as the undercurrent of a river.

The book delivers an anthropocentric ass-kicking as it seeks intra- and inter-species peace, for all our sakes, especially for animals, for rivers, and for fellow human drivers onto whom, Gudding posits in “Our Fellow Drivers as the Analogs of Animals,” we “project a cognitive primitivism,” and “readily animalize” when they are cloaked in metal. The question of how quickly we animalize our own species is “instructive,” because “think about how easily….we’ll do this to others who are hidden behind / the varying shapes and features of their bodies.”

The book begins its scrutiny while still unopened: the cover image appears to be a close-up of a pig’s skin, the title Literature for Nonhumans hovering holographically in the fine hairs. Bannered across two pages, the book’s first text insists THERE CAN BE NO PASTORAL AS LONG AS THERE IS A SLAUGHTERHOUSE. The content bunts readers, demanding their attention to human-nonhuman relations. The form of the book’s opening poem reinforces content by physically altering familiar configurations of words, as in “The plan ets are old co l ore d platforms,” so that we see the letters and hear the sounds that comprise words. The rupture of written language previews the book’s sustained exploration of re-envisioning animals. As the meat that humans eat looks more and more like animals in pieces, the book’s formal adventurousness and artistic vision allow us transport, as in “Rivers for Animals,” in which “rain, divided to / thousand of pieces, / coalesces to one piece / of river… // in which is suspended a brambledom / of dissolving animals.”

The tone disarms. The poems, shaped by Gudding’s uncompromising advocacy for the nonhuman, seep with tenderness—for “those eating millet seed, Those eating potato chip, / Those unscrewing hooves” as well as for “Those / who are cows” and those “busiest at dawn, Those beset by pains” (“Encomium: Sun”). Only the pathologically un-empathetic could remain unmoved by text on Baby Pig Management as excerpted by Gudding in “The Nonhuman Human”. Instructions on how to kill “up to six piglets” at a time unfold as emotionless as a grocery list, performing their own self-critique, and leaving an impression that cannot be disavowed. And who could remain impervious to the power of image in “The Cathode and Anode of Modernity,” where the speaker saw bison “swung outward by the bullet…. / there spinning above the west, a stuffed horned asterisk”?

Literature for Nonhumans is comprised of a dozen poems, mainly formatted in text-justified columns evocative of newsprint. This stylistic choice evokes William Carlos Williams’ poem “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower: “it is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack  /of what is found there” comes to mind, though in the context of Gudding’s poems, it is a literal death, and it is nonhumans who die miserably when humans fail to get the news. The verse essay style poems challenge, in their form and length, presumptions about the center and the margin(al). Lovely echoes resound back and forth across form, genre, and content; the text is corralled into alignment, marrying poem with prose, song to treatise, encomium and dirge, highlighting tension between constraint and imagination. The poems explore the shared territory of human and nonhuman, of bliss and ignorance, of “feel[ing] comfort / and love while eating a turkey while collectively denying / the turkey’s wish for comfort and love, her desire to play /and live.”

In “Amnicola,” the tide of the footnote rises above the half-page mark to overtake the main text, an intuitive critique of the colonial approach to landscape, of the slaughterhouse, of the (mis)management of rivers, of the ruination of bison, and of other consequences of anthropocentrism. The poem also turns the ode on its ear by including extensive lists of the extinct, and taking a tour of human invention of time-keeping devices, acknowledging John Muir who devised “a clock of wood that would / of its own accord light a fire in the / barn at 4am, so that he wd not have / to rise and go to a cold building full / of chickens.” Gudding manages to find, or make, occasions for humor, as in “Praise I guess to Theophilus Carter, / furniture maker of Oxford, that he / constructed an alarm clock bed that / wd throw its occupant to the floor.” Special praise to Gudding’s examination of humans inside their vehicles, the “mobile” rooms of cars “escap[ing] the orbit of parental censure,” the “contemporary mathematization of time” as it “supplant[s] somewhat time / as the metaphysical river of events,” and other human spatial and temporal constructs that quantify and commodify.

Literature for Nonhumans disassembles then reassembles a vision of the nonhuman that humans (hopefully) won’t be able to un-see. Unsettling and compassion-inducing, the poems might make you look your dinner in the eye, reconsider dinner, cry, and examine your life in relation to animals, to rivers, to rooms, furniture, vehicles and time.

Jacqueline Lyons is the author of the poetry collections The Way They Say Yes Here (Hanging Loose Press), which won a Peace Corps Writers Best Poetry Book Award, and Lost Colony (Dancing Girl Press). Her nonfiction has been nominated for Pushcart Prizes and cited in Best American Essays. She has received a National Endowment for the Arts Poetry Fellowship, the Indiana Review Poetry Prize, Utah Arts Council Awards, and a Nevada Arts Council Fellowship. Her poetry and essays have appeared in the literary journals AGNI, Barrow Street, Bellingham Review, Colorado Review, DIAGRAM, Fourth Genre, River Teeth, Quarter After Eight, Sonora Review, The Southern Review and many others. Her collection of lyric essays, Breakdown of Poses, was a finalist for the Permafrost Book Prize in Nonfiction (University of Alaska Press). She is Assistant Professor of English at California Lutheran University, where she is currently writing earthquake poems that explore edges, ecology, and emergency. Her next book of poetry is forthcoming from Barrow Street Press in 2018.