Book Review

Megan Alpert’s The Animal at Your Side probes questions of origin and inheritance. The speaker in Alpert’s poems, having lost most—if not all—of her relatives, seeks a way forward through a fresh state of grief, vulnerability, and questioning. Who are we without the proximity of others to define us? What enters to fill that absence?

Across the collection, Alpert’s speaker searches for kinship and solace in various places: in objects and materials, in the natural and animal world, and in the body and the self. Alpert’s poems move through five sections: “Trails,” “Shores,” “Interiors,” “Out Further,” and “Ways in the Dark.” These sections situate the speaker on a literal and emotional journey; each section could have both a physical, geographical definition (a hiking trail, the boundary where ocean meets land) and a personal, figurative one (the speaker’s internal life, finding one’s way through a hard time).

In “Dawn,” the first poem in “Trails,” the speaker introduces us to one of the collection’s most pressing questions: “Will I wake anywhere / besides this house, / or love anyone ever / beyond my sister / with the skinned knees?” Through questions like these, exploration of dreams, and returns to her childhood home and other once-familiar environments, the speaker wonders how to live after loss, while examining the ways her past relationships to locations and people persist—despite their physical absence from her life.

It’s not just grief the speaker must find her way through. Other early poems in “Trails” introduce the body as inheritor of a violent history and the fatalistic anxiety that this destines the body to receive violence. In “What We Kept,” we’re told that the speaker and others, “kept the war under our tongues / kept it in our hamstrings / in our bones” as well as in more ubiquitous and accessible places like “cereal bowls” and “face cream.” Just as a trail leads us down a previously established and ordered path, this inheritance of war and violence eliminates any choices to deviate from the path cut into the landscape. In everything the speakers of “What We Kept” do, even standing “at the edge / of a blueberry field, birds lit / by the last of the sun,” there’s an acknowledgment of the potential for violence their bodies hold: “under our skin / the whirr-click of the war beginning . . .”

In brief moments, mainly in the section “Interiors,” the speaker attempts to replace missing family ties with objects, turning to materialism as a kind of inheritance. In “Lamb, After Fourteen Years,” material objects form a doorway into memory:

First bite, the dining room
came back: mauve tablecloth,
strange fixture—two bulbs
yellowing out of a globe
of chinked translucent tiles—
fireplace, high-backed chairs—

But while these objects offer momentary solace in their tangibility, the speaker soon realizes they lead nowhere; unlike family, our relationship to them is entirely one-sided. In “Everything’s Fertile,” the speaker describes this attachment as a stifling force, as she feels “shards of glass, / windows and torn-off doors, / planks and burnt-out arches in one big pile” burying her, crushing her inert body. Later, she writes of the “Soft blue carpet, a two- / car garage” in a friend’s house, “these things can trip // you up. They can put you / right to sleep” in “The Year with No Address.”

Objects comprise one form of inheritance, but Alpert’s speaker remains wary of trusting the security of material things. Asleep we are vulnerable; tethered to place through objects, our chances of escape are similarly slim. In “See-Through,” Alpert’s describes how these “years of trying to be the same color as rocks, water / anything I walked past, / see-through” could not assuage the “hurt that doesn’t give up. Is a stone in me.” What the speaker is finally left with, after all this, is still only her surroundings, whether man-made or not, laden with the weight of her longing:

The beautiful stones. I pick them up and hold
them, one after another
thinking what I’ll have when you are gone.

The collection weaves together strands of grief, body, object, and absence. While one impulse of the speaker’s grief pushes her to become “see-through,” taking on the appearance of her environment to erase the self, another impulse calls the speaker to look outside herself for kinship, to dwell more fully within her body and the world—to pick up the beautiful stones and feel their weight, their texture, to use her senses.

As the book progresses, the speaker’s sensuality and animality gradually crystallize until they become central to the later poems. While objects provide some fascination, the ultimate inheritances are evolution and instinct: what allowed the speaker to survive when those she loved did not.

The self and its instincts maintain a loyalty to the speaker’s survival far beyond what her family members could offer. What if instinct, then, comprises a kind of family—the physical needs, impulses, and desires of the speaker creating multiple iterations of the self that accompany her through the world? The poem “Blind and Delighted,” for example, ends with a seemingly ordinary moment: the speaker dropping a loved one off at a bus stop. And while earlier in the poem the speaker insists that “nothing was wrong,” red flags go up when the speaker describes how “a part of me blind and delighted taps / me on the shoulder as I watch her taps taps me again.”

In the absence of family, the self becomes sister, becomes multiple, becomes animal—more fiercely present when it is its only company and counsel, its last and most stalwart protector. The exposure of moving through the world without a safety net of community heightens the speaker’s awareness; this “blind and delighted” self appears almost feral, drawing our attention away from the speaker’s human focus to an urgency in this moment simmering below the surface. A fight-or-flight edge hums beneath these, energy awaiting activation at the first sign of threat. Through Alpert’s tense, at times sparse, lines we are taught to see “how the skin shudders / just before it breaks away.”

About the Reviewer

Annmarie Delfino is an MFA candidate in poetry at Colorado State University.