The Animals in Us: a review of Humanagerie by Sarah James


Humanagerie, An anthology of poetry and short fiction edited by Sarah Doyle and Allen Ashley. Eibonvale Press, 2018.


As the title Humanagerie might suggest, this anthology has aspects of ‘menagerie’, a collection of wild animals/humans kept in captivity for exhibition. The first poem ‘Animal Apology’ by Paul Stephenson opens with ‘Sorry if I fling zoos at you…’ The poem, like others here, brims with vibrant imagery and striking metaphor. This includes ‘lobbed elephants swirl | through the living-room’s low-watt sky, Zeppelins deflating,’ and ends with a fabulous twist.

This anthology isn’t just zoo or exhibition though, in fact, far from it. There are also many elements of an ark about it: quieter poems in reverence, wonder and protection of various animals, and the gentler animalistic qualities that humans share with creatures, as in the second poem, Elaine Ewart’s beautiful ‘Beginnings’.

Likewise with the short fiction. In the first piece of prose, Gary Budgen shares urban submarine landscapes and the (unnatural) freshwater community tank that is family life and home to his characters in ‘Aquarium Dreams’ – a breath-squeezingly moving story.

These are just the opening pages. As I read, tucked up at home in my own fake-fur blanket, I find myself noting ‘beautiful’ and/or ‘wow’ by every poem and story. The flow between each piece also feels both natural – linking in terms of tone, theme, style – yet highlights other elements in contrast. Tension-building tales with foreign or imaginary settings, for example, are placed alongside quiet wondrous poems of the everyday and faster moving, louder-sounding rhythms.

So what shape and form do the language-limbed creatures and rhythmic animals in Humanagerie take? What do they look and sound like?

Sarah Westcott’s ‘Beetle’ is a beautifully crafted, quiet, yet shimmering poem of the rare and the everyday. The poem like the beetle and the link between human and animal is ‘held together with tiny pinions, | the intricate pins and tucks’.

Cheryl Pearson’s ‘Vixen’ is a fiery poem from the fox’s viewpoint, full of movement and striking imagery as ‘I dance with risk | on black toes, fill the coops with snow.’

‘Augury’ by Tarquin Landseer is alive with sounds, wonderful extravagant strutting and secrecy, as befits the bird in question, who ‘Snazzy in his parti-coat | of teal glancing light, | he’ll jazz up the street’.

Holly Heisey’s ‘The Orbits of Gods’ is a whole life story and repeating hierarchical structure compressed into a strikingly moving short fiction that is full of mystery and power. The same is true of Olivia Edwards’ poem ‘Polymorphous / Stages of Growth’ encapsulating mystery and growth in an interesting form/structure with a poignantly unexpected ending.

In ‘Pray’ by Scott Hughes, imperative instructions/orders/warnings are combined with detailed, at times delicate, description that builds up into a mysterious and thought-provoking poem. ‘Watch its spiny arms like broken tusks fold in prayer…’

Likewise, Tarquin Landseer’s ‘Seahorse’ is a delicate dance of a poem through a wondrous watery landscape until: ‘Little chimeras of wild fancy | in the false light of aquaria | hang like mementos’.

‘Crow and Rat’ by James Dorr is a mesmerisingly unusual love story with a dark edge, post-apocalyptic urban myth feel. There’s a beautiful mythic, and dreamlike, essence to Kerry Darbishire’s Phasianus Colchicus too as, in the early hours, ‘I dream your musk, | your tail feathers burning my skin’.

And then there is ‘And Then I Was a Sheep’ by Jonathan Edwards. This poem manages that almost impossible feat of combining the fun, the wondrous and the moving together into one naturally flowing poem. In fact, every time I try to quote a line, I find myself wanting to include the whole poem: no single quote can do this justice, it has to be read in full!

‘Wade’ by Tonya Walter is another tension-building tale of snakes, fears and more…with rich, precise imagery and evocative sounds reinforcing the atmosphere.

‘Sanctuary’ by Lauren Mason is a poem that takes the unusual slant of an animal viewpoint on humans, with a conversational tone and fabulous sounds like ‘ripples of bristle and bray’.

In ‘Sturnidae’ by Setareh Ebrahimi, interesting metaphor and imagery are reinforced by the poem’s form and look on the page, evoking a murmuration.

Ian Steadman’s ‘Rut’ is an intriguing and spell-binding story of man, animal and the merging of the two. The dark, wearying and also frightening, nightlife settings hide secrets…of various kinds!

‘When a magician’ is a wonderfully observed and felt abracadabra of a poem by Kate Wise that reinvokes the wonder of a particular moment so vividly that it unfolds again on the page.

As even the title ‘Palavas-les-flots’ might suggest, this poem by Paul Stephenson is a deliciously imaginative, flamboyant and fun evocation of flamingos ‘who, in chiffon and blush, mix a cocktail of schmaltz’.

‘Notes for the “Chronicles of the Land That Has No Shape”’ by Frank Roger is a pseudo-factual, clever and thought-provoking account of the ‘primitive, unorganised culture of amoebae’ that might read as not far off a mini-history of humankind…

Jayne Stanton’s ‘Rough Music’ is an evocative and powerful poem of childhood stories, memory and family, where ‘cautionary tales’ are ‘softened | with chalk and whiskery kisses’. But while these tales charm, there is still animal and rough music within them.

‘The Butterfly Factory’ by William Stephenson is a precise, vibrant and striking poem with a beautiful dark edge and breath-catching ending.

Sandra Unerman’s ‘Hibernation’ is a dreamlike yet invigorating and empowering short fiction that nudges at and stirs the boundaries (if they actually exist) between modern citylife and ancient yet ageless wild nature and culture.

‘Jellyfish’ by Megan Pattie is a moving poem drawing on potential similarities between a woman and a jellyfish. The rendering of this is so complete and seamless that I can read the analogy either way: a jellyfish anthropomorphised or a human feeling her jellyfish-like characteristics.

‘Wrapped in its blankets like an amulet’, Kristin Camitta Zimet’s ‘Barred Owl’ is a beguiling poem filled with mystery and beautiful description as it takes in the real owl, the human night owl nested in the family home and the earth outside ‘running with shadows’.

Meanwhile, Douglas Thompson’s ‘Ouroboros’ gives a fable-like slant to a contemporary relationship, creating a gripping, strange yet insightful and infinitely resonating story.

‘The Great Eel of Jazz’ is another poem full of great sounds! Amanda Oosthuizen’s take on this eel is imaginative, jazzy and echoes on long after reading.

Lindsay Reid’s ‘University Library’ is atmospheric in a different way, and a reminder that poems and books can take on a life of their own, in this case, literally – the books are avian and dizzyingly threatening!

‘Vulpine’ by Tarquin Landseer links man and animal in a continuously shifting and carefully crafted exploration of a donned mask, the essence of self and the distance (or not) between what is ‘counterfeit’ and what is real.

‘Sloth’ is a delightfully and evocatively spare poem, as befits the nature of the animal. Elaine Ruth White’s pared lines hang seemingly effortlessly on the page, but every word works hard to create this effect while also opening up a far greater sense of significance than simply one sloth and one gardener.

David Hartley’s ‘Flock’ invites the reader into the action right from the very first sentence – ‘Imagine it was you’ – establishing its own world and a story, that is strange, engaging and thought-provoking.

Continuing the thread of belonging/not belonging, Diana Cant’s ‘Fishy Business’ is a clever and different poem of watery life and ‘Fertility at such a price’…

Mary Livingstone’s ‘Wotjek’ is a moving narrative sequence seemingly telling the story of one bear, but in doing so also the history of an army.

‘Susheela’ by Binda Persaud is a simultaneously thrilling and sad story that had me in its tiger claws and gaze from start to finish wanting to know what would happen next!

Like Blake’s world in a grain of sand, Michael G. Casey’s ‘Fluke’ re-creates the wonder of the oyster’s transformation from grit to pearl using words and lines as layered nacre.

‘Buck and Doe’ by Jane Burn is soft, bristled and most of all alive with sounds, imagery and music, each element working with the others to produce an unforgettable, un-imitable, multi-sense ‘creature-sing’ that is ‘turf-spun rich’.

Jane Lovell’s ‘A structure of Perfect Angles’ is exactly that, a poem that poises and positions every word, every detail, to shimmering numinous effect. Right from the opening stanza – with ‘my wings flints of light stitched | in veins of winter leaf’ – I’m hovering with this insect, waiting for the next phase, the next beautiful line, of transformation.

‘Two Lost Souls’ by Tracy Emerson is a quirky, humorous yet also incredibly poignant story of exactly what its title suggests, though human souls are not the only ones to be found here.

Jenny Grassl’s ‘Company to Keep at the Harvard Museum of Natural History’ is a beautiful blend of abstract ideas, like ‘a city of appetite, on a planet of ghosts’, with specifics and vivid verbs, such as ‘hummingbirds crisp’. Manmade and natural worlds are placed side by side – ‘my newest shoes and crabs flexing’ in what I read overall as a striking warning of what may be lost: ‘say I was not the last human’…

‘Last night a deer’ is a bold and beautiful imagining. In this poem, Kerry Derbyshire’s questions are as evocative, and piercing, as the delicate descriptions, be they ‘soft sheets | of meadow breath slipping my shoulders’ or ‘the way I lick trees and sky from forest streams’.

As the title hints, Hannah Linden’s ‘Miss Muffet Owns Her Inner Spider’ is a playful poem, but also perceptive and poised.

‘Dewclaw’ by Ian Kappos is a simultaneously tender and brutal story, distinctively told, making it a strong and moving read.

‘Who could resist…’ a poem that opens, as Sarah Westcott’s ‘Female Skate’ does, with this line, followed by an unfolding of one sensual detail after another. The question is not a question but an irrefutable statement: the sailor can’t resist this creature’s appeal ‘gliding lovely | towards him in those dreams’, any more than this reader can resist the poem’s evocative beauty.

Tarquin Landseer’s ‘Noctuary’ is a flittering, fluttering, pulse-wave of a poem as its ‘unhooked’ night creatures ‘switch into black air | quick as a blink’.

Aptly closing the anthology, Jason Gould’s ‘Her Audience Shall Stand in Ovation’ is a fascinating, compelling and ultimately almost literally heart-breaking piece of fiction. I could try to sum it up as about the power of belief and the appeal of animal-like transformation in a painful human world, but this is only part of the story. Like the other short fiction and poems in Humanagerie, only reading the actual piece itself can do it full justice.

Living alongside, almost within, this anthology for two days, I’ve found myself travelling the globe, its waterways and animal kingdoms. But I’ve also experienced other imaginary, mythical, future, surreal animal and human worlds all within my living room! I’ve been gripped, stopped in my tracks, admiration-struck and awe-filled. Humanagerie is a beautiful, striking, thought-provoking, engaging and enjoyable selection of poems and fiction to be read from cover to cover and then dipped back into again and again.


Sarah James/Leavesley is a prize-winning poet, fiction writer, journalist and photographer. Author of seven poetry titles, two novellas and a touring poetry-play, Sarah’s most recent books include: Always Another Twist (Mantle Lane Press), How to Grow Matches (Against The Grain Press) and plenty-fish (Nine Arches Press). She’s The High Window’s Resident Artist 2019, reviews for Riggwelter and runs V. Press poetry and flash fiction imprint. Website: www.sarah-james.co.uk

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