How to Draw a Rhinoceros, the debut poetry collection from short fiction writer Kate Sutherland, is a detailed survey of a disappearing giant. Borrowing lines from paintings, scientific texts, newspapers, and handbills, Sutherland sketches out her object: the rhinoceros, pachyderm of legend, prize of carnivals and trophy cases. In a marriage of found texts and wry fancies, How to Draw a Rhinoceros assembles an interrupted past to illuminate an imperiled present.
Sutherland’s collection wastes no time in getting to its titular aim. The book opens with “A Natural History of the Rhinoceros,” which compiles from existing sources a glut of description: there is skin “mouse grey, grey brown, blackish brown / dirty brown, dark brown, dark ash / the colour of a toad / the colour of a speckled turtle” and skin “four fingers thick / studded with scales, like a coat of mail, loricated like armour / covered in calluses resembling clothes buttons.” Sutherland’s rhinoceros stands in all its saggy-skinned glory, amidst accolades of varying accuracy – it is “a conversation piece,” “noble,” the sworn enemy of elephants, a gigantic curiosity, evidence for the existence of God. Sutherland writes often of Clara, an eighteenth-century rhinoceros that was shuttled across Europe to much fawning and delight. This is rhinoceros as collage, an assembled approximation of a beast beyond language.
How to Draw is quick to expose the problem inherent in exploiting a dwindling resource. The collection includes myriad interlocutors – the historians, scientists, charlatans and curators that impact animal numbers. In “According to the Apothecary,” the rhinoceros is a unicorn, its horn vital in various dated cures, while “The Fun of Hunting Them” pits Theodore Roosevelt against Ernest Hemmingway, whose lines trumpet his success as a huntsman, while Roosevelt interjects that it “would certainly be well if all killing” were prohibited. “Going, Going, Gone” lists rhinoceros-horn household goods for sale, the details recovered from online auction postings, while “Conservation” is two stanzas of scattered phrases without punctuation, the words and their meanings drifting: “Almost 50 animals among extinction efforts greatest hunted / increase is more of our rhinoceroses since southern this time than / their 14,000 success stories.” “Rhinoceros Odyssey” includes six conflicting death reports for the wondrous Clara, the demise of the creature a repeating footnote to her status as marvel. Meanwhile, Sutherland’s subject recedes, endangered.
Sutherland’s verse is staunch, clipped, full of fact. The lines are at times scattershot, sprawled across the page, at others, stacked in columns, obdurate. Unable to shake her findings into easy cohesion, Sutherland instead gives us Clara. At the close of the collection, the pachyderm is allowed an imaginary life, as “Clara Delights in Her Status as Muse” and “Clara Joins the Secretarial Pool.” This is rhinoceros with agency: as muse, “She’s a blank canvas / rolling around in paint / out Pollocks Pollock / puts her body into it.” Clara collects her own menagerie, drinks port, “dons a mask of silk and lace / disappears into the streets of Venice” in “Clara Incognito,” smokes, stars in films. Sutherland gives her subject a soul, for Clara, after all, “takes dictation like a pro / grinds her teeth nights / like any beast in captivity.”
Emily Davidson writes and works in Vancouver, BC, far from her home town of Saint John, NB. Her poetry and fiction have appeared in magazines across the country. She reviews for Arc and Room Magazine.
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