In “Part I: Beasts of the Sea,” the source material is texts from and about Russian expeditions to the Americas. The glimmers of magical and folkloric begin in these early pages: “I suspect the gentlemen / who drew up these charts obtained their knowledge / from visions” (“The Map”). These newly drawn charts contain the colonial myth of “discovery,” extending to plants, animals, and humans, wherein even after interacting with the Indigenous Peoples, the speaker states, “All these islands are uninhabited” (“Meeting Americans). Even the supposedly scientific “discovery” of animals feels magical. Sea otters are described as being “compelled by the shape of their hearts / to keep close to shore” (Signs of Land”), and of course, “The more cunning the animals, the more beautiful / its fur” (“Their Coats”).
In “Part II: The Bones are There,” a greyed list of extinct animals sits above and below each poem’s text, burying the poem just like the bones. The creatures discussed in these poems are often unspecified, creating a combined mythical entity out of all of the dead, despite being dominated by scientific language (measuring the heart of the animal, detailing how to trap them, their mating habits, their demise). But Part II is less about the animals, and more about human involvement, capture, and control. This is usually the cause of death: “As soon as they’re caught they shed tears without crying / and refuse all sustenance till they die.”
At one point, we find out an animal has been entirely fabricated. “The solitaire never existed // The whole description is fiction.” All that is “real” is called into question. Everything is only a story crafted with a purpose in mind.
“Part III: Familiar” consists of scientific recordings of now extinct frog and toad species with poems sourced from confessions and testimonials of women executed for witchcraft, also involving frogs and toads. This pairing takes what the previous sections have implied and sets it down plainly. Examination does not equate to survival. “Discovery” often means death, for animals, for women, for the Indigenous Peoples of the land.
The book ends with a list of reasons for population decline and extinction. Most are related to human activity, and by extension, colonial activity. This comes with what I read as a call to action on the last page. We must go forward with conservation efforts, but through a decolonial lens—without capture, without false myth, with a clear look at blood spilled: “Place on a slide a small drop of blood from the heart of a frog / Prick the tip of your finger and place a small drop of blood.”
Conyer Clayton is a writer, dancer, musician, and gymnastics coach. Her debut full-length collection is We Shed Our Skin Like Dynamite (2020, Guernica Editions).
ARC HITS THE HEART HARD.