A Review of Elena Passarello’s Animals Strike Curious Poses
October 25, 2017 § 2 Comments
By Natalie Johansen
One day I noticed a dead cedar waxwing outside my front door. There it lay in the dirt with its black-rimmed eyes, red-tipped wings, and yellow-dipped tail, every detail whole and perfect and distinct. It was so unlike other dead birds I’ve seen, like the mangled leftovers of my cat’s dinner or some battered, city-stained pigeon. With great care, I slipped on some plastic gloves and transferred the bird onto a paper plate then took it inside to inspect it further. My roommate was—understandably—less than thrilled. In my awe, I had pushed aside the potential dangers of handling dead fowl to make way for my desire to preserve the delicate creature, to protect it from the elements and keep it safe. I wanted to collect it.
In Animals Strike Curious Poses, Elena Passarello examines that tendency to collect animals, to gawk at them and preserve them. Each essay in this bestiary explores a different famous animal that has bumped up against humanity and has been bruised or dissected or altered in one way or another. These accomplished creatures give a final performance in Passarello’s strange and wonderful circus of a book.
First comes Yuka, the 39,000-year-old woolly mammoth. She was discovered with a manmade gash down her back that was given to her by a hunter who, after depriving her of a backbone and muscle and organs, buried her and planned to return for the leftovers. Passarello travels inside the head of that anonymous hunter, reminding us that the first relationship between mankind and animal-kind was one of survival and pursuit, and that “to be human on the steppe was to hold a codex of every muscle in a lion’s neck, a bison’s spine, a caballine flank running to safety.”
One of the strongest essays in this collection was “Vogel Staar (Sturnus vulgaris) 1784,” which chronicles the life of Mozart’s pet starling, a bird as mysterious as the composer himself. With poignant storytelling and imaginative research, Passarello narrates the quirks of Mozart and starling and ruminates on their friendship. Upon the bird’s death, Mozart holds a funeral—when just a week before, the composer’s own father died without such fanfare. She writes:
“The starling funeral, like its purchase three years prior, is one of the many snippets of Mozart’s life that still confounds us. Nearly all Mozart biographers mention it among their mob of questions, which they whistle out into the void, knowing they’ll never hear an answer: Why buy a bird? Why bury it and not your father? …Is it even possible to bond with a creature only by the sound it makes?”
These questions Passarello frequently probes: What does the often-undefined relationship we have with animals say about us? Why do we care so much about them? And why, in light of our fascination, are we so quick to destroy them?
Passarello further complicates this last question in “Jumbo II (Elaphas maximus) 1901,” which contrasts the earliest known circus elephants in America with the grittier bits of Edison’s Current War. This essay culminates in the execution by electrocution of an unnamed elephant, when we finally learn the voltage it takes to kill an elephant (answer: 6,000).
I could go on, because there are many other noteworthy essays and much to say about each one, but I’ll end with the moment when Passarello parts from the role of observer to inspect her own history with animals. She tells of the time when her grandparents took her to see Lancelot the Living Unicorn, the hapless goat who was the recipient of a surgically placed and bedazzled horn in his forehead. Passarello reflects on her fascination with the fantasy of that unnatural goat and wonders, “Here I am, thirty years later, trying to explain what happens when I look at animals, and the creature that palpitates my tenderest spot is that hot mess of an animal…It holds a wonky, mythic nature—which is the only nature a kid like me will ever understand.”
If anything, what I wanted more of in this book was Elena herself, a bit more personal mixed in with the impersonal, because the few moments I interacted with Passarello’s first-person prose were perhaps the most meaningful.
Natalie Johansen teaches writing at Southern Utah University. Her work has appeared in Prick of the Spindle, Eunoia Review, Segullah and more.