A Review of Suzanne Roberts’ Animal Bodies
April 20, 2022 § 1 Comment
By Elizabeth Bales Frank
Grief is a canyon that rings with unexpected echoes.
Suzanne Roberts’ latest essay collection Animal Bodies: On Death, Desire, and Other Difficulties relates her experience with all of these things: grief, its canyons, and its echoes. “The essay is an accumulation of grief. Mother says to get over it,” reads a paragraph from the collection’s opening essay “The Essay Determines How It Will Begin” (which first appeared in Brevity). A common reply to grief is “get over it.” The very phrasing of this curt dismissal, however, acknowledges that grief seeks you into a depth. “The Essay Determines How It Will Begin,” even in its title, echoes the famous final line of a Dylan Thomas poem: “After the first death, there is no other.”
Animal Bodies explores several of Roberts’ personal losses due to death: the death of each parent, of a cherished friend, of a faithful dog, and even of a forgotten high school torment—but also due to life: the erosion produced by the tension between sexual desire and the sexual shame, the dissolution of an off-again, on-again marriage, the encroachment by age on the carefree reliance on a strong healthy body. Life is grief; grief accumulates.
The fundamental grief for Roberts is, as it is no doubt for almost all of us, the loss of her mother, whose dying, death, and funeral are the subject of several essays in this collection. But the mother’s spirit infuses many other essays not strictly devoted to her. In her youth, Roberts’ mother, who was raised in England, fought her way out of poverty by offering her services as a “good-time girl,” akin to Holly Golightly’s livelihood in Breakfast at Tiffany’s—at least, in the glossed-over Hollywood version of it. Roberts’ mother is a compassionate guardian—“the president of my fan club”—but also projects the shame from her “good-time girl” years onto Roberts when she begins dating. And “dating” is itself a glossed-over Hollywood word for some of Roberts’ early sexual encounters and entanglements, and their consequences. She is candid in her descriptions of the shame, pleasure, regret, and occasional mess of it all.
Roberts, whose previous collections include Almost Somewhere and Bad Tourist, is an “outdoorsy girl.” “I have spent my entire adult life living in the mountains so that when the perfect powder days arrive, I’ll be ready.” Her devotion to the slopes shapes both her teaching career and her relationships. “I decided that if you went skiing today, I was leaving,” announces one boyfriend, who dislikes her writing because it takes her focus away from him, and considers their life in Lake Tahoe a brief respite from “the real world.” His departure leaves her with the courage to create “the extraordinary life I could only fashion on my own. . . an untethered life of wandering the world.”
Yet even her love of outdoors and travel is encroached by shadows.
In the masterful essay “The Danger Scale,” Roberts juxtaposes the dark side of her beloved “powder days”—descriptions of the escalating scale of avalanche danger—with the painful examination of the erosion of a longtime friendship under the accumulating fractures of political differences. In “Queen of the Amazon,” Roberts travels, with her second husband Tom (“always up for an adventure”), for an expected “quintessential honeymoon” at the Ecolodge Paradiso in Marasha in Peru, only to find herself disheartened not by the perils of the jungle but by the disregard the natives have for the splendor and the dignity of the animals that surrounds them. Ancient trees sacred to the Mayans have been razed by their descendants for farmland—“you can’t eat the trees,” one guide tells Roberts. Terrified sloths, jaguars, and manatees are plucked from their habitats to be caged by minders and offered to tourists to pose with for photo ops.
I told myself I couldn’t cry over someone else’s trees. I didn’t stop to ask myself to whom the trees belonged; I didn’t have the words for my deep feelings of unease and loss, which I now recognize as ecological or environmental grief, a term that would not be common for another five years—the deep sadness, mixed with the helplessness, we feel when faced with environmental degradations and disaster.
This collection may sound like a bummer; it’s not. It is beautifully observed and realized, heartfelt and informed, self-deprecating and often wryly witty. These essays explore how the bodies we inhabit bring pleasure and shame. How the planet which hosts us is beautiful and terrible. How sometimes we cherish it, and sometimes we treat it as carelessly as we would a disdainful ex. How grief is the residue of love.
Elizabeth Bales Frank lives in Astoria, where she is writing a local history about the pandemic, gentrification, coffee, and dogs. Her most recent novel Censorettes was published in 2019 by Stonehouse Publishing. She works as a researcher in an international law firm and urges you to support your local libraries and librarians. Her website is www.elizafrank.com.