I Love Science! by Shanny Jean Maney
Reviewed by Kathleen Kirk, The Poetry Cheerleader
Write Bloody Publishing, 2012
Perfect bound, 97 pp., $15
You’ve got to love and, of course, cheer on a book of poems with a cartoon Forward by Lynda Barry that contains such congratulatory balloon speech as “Her poems are a star made of ham! Follow it!” And these are poems that make excellent, funny, wild, and sincere use of exclamation points, usually a big no-no in poetry, so I can, too!! (Two!!)
In I Love Science!, by Shanny Jean Maney, there’s an introductory poem called “The Famous Sexy Paleontologist,” in which we learn that dinosaurs have the surname Saurus (“which means lizard”) and that, “no, they did not die / because of their access to affordable birth control.” Visiting a grade-school classroom to talk about science, he has also said some very important things about poetry and education:
…The worst thing we can do
is tell kids that they are good at either science and math
That they are either smart.
He said, We need creative scientists.
He said, We need scientific poets.
He said, What you do is not different than what I do.
What we do is the same.
Then the speaker says, “Welcome to my grand hypothesis” and the poet lays it all out for us in a table of contents organized into appropriate sections: Observation, Hypothesis, Experimentation, Analysis, New Hypothesis, Conclusions. The poems within each section veer wildly, like colorful bumper cars, from hilarious to heartbreaking, perfect intention in their wacky steering mechanisms, fueled not just by electricity but by sugar and caffeine, and with plenty of loud music in the background to muffle the shouting and crashing. Many are very fun to read. As Lynda Barry advises, “You should try reading them out loud! You will sound great! Also you will feel great!” Some lines are in all caps, so you’ll know exactly how to read them, especially with those exclamation points. Here, try reading just this title out loud. You’ll see what I mean: “Jellybeans! Are! My! Favorite! Legume!” You might want to jump up and down reading them. You might become a cheerleader (like me). Or a gymnast or a circus clown. You might become Shanny Jean Maney imagining what her alarm clock would say if it didn’t say, “BEEP BEEP BEEP.” “Get out of bed, Shanny-ass. / Rise and shine.” But, if you do, you are in for a wild ride.
The Hypothesis section of the book begins with “To Babies!,” a grand toast that also shows us the limits of science, knowledge, facts:
Did you know that one in four pregnancies result in miscarriage? It’s a fact!
If it happens to you, don’t worry about it! They say that to you! It’s a fact!
Someone should tell you that it is the saddest thing that ever happens!
And that it feels like you’re being run over by a truck!
Someone is telling you—Shanny Jean Maney, a poet who has faced the facts. Her exclamations take on a note of hysteria now, of deep shock, of daily horror. What are we meant to live with, her poems boldly ask, and why do we go on pretending not to mind? WE DO MIND, OUT LOUD!
There are beautiful, quiet poems in I Love Science!, too. “The Brain Surgeon” begins quietly before employing humor like a scalpel:
A brain surgeon came
to tell us about the brain.
Earlier that day, he used his hands and his noggin
to rip cancer out of a ten-year-old.
Later, it ends quietly, with the brain surgeon’s gentle honesty.
To each of our questions, no answers. Only apologies.
All he can say is
We don’t know yet.
That is something we don’t yet know.
We do not know.
On the facing page, in the poem “And the Doctor,” a doctor with four children, their photos on the walls, is similarly honest, in a consultation after an ultrasound.
There’s no way to know what happened,
he told us the first time.
We just don’t have the science yet.
So now you know what you’re in for, a book that will make you laugh out loud and maybe cry out loud. By a poet who loves science even though it doesn’t have all the answers. When you get to the end, you’ll understand the beautiful poem, “In the Dream,” and you’ll think back to the earlier poems, maybe even the ones about the alarm clock, but definitely the one about the famous sexy paleontologist and the doctor. And maybe the one called “The Cytotechnologist,” which ends:
I am a scientist because
there are things, big things
I really need to know.
Me, too. That’s why I read a lot of science. And a lot of poetry.
Kathleen Kirk is a writer whose work appears online and in print in Eclectica, Menacing Hedge, Poetry East, RHINO, Poems & Plays, Spillway, Waccamaw, and elsewhere. She is the author of five poetry chapbooks, most recently Interior Sculpture: Poems in the voice of Camille Claudel (Dancing Girl Press, 2014) and Nocturnes (Hyacinth Girl Press, 2012), and the poetry editor for Escape Into Life. She blogs about poetry, reading, and life at Wait! I Have a Blog?!
Aelian’s On the Nature of Animals, translated by Gregory McNamee
Reviewed by C. L. Bledsoe, The Lit Reporter
Trinity University Press, 2011
Paperback, 182 pages, $15.95
Not much is known about Aelian, the ancient author of this book. Born around 165-170 A.D., he grew up in a small, hill town about 25 miles from Rome. He preferred to communicate in Greek, which was a somewhat old-fashioned tic at the time. His native dialect was also considered off. He was most known during his life for writing a particularly scathing indictment of a recently deceased emperor, but he was also known for creating almanac-like collections of odd phenomena, something like an ancient Fortean. Only fragments of these survive, but his collection of stories and legends about animal behavior has survived more or less complete because it was held in such high regard during his life.
The collection is grouped into seventeen books seemingly for no particular reason. The impression is that when Aelian received new information, he simply added it. The actual stories and legends often are grouped in twos and threes according to theme, but these groups are arranged, again, in no particular order. And there’s something refreshing about that. There’s a casualness to the stories that means that the reader has the feeling of diving in at random on just about every page. Some of these stories involve supernatural phenomena, such as gods imbuing certain animals with certain powers, and others are simply descriptions of animal behaviors or uses. Aelian has a jovial tone throughout; he makes it known that many of these legends are just that, but also that some people believe them, and that’s just fine. The stories strive to be scholarly, often giving sources and referring to other historians and philosophers, at times to dispute their assertions, of course. Aelian is simply cataloguing what he’s heard and read about various animal behaviors.
Much of Aelian’s argument is for an appreciation of the wonder and majesty of natural phenomena, and for respect for the intelligence he perceived many animals to have. To say that Aelian ascribed human qualities to certain animals would be an understatement; at times he ascribed god-like qualities as well. Owls, for example, were perceived as so wily that they would “trick” their captors into keeping them as pets. Cranes can make it rain by squawking. But again, Aelian made it known throughout that he was just stating what he’d read or seen or heard; it’s up to the reader to decide if these things are true.
Aelian also gives a fascinating glimpse into early medicinal practices. For example, he states, “Elephant fat is a general remedy for many kinds of animal poisons, and if a man rubs some on his body, he can withstand even the sharpest wound.” Similarly, Aelian describes examples of the ancient belief in transference, which held that emotions from people or animals could be transferred to objects: “If a man wants to start an argument at a dinner party, he can do so by dropping a stone that a dog has gnawed into the wine. This will whip his guests into a fighting frenzy.” Later, he gives an example of the ancient belief in transmutation when he states that the corpses of horses are known to produce wasps, since horses were considered the fastest land animals, and wasps were considered the fastest flyers. Later, he states that the spine of a dead man becomes a snake, though he argues that this should only occur with the spine of bad men.
Many of the legends Aelian describes are quite touching and give an interesting insight into the mindsets of the people who believed them. He writes about fish that are so protective they would attack strangers, but not local populations. He described stingrays that could be caught by singing to them and luring them into nets. Dogs, hounds, hyenas, and the like are frequently described as helping, rescuing, and even avenging humans. Though many of these stories seem archaic and more like fairy tales, some of them hint at animal behaviors we still haven’t fully come to understand. Aelian describes ants that can predict the weather, for example, and he discusses the loyalty and intelligence of elephants. It’s uplifting to learn that even nearly two thousand years ago, people were just as curious, creative, and caring as they are now.
C. L. Bledsoe is the author of the young adult novel, Sunlight; three poetry collections, _____ (Want/Need), Anthem, and Leap Year; and a short story collection called Naming the Animals. A poetry chapbook, Goodbye to Noise, is available online. Another, The Man Who Killed Himself in My Bathroom, is available here. His story, "Leaving the Garden," was selected as a Notable Story of 2008 for Story South's Million Writers Award. His story, “The Scream,” was selected as a Notable Story of 2011. His nonfiction piece, “Thesis,” was nominated for 2012 Best of the Net. He’s been nominated for the Pushcart Prize five times. He blogs at Murder Your Darlings. Bledsoe has written reviews for The Hollins Critic, The Arkansas Review, American Book Review, Prick of the Spindle, The Pedestal Magazine, and elsewhere. Bledsoe lives with his wife and daughter in Maryland.
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