Book Review: ‘Some Animal’ by Ely Shipley

Shipley has accomplished a meditation on gender, time, and the forms of life that is a gift to his readers. Shipley gives gifts in layers. We observe each by its inversion into another: poets and psychologists, bits of trivia or miscellany rest alongside intimacy, and bodies appear as bound until they are freed, or free until bound. However precarious the balance of these inversions, we find ourselves sustained by fidelity to memory, sensuality and the body. Ultimately, in Shipley’s poems and prose, we see a humorous and heart-felt uncertainty about the duality of boys and girls, and the tone itself is an accomplished combination of maturity and play. To paraphrase writer Paul Celan, a clear influence, it is a book that could not be steadier in shoring up to instability. 

Some Animal is composed of memoir, free verse and prose, begins with a child passing out, dysphoric to the point of vertigo, and ends with a playful account of passing and hirsutism. In between, “A Sweet Teen” makes declarations. Obviously. But one never loses the sense that each speaker is a modality of the same steady voice, and each passage folds inside and outside of its opposite, and the images and objects begin to fascinate.  She is a hero of flips and spins on her skateboard, encircling the sun with an arc of hair, who then plants, inverts and raises her downy legs, “feet high // in the sky above her, the board in her other hand // and her sternum filling with the white sunlight she was opening // and opening.”

We are introduced to a girl with red tissue paper on her tongue; “we wait,” for the images to come, a hallucinogen, or a miracle. From the very beginning, if there is such a thing in Some Animal, Shipley shows us textures held within, a rose petal on the tongue accompanies waiting on a miracle, a gauze is in our mouth as we are paralyzed on the ground. It is the embodying of time with interior sense that carries for Shipley a surprisingly literal register.

This gauze of waiting, which Shipley compares to Plato’s “hysteria” (an organ that both travels the body and stops up its passages), sustains reflection as well, the web of language or the weave of poetry itself. And much of what occupies this author is the weaving of text. There are very pleasurable deliriums one encounters when touching on each note of Keats, Dickenson, Ovid, Ginsberg, and others, each of which becomes less a citation and more an integration, a pause between Shipley’s words and theirs, a way for him to speak things one feels he would not otherwise say.

In Some Animal we witness time, or, perhaps more accurately, we follow the poetic impulse to imbue the time of memory, or of mourning, with the time of the body. The poetic memoir itself is driven by the timing of object and sense, the tissue and the tongue. This paper petal is transformed into a thick gauze, or “… a mouth painted shut // painted into a square // of blue hung on the wall // of a teenage girl.” In contrast to a patience before the miracles of images, we see a rootedness and paralysis and a wall-hanging. Or, as in an earlier section, a paralysis, stiff as a board, and rigidity comes to articulate a critique of the binaries whose morphology Shipley explores.

God.              Says a voice

That girl just fell.

That’s not a girl that’s a boy.

Oh.                  No, wait:                     what is it?

A girl.              Someone

get help!

The passage is a clear ethical critique of such rigidity; help takes forever, if it comes at all. Yet true help in the sense of hospitality, and a place under the sun, comes through Shipley’s gifts of the sensuous body, in the sense that he allows the traces of the felt time of his years to become a cypher for time itself. The memoir is not merely a bracing account of the violence and confusion genderqueer bodies are asked to absorb, or taken to embody, but a memoir as a poetic history, a site of recognition. Shipley teaches us a lesson that the poetic power can erect a temporary and vital home for those whose bodies are not welcome to them, or for whom the world is not welcoming to their bodies, it is a gift of recognition to the trans-masculine, and a gift of the trans-masculine to other discourses of embodiment as well.

Shipley assembles the micro-positions of gender with such moment-to-moment clarity we sense a kinescopic effect. Gender becomes movement, time, the growth of flowers and beards, and even the poetic arcs of a strengthening voice. Shipley fits himself into himself, with lightness and depth, in a way literally and poetically reminiscent of those lines from Celan:

An Die Haltlosigkeiten
sich schmeigen:

es schnippen
zwei Finger im Abgrund, in den
rauscht Welt auf, es kommt
auf dich an.[1]

Snugging yourself up
to the spineless instabilities:

two fingers click
in the abyss, in rough notes
the world stirs, it depends
on you.

[1] Paul Celan, “An Die Haltlosigkeiten”, Zeitgehöft: Späte Gedichte aus dem Lachlass (Surhkamp, 1976) p. 24.

Some Animal
By Ely Shiply
Nightboat Books
Paperback, 9781937658793, 120 pp.
April 2018