THE ANIMAL HUSBAND by CHRISTINE HAMMERNESTO PRIEGO Reviews
the animal husband: poems about animals and food by Christine Hamm
(Dancing Girl Press, 2006)
Christine Hamm's poems in this 31-page chapbook run like bodily fluids over dry skin. I do not mean this as a metaphor but as literally as possible. I have been reading these poems over and over again over a period of six months, perhaps more, and the experience of both excitement and uneasiness only grows with each reading. I could attempt a "serious formal analysis" of Hamm's poetics as presented here, but no radiography, no clinical study explain, at least to me, the uncanny feeling of both pleasure and repulsion that infects me.
Before anything else, there is a silence. A need to remain silent. Surprise. Perhaps fear. No, disgust. No, enjoyment, pleasure, jouissance.
The throat gets dry. We take the chapbook to the toilet, to read it there -- of all the places where we have read this chapbook, perhaps the most appropriate one. I open the chapbook for the millionth time, and I start re-reading from the last page. From bottom to top. I know this poem almost by heart, titled "Toilets I Have Known", and the last stanza, beginning with the line
reminds me of where I am. Not the toilet, but the island, perhaps not Hamm's Island, but this is not Hamm speaking, is she, but this voice of hers (of hers? who is she? Isn't it all about that, anyway?), who has known these toilets, these highlights of her toileting experience, we could say, the ultimate human place, the definitive repository of human life as waste and cycle and new beginnings.
So here we (we? isn't that what this is all about, methinks, now that I read this chapbook for the zillionth time) are sitting and reading and the last stanza of this prodigy of a poem has a last sentence that reads, most appropriately,
Makes me feel three again, new at this.
And there, not here, because time has happened and things have passed since then, I finally understood what the animal husband did to me. It made me feel three again, new at this. New at this business of reading and writing poetry, yes, but not only that. New at this business of life, of being a man, whatever that means, of being a living creature, a person inhabiting this world, breathing, eating, drinking, loving, having sex, going to the toilet.
Like three again, when discovery was an everyday experience and when pleasure and fear where more confused than ever.
And I am sure we are not making ourselves clear here. Let us try again.
the animal husband: poems about animals and food has been for me the ultimate contemporary poetic experience of my recent days. I dreaded writing about it, saying something about it. I kept it under the pillow, forgot it at the most unusual places, had to ask a friend to save it from the debris of my past life across the apparently insurmountable distance of the sea and into the new chaos of my new-found life in this Island. The chapbook traversed the earth, so to speak, as it followed me from Mexico City to London, got dirty, got folded out in violent and unexpected ways. Poor thing: but here I am telling you the truth.
Because we begin reading and the first poem asks, as a title, "Who has not wished her husband into a cat?", and concludes, mercilessly, frankly, violently,
Animal love is the only love
men allow women.
and it is so short:
only that moment
in which a bear cub murmurs to himself
and begins to suck.
As a male reader, I feel the stomach fold into itself and chest join the back as one closes the big volume of an encyclopedia. Dust comes off after the dry, empty sound. The punch.
The second poem, single-handedly called "Marriage", describes in first person a husband apparently obsessed with the cleanliness of some forks. The last stanza, a couplet, sums up the intimate domestic picture:
The forks will take care of him
in the morning.
And so the animal husband builds itself as an essay on domesticity. It is amazing how Hamm constructs this beast of a chapbook, this cookbook of a bestiary, this zoologia fantastica for the 21st century, as if every poem were part of a perfectly well-designed plan, an insurrection, a betrayal, a complot, a vengeance, an act of justice.
The vulnerability of sitting on the toilet, pants down, the echo of the white material, the peaceful liquid awaiting behind, the male organ feeling the chilly air of the emptiness of the basin is the best space and the best situation for this subversive literature -- because that is what it is, and if poetry has not the power to subvert, then what -- where man/husband is "reduced" to animal, sometimes vermin, sometimes pet, sometimes victim, sometimes predator.
In "A Mouse", Hamm defines her poetic universe (kitchen/bedroom/food/sleep/husband/cat/mouse/sex/fluids) and comes back to that shakespearean ghost of domesticity and revenge, of wash basins and bloody hands, the manifesto of a poetics of retaliation through softness and lyricism, metaphor and symbolism, and right in the middle of the poem the poet pushes the sharp trident of a fork into our chests in a stanza of three lines,
a handful of blood and intent
he is the small thing that never lets us
forget what we have done
the animal husband is an amazing collection of poetic artifacts. These poems make the psyches of the Desperate Housewives of Wysteria Lane seem like childish, luminous fairy tales (if there were ever such). Because Hamm seems to be rewriting here everything from Alice in Wonderland to Red-Riding Hood to Cinderella to Snow White, and constructs a universe of bodily fluids, animality, passion, hunger, lust and sloth. But her poetry is not only terrifying and uncannily abject, but also incredibly tender. In one of the best poems of the chapbook, "Amorous Morsels", the first stanza reads like a homage to e.e. cummings,
Come in my mouth,
(my heart like a starling beating against the window)
and what follows is the sexiest description of a cunnilingus, down to its most graphic details, a delicious example of pornopoetics that nullifies all attempts of euphemizing it as mere erotica.
And maybe this explains why I always ended up reading the animal husband in the toilet. A Freudian paradise of contradictory drives, a desiring machine that creates more desire, a literary definition of jouissance, a symbolic assassination of everything paternal, a catalogue of anxieties, a teratological treatise of husbandry and masculinity.
Genital, vocal and anal, the animal husband is, above all, a joy to read, but not in that enjoyment to which we are getting so used to in these tabloid-obsessed days of ours. A joy which is hard to digest, hard to endure, hard to maintain. Maybe chapbooks are like erections, and it is difficult to keep them going for a long time ("it is so short", the first poem complains/warns/describes) unless a certain art is mastered. What Hamm achieves with the animal husband is a celebration of all pleasures and abjections with the mastery of an experienced Yogi.
Like all worthwhile pleasures, the animal husband also hurts, and perhaps this is why I like it so very, very much.
Ernesto Priego studied English Literature at UNAM, Mexico as an undergraduate, critical theory at UEA, Norwich, England as a master's student, and is now attempting to do a PhD at the School of Library, Archive and Information Studies, University College London. His translation of Jessica Abel's award-winning graphic novel, La Perdida, is just out from Astiberri Editores (Bilbao, Spain). His first book of poetry is Not Even Dogs (Meritage Press, 2006).