Porkbelly Press, 2018
Cover Art: Rachel Allen
40 pages; $10
Never Leave the Foot of an Animal Unskinned by Sara Ryan is a hybrid form chapbook containing half poetry and half non-fiction. The book dives deep into the subject of taxidermy, a world that went much deeper than I realized, and it explores the lives of these characters in Sara’s imagination as well as her personal stories of being a child, growing up fascinated with this engrossing profession. She creates these intriguing scenes within the 13 poems that form the first half of the book. Each poem is sprinkled with endnotes that can be traced to the second half of the book which act as a commentary to the line in the poem — a sort of side conversation with the reader. These endnotes range from personal observations to book excerpts by respected authors committed to the evolution of the taxidermy field.
In the opening poem, “The Field Museum,” the narrator revisits a place they held such fondness for as a child with their father. They express that it feels different returning as an adult, “My tattoos lifting away from my skin / like fickle monarchs—something / I have disremembered1.” Tracing this endnote, they show the Google search results for “taxidermy and memory,” which finds many businesses that pride themselves on preserving the specimen exactly as you remembered them living. Throughout the chapbook, Sara sheds light to the way people like to romanticize this way of capturing animals in a solid state that, even in death, feels alive. It seems like we live our own lives with a bit of denial and we use this god complex to hold onto the things that we have strong memories attached to. Whether it be for a kill or a study, these animals act as a snapshot of history that continues past the dead’s timeline.
“Disarticulated,” is about the narrator coming-of-age and learning about life and death. They request an antler set at a roadside shop and declare the beginning of their knife collection. The poem finishes at a crossroad of it all when they must finish killing a deer near their cabin “at once, / the knife quivering in my hand, seeing the buck’s wet nose / flicker at an evergreen. at once, alive & dead & hurting.13 ” It’s this moment when they see this “thing” as something more — something living. One of the endnotes in this poem reads “Without things being things, we are just as much human as we are animal, so how can we make the distinction between animal and human? How is an animal a ‘thing?’ ”
In the seventh poem, “Prehistory,” her mother warns her that a career choice in archaeology will only result in an unhealthy basement office full of dust. She tells her mother she won’t pursue it, however, it doesn’t stop her from learning more and more about animals and what makes them tick. “I dug into the fetal pig’s / cold belly while a boy pulled my hair. / I bleached the skull of a mouse that I found / in the woods. I remember when I found a dead / spider perched on its head like a crown.14 ” The girl hasn’t given up on her dream of a career in archaeology. She studies it profusely while passing up others in her class and taking it very seriously. There’s many moments like this in the book where she compares men and women in the field of taxidermy and states that it’s been predominantly men who have owned the industry. Lines throughout the poems and in the endnotes seem hopeful that things are changing and that this generation is more determined than ever.
The final poem of the chapbook, “Extinct,” is a poem in two columns that can be read across both columns or it can be read as each column individually. This provides the reader with a few interpretations of the poem. Either way you read it, the poem has very short and abrupt lines that create choppy beats about fossils and life frozen in time. The fossils found in this poem can be a way of remembering what once was. What might be to come.
There are so many words that come to mind when thinking of Sara Ryan’s chapbook: odd, insightful, rustic, metaphysical. I absolutely love this tiny book and think everyone should add it to their collection. Sara Ryan has done such a beautiful job creating a field guide for exploring zoology on a philosophical level. Take it into nature while birding, carry it in your pocket while at the museum, read it while you burn at the beach and question what’s really alive.
Corey Miller lives in a tiny house he built near Cleveland. He is an award-winning Brewmaster who enjoys a good lager. He has been published or is forthcoming in Writers Resist, Gravel, Hobart, and Cease, Cows. When not working or writing, Corey enjoys taking the dogs for adventures.