In The Human Zoo

by Jennifer Perrine,
University of Utah Press, 2011,
88 pages, paper, $12.95,
ISBN: 978-1607811442
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note regarding the following review: In the Human Zoo won the Agha Shahid Ali Poetry Prize sponsored by the University of Utah Press; Zoo in 2010 and Rodeo in 2009.

How long has it been since you’ve felt sucker punched?  I’m talking about having to put In The Human Zoo down after a first read, weighting it under a rock on my desk, and going out onto my porch to see if the stars were still where I last saw them.  They were there, but my heart was still slamming about in my chest.  On first impression, these skillfully crafted poems click shut at their ending like jewel boxes full of wasps.  Even afterward, one swears they are waiting for the next innocent victim.

There is little in any of these poems that is not fraught with danger, whether speaking of human origins, the light of fireflies “waiting to scoot their lemony asses / right up to my skin,” “crows unfolding a possum’s / skin,” or how to deal with lemons: “cut your teeth on the rinds. . . ..”  Each poem presents another path through ordinary days filled with edges, stingers, “pain wedged on the salty rim / of your face.”  Hence the rock.  Though we live in a dangerous world, it is rare that we are reminded in such an elegantly brutal way.

Jennifer Perrine might also be a verbal alchemist, given the way she has me reaching for my OED.  Her language is by turns common and esoteric, scientific, and surgical.  This is language used for its original purpose, to edge words as close to the bone of truth as possible.  Having read a lot of poets who seem to want to impress with weighty vocabulary, I was relieved to feel included in digging through the word bins.  Once I researched fritillus, spathe and spadix, spirulina, and mammatus, I found she was precise in their use and conscious of their music as well.  Her lines are compelling.  My limited vocabulary has been expanded by her invitation.

These are not poems of despair.  They are survival lines.  Perhaps the only way to help you understand is to give you a sample from “Walking Home After the Graveyard Shift”:

. . . I grow talons of housekeys

that slash the August air, that sad frotteur

that pushes against my shirt.  Its little huffs

of damp wood and mud pour a fluvial

soup between my breasts.  Behind me the owl

whistles its come – on, and I snap my legs

open and shut, a switchblade in the dark.

These are poems that will keep you alive — not necessarily comfortable, but able to fight or flee as you must.

Michael Macklin