Brenda Iijima, Remembering Animals, Nightboat Books, 2016

Reviewed by Miriam Karraker

[Review Guidelines]


I often forget that I am animal. Most summer evenings I usually encounter one or two rabbits outside of my apartment in Minneapolis. I fixate on these creatures, their chaotic bodies, their boldness as they just shuffle along calmly in middle of the street, though a car could come any moment. Most people slow their vehicles when faced with these rabbits in the road, and I take comfort in how much care people take with these creatures. I also remember my own animal nature, and the great capacity we have to inflict violence on other species and one another. This is perhaps why I am drawn to "Rabbit Lesson," the second poem in Brenda Iijima's Remember Animals.

"Rabbit Lesson" is a fable, which implicates the reader as they enter the rabbit's world. We grow attached to the rabbit, amidst looming violence:

we grew attached
we grew attacked
the lesson is conveyed
when the instructor
requires slaughter
hurl its viscera
the baby rabbit's
as if it was trash
around the room
become cool
killing machines
become disconnected
and attacked
we kill as a
combinatory ideal

rabbit hole where rabbits sleep——where rabbits mate———where
rabbits nibble clover———where foxes sleep———where foxes run—
—where a fox kills a rabbit———for food———uneasiness as the
trees sway
                                                scansion catch cannot swatch

Violence is a learned behavior in this poem. The violence that looms is both a part of the environment and the collective consciousness. The fox's violence is one that is natural and necessary. It is fluidly explored in the latter portion of this excerpt. The violence on the part of the "we" is one enacted by the shorter lines preceding. The movement is choppy and awkward throughout; Iijima performs the brokenness of a particular kind of violence that exists beyond what is necessary for survival. The different sections of this poem explore the tenuous and overlapping relationship between the natural world and the world in which "we" take part and construct.



I opened Iijima's book for the first time and thought, textural. I felt an instinct to rub my hands all over the pages, all full of cursive and serif and sans serif and script. I wanted to parse through the strata. Here, on the page, typefaces and their gradients are transmutational in the truest sense. Visually, it feels like text is changing on a biological level: transforming from one species into another.

In physics, transmutation occurs when one element can change into another through radioactive decay or nuclear bombardment (when, in a nuclear reaction, a nucleus is hit by another nucleus or nuclear particle). This creates either fusion or fission. In either case, energy is produced.

Remembering Animals is full of this kind of transmutational energy. Words resemble other words resembling other sounds, feelings, epistemological concepts. It would be too simple to talk about these poems as bodies of text. These poems are linguistic events: one visual/sonic representation morphing into another. 

Iijima largely explores what it means to be animal as a commodity, category, and tool for violence through a textual energy. This energy is full of ache and resists safety. Iijima's approach is interrelational, and commands reader participation.



The poem "Lip Service" picks up where this thought leaves off in a kind of aphoristic exploration of violence, a little less limb-like in its formal execution while enacting a kind of fugue-like energy.

we've come a long was from the upper limbs of trees
we've come a long way from the dismal swamps
we've come a long way from the clear-cut forest
we've come a long way from the prison leasing system
we've come a long way from the feeding lots
we've come a long way from utopian desire
we've come a long way from redress
we are heading towards the future as if it was a universal principal
we are heading toward death as if death was a reckoning

The voice's action shifts incrementally, turning from "we've come a long way" towards where we are going, where we are treading, what we are trending towards, what we have discovered, and finally what we have perfected. But this circularity unravels:

economic collapse glorifies our gardens
amid imaginings of catastrophic possible futures worlds unfold
strategies of reciprocity weaken hegemonies
time is a massive hologram
dogmas crowd our ecological living room
we once were animals and now we are animals

The circularity of these statements suggests that we're not making much progress, that we live illusory lives in our constructed habitats, and we are now a very different kind of animal compared to those who came before us.



Energy sounds like music and movement.

Remembering Animals has ten sections entitled CRY, all are intensely textural in their own discrete ways. On a macro-level, many of Iijima's poems, particularly these CRY sections, look like this. The poem physically inhabits the page and morphs, limb-like. When my eye negotiates different typefaces or uses of space, there's a shift in volume, tone, timbre; our eye reassembles, re-members.

On a micro, line-level, the morphology is often dependent on Iijima's tendency towards repetition, associative movements, and alliteration(s) being passed around the page. "CRY VII" involves livestock, what the reader might assume is a cow or a pig (it's not quite clear), though we are told "she represents the pride of the herd/name: sally" and that the violences done to her really run the gamut, including some disembodied voices discussing what portions of her body will be discarded at the slaughterhouse while the image of commuter smog looms. This is juxtaposed with a list of super fund sites (polluted locations requiring a long-term response to clean up hazardous material contaminations), a reminder that the poor and communities of color suffer disproportionately from environmental degradation, the My Lai Massacre, and this:

factual victual virtual silence
farcical facial recognizance violence
intensest nature

supernormal tendency
today's one's actions

owning up to intensification
owning up to implicit obligations
embedded within
the habitus of social
ecological space

a living future

Amidst the dismemberment of systemic violence, extermination, and environmental destruction there is something resembling order, or at least this is a hymn that, in my reading added a kind of musicality to carry me through the horrors being discussed. I read these lines as a didactic reminder that individual action is tied to ecological and social well-being or further destruction.



Remembering Animals is cacophonous energy in book-form. You can rub your hands all over it, read it aloud alone in your apartment, then ask yourself some hard questions. Did you forget that you are animal? We are participants in creating the terminologies and distinctions between natural and constructed environments, Iijima reminds us that individual bodies play a role in broader systems, their energy having the capacity to re- and dis- member.