Ely Shipley, Some Animal, Nighboat Books, 2018

Reviewed by mica woods

[Review Guidelines]

There is a difference between domesticating and taming.

The difference is similar to, but not analogous to, the difference between feral and wild.

Wild animals may domesticate themselves, if the relationship proves necessary for survival.

Is she dead? They ask.   Oh
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!


I can't speak, as if paralyzed.

Some Animal, Ely Shipley's prose/poetry/bildungsroman hybrid, makes itself intimate with the domesticating narratives enforcing and reinforcing constraints on our bodies and identities. It seems for this reason, Some Animal so explicitly takes on, wears, and disrobes a decidedly Western and White canon of poems and writings, assuming the shapes of "Large albino snakes" and "White roots." (Ovid's Metamorphoses, alongside Dickinson's "A narrow Fellow in the Grass," Shelley's "Ode to the West Wind," and Keats' Lamia, supplies the poetic heritage, while the Havelock Ellis's 1897 text Sexual Inversion provides the dominant pathological survey.)

Placed next to memory, folklore, dream sequences, an acid trip, alien abduction texts, and a historiography of beards, among more than I can list, every source of inspiration writhes together into an atemporal yet immediate set of moments made living. Even personal narratives melt and fuse into their juxtaposed counterparts. Into lyric. Into some new creature, vivisected and reborn, exposed and huddled close—not quite tame, not quite feral:

Now the sky brightens over the junior high school
baseball fields, and the sound of the airplane, arrowing
across sky, slices my body into slow echoes. Blades of grass,
grown into emeralds, now jet up and through
D.'s pale paper doll face. A mirror[...]

When we reach the street we fear the speed and sound of
passing cars. Rockets. Crashing waves. The sound makes our skin
ache. We walk along together, arm-in-arm, one big beast.

When Shipley's Some Animal is most encouraging, the speaker(s) has found some unity with an other body (a friend, an old text, himself). I certainly could use more of this courage and encouragement—why I'm reading and re-reading Some Animal. But what do we need all this courage for?

Shipley writes:

normal (adj)
standing at a right angle


scared stiff (idiom)
extremely frightened

            Jill awoke from a dream that left her afraid — scared stiff, in fact.

Etymology: from the idea that you are stiff (unable to bend or
change your position) because you are too frightened to move

Shipley questions how terror and its many forms (night-mares, sleep paralysis, social exclusion and public humiliation, physical violence) can choke someone into norms. Some Animal spars with these inheritances from not only the dominant cultural forces, but also overarching trans-narratives and normalizing media portrayals of queerness.

The question, omnipresent: What should we make of the histories snaking into our bodies?

Shipley, even in the numerous epigraphs, disrupts those histories, rephrasing and recycling them on his own terms.

Some terms: "Mouth of a hungry ghost. Narcissus. Bloody / Mary. I want to see—I'm not sure what"; "...Human fainting...// may be a trait evolved / from the tonic immobility or 'playing dead'"; "A black lake // of vibration"; "like some animal / inside an animal."

Shipley shows us how a creature can domesticate itself—and how quickly it can return to the wild. Some Animal takes the canon (and the self) and exposes its inherent contradictions, but also attempts to care for it, live in it, gulp it down and spit it out without choking:

In gay slang, the word beard is used to describe a woman
who is a cover for a gay man's orientation. She, the beard, is used
to hide his identity

by accompanying him in public so that he might pass for straight[....]

A parallel word, though used less commonly, to describe
a man who appears in society as a cover for a lesbian,
is not a beard, but a "merkin"[....]

It's said that a merkin was originally worn by prostitutes
who had to shave their pubic hair when they contracted a disease.

Shipley follows these definitions with a moment at the gynecologist in preparation for a hysterectomy. The closeness, the conversation between narratives, and the care for an instance of life, all show their obvious sutures—but they yield too somehow a bewildering and breathless seamlessness:

The doctor points at his pelvis,
says, "Don't worry, you won't have to shave all that hair."
Then asks if he wants to see his cervix, tells him, "Take a look.
It's really cool. It looks like you have a penis, a big swollen
penis head."

He looks up and watches the bulbous organ, which seems to float
inside the watery black TV suspended over him and magnifying

He reminds himself to breathe so that he will not pass out.