Ely Shipley, Some Animal, Nighboat Books, 2018
Reviewed by mica woods
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.
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:
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 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:
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: