BOOK REVIEW: Humanagerie Edited by Sarah Doyle & Allen Ashley

‘Inspired by notions of the animalistic, Humanagerie is a vivid exploration of the nebulous intersection between human and beast […] these thirty-two poems and thirteen short stories explore emergence and existence, survival and self-mythology, and the liminal hinterland between humanity and animality.’ 

Edited by Sarah Doyle and Allen Ashley, Humanagerie is a collection of quality – the sort of collection to be revisited and re-read, in order or out. The theme is – as the blurb so excellently puts it – an amalgamation of all things animal – be it a feathered beast or the beast within, the one that falls victim to an animalistic nature. The beautiful landscape or the terror of it all. Published with Eibonvale Press – a small British press, the collection boasts a number of delicious pieces. As with any collection, some caught the eye more than others – you can’t be moved by everything. But nevertheless, Humanagerie is a worthy addition to any bookshelf – especially my own. I love things that are slightly weird and wonderful.

The Great Eel of Jazz’ by Amanda Oosthuizen is quite the poem. The language choice is lyrical and bodily – although the title suggests it should be – the meaning of the piece arresting. At four stanzas long, the poem is neat in its precision – the lines ‘he jangles his bebop and boogaloo / and Cuban charanga’, ‘he slithers into my acoustic meatus / and just as I’m in the groove, he glisses / though my inner ear’. It is animal, that’s for sure.

Jazz gets another mention in ‘Augury’ by Tarquin Landseer whilst in ‘Sturnidae’ by Setareh Ebrahimi the poem is arranged with perhaps such fluidity in mind. One of the only pieces to play around with physical form on the page, it is a welcome sight, and read. A poem surrounded by birds, namely starlings – ‘sturnidae’ has origins in Latin – the piece is melodic – ‘the amniotic sac / of the sky is pregnant / and we feel only an echo.’ Again, the natural world makes itself so clearly known. The idea of life – how it gives, how we birth it, is present too. In ‘When a magician’ by Kate Wise, the notions are tangible once more – a magician pulling a rabbit from a hat is a woman and her young child. The imagery within the poem is controlled and repetitious yet it is lush – ‘between tear of bramble, burnt leaf and wall / you were rabbit; / soil-grey against greyed soil, and then soil only again.’ The continual use of sounds – ‘b’ and ‘s, roll perfectly.

Having only mentioned poetry so far, it’s about time I give voice to the short stories of the piece. ‘Rut’ by Ian Steadman is as animalistic as the title would have you believe. Here Steadman presents pack nature – though there is no mention of it I imagine the men, ‘Chiltern and his gang’ – are hyenas, laughing at those below them. There is a mysterious deer-like creature in the woods, humans ‘rutting’ and two dogs who end up facing a gruesome end. A writer who bathes himself in the weird, ‘Rut’ is no exception.

Crow and Rat’ by James Dorr transports us to the New City where a love story [of sorts] takes place between Crow and Rat. Rat has dreams and Crow is a thief in a dirty city. The use of animals – especially the two specific chosen creatures – lends itself to the strange tale. So much is packed into a few pages that the world Dorr creates is rich despite its brevity.

The strange is apparent in ‘Hibernation’ by Sandra Unerman and ‘Two Lost Souls’ by Tracey Emerson. Though it should be expected [I think] that tales of animal meets human come with some element of the odd, these two stories explore it widely, and differently. In ‘Hibernation’ a woman, longing to hibernate, buys a bearskin, which then turns her into a half-human half-bear after she wears it fully and completely. Whilst in ‘Two Lost Souls’ a lonely man befriends a goldfish only to be heartbroken in the end. Both are equally entertaining pieces of fiction that, in differing ways, explore the connect between our human world and the world of the animal. ‘Flock’ by David Hartley follows a similar suit. A person named River is kidnapped by birds – all kinds of birds, first starlings, gulls, gannets, parrots, finally meeting emperor penguins at the climax. It’s a wonderfully curious bit of writing.

Other poems to catch the eye – to be honest they are all rather good – include the quietly erotic ‘Female Skate’ by Sarah Westcott and ‘And Then I Was a Sheep’ by Jonathan Edwards.

Yet the piece that captured me the most [it’s all personal opinion of course] came by the way of Ian Kappos and his story ‘Dewclaw’. Broken into seventeen vignettes of ‘the boy’s’ life – from early memories with his mother to his final moments with her before he is taken away to live with his uncle, the writing is utterly affecting. The boy’s mother is, from what I can discern, a drug addict, and the way this is told is both bold and unflinching, despite the very nature of the piece. In fact, it adds to it. Over embellishment here wouldn’t fit. Kappos gets it pitch perfect. The voice of the young boy is maintained throughout – his wonder about what is going on around him – and elements of the animal feature repeatedly. It’s a brilliant piece of writing.

Humanagerie’ is an intriguing collection. Rarely do I read many that incorporate poetry and short fiction so seamlessly. And whilst ideas overlap there is no real sense that the pieces are similar. Each has merit of its own, and the collection as a whole is a wonderful read.

Humanagerie is published by Eibonvale Press and is available here.

About the Editors

Allen Ashley is a British Fantasy Award winning editor and a prizewinning poet. He is the author or editor of fourteen published books including the novel The Planet Suite (Eibonvale Press, 2016) and the short story collection Once and Future Cities (Eibonvale Press, 2009). He works as a critical reader and also as a creative writing tutor with five groups currently running across north London, including the advanced science fiction and fantasy group, Clockhouse London Writers. He is a committee member for the British Fantasy Society. Website: www.allenashley.com

Sarah Doyle is Poet-in-Residence to the Pre-Raphaelite Society, for whom she writes commissioned new work, and co-judges an annual poetry competition. She is (with Allen Ashley) co-author of Dreaming Spheres: Poems of the Solar System (PS Publishing, 2014). Sarah has been a guest reader at numerous poetry venues; has been published widely in magazines, journals and anthologies; and placed in many competitions. She was Highly Commended in the Best Single Poem category of the Forward Prizes for Poetry 2018. Sarah holds a Creative Writing MA from Royal Holloway College, University of London, and works as a freelance manuscript critique provider. Website: www.sarahdoyle.co.uk

Reviewed by Emily Harrison 

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