An essayist populates a bestiary of an ark with famous animals from history, all celebrated by humans even as we harnessed and exploited them.
Passarello (English/Oregon State Univ.; Let Me Clear My Throat: Essays, 2012) welds eccentric stylistics, which can feel rather too fanciful or ethereal, to more grounded and less “poetic” deliberations on varied well-known species while revealing that we do not know as much about them as we thought. The former do not read as essays so much as peculiar little anthropomorphic meditations, some of which presuppose areas of knowledge on the reader's part while providing meager enlightenment of their own. They tend toward the allegorical, peppered with all manner of similes and labored metaphors, which work only occasionally. What are we to make of such lines as, “the stews downriver had less fornication,” or the curious amalgam of elephant and electricity in “Jumbo II”? Doubtless these installments are matters of taste, though some readers may wonder at the point of it all. Thankfully, the majority of the book is more concrete, definitely more engaging, and decidedly more edifying. Despite Passarello’s tendency to ramble, there is an agile intelligence at work in the best pieces, as she makes connections among disparate elements and wields keen perceptions on the creatures she encounters. There are some real dazzlers. Particularly impressive are “Vogel Staar,” a meld of Mozart and starling, “Four Horsemen,” an anatomical evaluation of our equine friends and the partnership we share, and “Celia,” an elegy for the disturbing pace of extinctions, past and present. Another fine piece, “Lancelot,” uses autobiographical elements to prime a salvo on the commercialization of animals and the hollowness of zoos. Even Beatrix Potter takes her lumps.
Passarello manages to chronicle humanity's cavalier exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals without getting preachy in the process—no mean feat. If only the entirety of the book reflected the gifts the author demonstrates at her best.