Maryanne Hannan on Kim Roberts

Animal Magnetism by Kim Roberts. Pearl Editions, 2011.

Over a century ago, in his "Spring and Fall: to a Young Child," Hopkins asked: "Margaret, are you grieving / Over Goldengrove unleaving?" His famous conclusion: "It is Margaret you mourn for," a classic recognition that once we have the imagination to understand mortality anywhere, we understand it everywhere. We are initiated. How to deal with this terrible knowledge? Kim Roberts' Animal Magnetism, winner of the 2009 Pearl Poetry Prize, confronts mortality's hold on us culturally and personally without succumbing to the maudlin or sentimental. No easy task, considering that the volume is dedicated to her artist friend Martha Tabor (1939–2004), whom Roberts helped care for, and that Roberts herself underwent successful treatment for cancer during this period.

The poems are carefully crafted, nicely varied from the couplets of "Labels" to the prose poem, "Folding Chairs." However, the poems succeed primarily because of the energetic unleashing of the poetic imagination upon all manner of physical and emotional landscapes, ranging from Roberts' imaginary husband to the skull of Johann Gaspar Spurzheim currently residing at Harvard's Warren Anatomical Museum.

In the Section notes, Roberts says she began visiting medical museums during the time she was caring for Tabor. Many of the poems take oddities viewed during these visits as starting points. In the book's first poem set at the Physick House, Philadelphia, "Blood Letting," Roberts sets her agenda:

I want to know what the labels don't reveal:
who were the patients who laid their arms
over this basin.                       

The second poem, "Animal Magnetism," from which the book's title comes, embodies the passion that will fuel the quest: "Come, Doctor . . . Touch me / with your fingertips, / and spark my animal essence." "I want to be healed!" "Mesmerize me."  It seems that imagination, empathic imagination on the part of both the poet and reader, a willingness to submit to truth while fleeing its confinement, is more likely to restore than Franz Mesmer's system. Roberts provides the necessary guidance.

In "The Apothecary Doll," set at the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Washington, DC, she studies the human model used by patients to point out their complaints in the timeless hope the apothecary "could relieve the pains / in their own chests, / return them to their days." Viewing "The Largest Shoe," at the Shoe Museum at Temple University School of Podiatric Medicine in Philadelphia, she steps back "laughingly" at the thought she had considered her own feet "enormous," but then realizes:

That's what we all dream of, though:
excision. As if we could simply
            cut it away,
the enormity—

everything our bodies can produce,
the scope of our capacity
for suffering,
            the weight of mystery.

In "Private Tour" of the D.C. Museum, she recovers a lost historical bit: that President Garfield died not from the assassin's bullet, but "the doctor's misguided probing, / and the loss of blood."  The first section concludes with "The American Giant and the Achondroplastic Dwarf," a poem in tercets about the perennially demonized freaks of the traveling circus circuit, now housed at Mütter Museum, the College of Physicians of Philadelphia.  Even though the poet admits "I came to gape," she concludes, "These are our kin" and then turns inward:

            After my own introduction

to death, the surgery,
seven weeks of daily radiation therapy,
            I feel at home

with the giant and the dwarf.
My body isn't so bad after all:
            better an imperfect shell,

even these two
might confess,
            than nothingness.


The vicarious fun of the imaginary husband in the next section comes as a welcome relief. How much more enjoyable to fold necessary struggles into a fully-peccadilloed straw man than to meditate on the skulls and shoes of real people. Roberts unleashes her lively sense of play in these poems, made all the more charming by the simple acknowledgment in the poems' titles. These poems form the backbone of the second section: three entitled "My Imaginary Husband," then also "The Testicles of My Imaginary Husband," "My Imaginary Husband as the Season Changes," "My Imaginary Husband in Early Morning," "My Imaginary Husband as a Banker," and "The Curls of My Imaginary Husband." A bold trope, and a successful one. This guy "likes to cook breakfast / in nothing but underwear." "He dances in splayed sneakers / across asphalt's bitter trust" and "loves most the frayed / and dangerous edges." 

This section also features some real-type husbands, for example "Judy's Nearly Silent Bob, who, it turned out, was good at something after all. He knew how to stick it out" ("Folding Chairs").  And adumbrations of real-type losses, prompting the narrator to admit "I discovered one half / is still a blade, and even alone / can make a nasty cut" ("American History").  And the playful "I Don't Have a Husband, I Have a Nutritionist" with its wise and compassionate conclusion:

                        Forgive me, Lynda, I turned you
into a character, as Sue always does with her husband,
a man none of us has met, allegedly a curmudgeon and a clown,
and probably someone she can't live without.

This section also contains some of the medical oddities of the previous one. 

Set in Leila's Hair Museum in Independence, Missouri, "In Memoriam: A Catalogue" contemplates artifacts customarily made by mourners from their loved ones' hair in earlier times. Respectfully imagining the decision-making process, "I'll take a weeping willow on pale silk," the poet sees beyond to the situation's universality: "Someone is always departing. / What is more natural than grief?"

In the persona poem "Séance, 1858," based on a photograph in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the young woman asks "Did I seek the spirit and touch only flesh?"  The section concludes with "Siamese Twins," a poem chronicling the death of the two entwined lives:

                                    The body is a mysterious housing:
it brings us pleasure, fails us daily, encloses a fragile sense of self. It
is where we live. And when we die, our other half goes too.      

There are many nice aspects to the poems' ordering, but as a whole, I did not understand the book's flow.  This may be a personal flashpoint; as a reader (and reviewer), I bring high expectations to a book's organization and register disappointment that may or may not be warranted, when I don't feel I've caught the ride. That being said, there are many excellent poems in the third and concluding section.

The opening poem, "Clapper," addresses the narrator's cancer: "Alive, under a single sheet, / you were unveiled." Then follows a cool indictment of P. T. Barnum "off to Europe" procuring more oddities, "dog-faced boys, bearded ladies, / midgets, Siamese twins."  Then "Dan," another multi-layered and funny prose poem in five sections where the reader thinks, I don't know if this is an imaginary friend or not, but give me more! For example, the third paragraph:

When Dan can't remember the name of any small thing—a power
strip, say—he will call it by a fake Ikea name, like Geflurden-morven,
or Megroden-min-hasser.  


Facing mortality is made easier with such flights of fancy. Other poems are set in the context of remains from the 1st Century, at the Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli, the Oakland Museum of California, the Marine Science Center in Washington, and Topkapi Palace, Istanbul.

Especially poignant is "The Landsdowne Herakles" from the Getty Villa in California, where the poet contemplating Herakles' Nemean Lion, addresses her friend:

I thought of you, recovering from your surgery,
here where the scent of rosemary hangs
in the air, the smell of invulnerability.   

. . . .

How I wish I could give you that pelt.
We, who are merely human,
our shoulders soft and bare,
have such meager medicinals.

The final long poem, "On Looking at the Collections of Henry Wellcome" at the British Museum in London, concerns the fantastic array of medical memorabilia and curious artifacts collected by Wellcome, a pharmaceutical entrepreneur whose company eventually evolved and merged into Glaxo-Smith-Kline. Part list, part narration, part lamentation, Wellcome's collection opens into the poet's own paraphernalia:

latex gloves, alcohol prep pads,
pleated white paper face masks,
boxes of heparin lock flush solution in 5-inch syringes,
a clear bag of single-use sodium chloride injection packs . . . . 


The difficult list goes on for several more lines. Returning to Wellcome, she considers the high price he paid for his obsessions and finds herself wondering: "What happens to avid collectors?

                        the humans,
under the weight of their project, like butter
at room temperature, go soft around the edges.      

And why? What mean all these museums and their documentation of the ways in which people have tried to reverse the inevitable? Roberts asks:

Is it triggered by loss? Fear of abandonment?
Depression? As if the wonders of the little world
had magic properties, as if these fragments
on display could keep the body whole,
could stop time, stop death . . . .        

Nothing can, we know. But poetry and freedom of imagination do a good job assuaging us in the meantime. Of Animal Magnetism, I can say: I laughed; I cried; I had a good time.

Maryanne Hannan has published poems in Pirene's Fountain, upstreet, Gargoyle, Naugatuck River Review, 1110, and Magma. A frequent book reviewer, she is a contributing editor at Cerise Press: A Journal of Literature, Arts and Culture.



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