Barrelhouse Reviews: Animals Strike Curious Poses by Elena Passarello

Review by Sara Ryan


Elena Passarello is an essayist of obsession. Her first book, Let Me Clear My Throat (Sarabande 2012) was a collection of essays stemming from Passarello’s obsessions with voice. Animals Strike Curious Poses is no different in its specific fascination; Elena collects and researches, in depth and density, famous animals in history that have been named and immortalized by humans. The 16 essays are studies in pain, human insecurity, cruelty and the meaning of a name. Why do we name these animals? What authority do we, as humans, have over them?

Passarello’s language is dense—her writing distills pages and pages of cited sources into a collection of musical, peculiar and shattering stories. She collects these animals, and displays their lives, mythical and real, in a chronological study of extinction. Of death. From Yuka, a 39,000 year old mammoth in Siberia, to Cecil, the Southwest African Lion that exposed our true human greed and cruelty in 2015, Passarello is a ringleader of this bestiary, of our so human tendency to meddle. To name what was always there. 

These names are questioned and the animals that own them are brought back to life throughout Animals Strike Curious Poses. The title of Passarello’s second book is plucked from the lyrics of the song “When Doves Cry” by Prince. Similar to the late artist, these animals are misunderstood, poetic, and iconic in their own histories. Passarello gives Harriet, Darwin’s 175 year old tortoise, a voice that confuses love in the saddest way. Koko the gorilla’s essay is completely comprised of Koko’s own vocabulary. Koko makes a dirty joke, demands to hear “Purple Rain” play on the harmonica. Passarello illustrates the confused history of Ganda, the rhino; the unicorn we hoped the animal would be.

Passarello, an aficionado of the performing arts, introduces theatricality into these animal essays, and becomes a puppet master to the characters the animals become. Sackerson, a bear set to fight other animals in the Bear Pit, mentioned by Shakespeare himself, becomes a tortured gladiator on the page: “What did they see? They saw themselves, of course”, she writes. The bear is no longer a bear, but a warrior that you are rooting for. That you are crying for.

Yuka the mammoth, the Wolf of Gubbio, Ganda the rhinoceros, Sackerson the bear, Jeoffry the cat, Vogel Staar the starling, Harriet the tortoise, War Pigs: soldier pigeons,  Jumbo II the elephant, The Four Horsemen, Mike the headless chicken, Arabella the spider, Lancelot the Living Unicorn, Koko the Gorilla, a crocodile called Osama, Celia the last bucardo, and finally Cecil the lion. This is a bestiary; not only of animals, but of the names we have given them. The importance we have cultivated from their breath.

Elena Passarello, in Animals Strike Curious Poses, tells the stories of these animals, both from fact and as she imagines them. The stories stem from research and science, as well as the mystical and unproven trading of stories. Passarello gives voice to the voiceless animals we keep in our homes, marvel at in cages, see on the television, in illustrated library texts. Many of the animals in Passarello’s book are dead and gone, but this book is nonetheless relevant and current. As animals near and far are stripped of their rivers, their fur and their meat, it is clear that we are living through a new extinction. This book is dark, and it is hard to accept as truth; it is so much about animals and it is so much about us.

Sara Ryan is a second-year poetry MFA candidate at Northern Michigan University and an associate poetry editor for Passages North. Her work has been published in or is forthcoming from Storm Cellar, Tinderbox, Slice Magazine, New South, Third Coast, Fairy Tale Review, The Blueshift Journal and others.