Review: Chase Dimock’s Sentinel Species
by C. Kubasta
Chase Dimock’s Sentinel Species (Stubborn Mule Press, 2020), a poetry collection subtitled a “bestiary” is richly animalled with dogs and birds and apes – all the creatures of the world from the desert snail to the hippo. They live in the poems (although a few are taxidermy or otherwise preserved) for us to engage with our vulnerabilities and our failures. They watch us, and we either can stand being seen or respond to it in a characteristically human way, which is often not our best attribute. They survive, if they survive, to tell us they know; that’s why they are the sentinel species. They warn us of danger, and often the danger is us.
An early poem in the book, “Coming Out to A Spider” speaks to the vulnerability of being seen, and also the comfort of these other beasts—their non-speaking, their only seeing; but also the possibility of destroying the evidence. It is this vulnerability that creates a sometimes bait and switch in the poems—as with the dog in “Gladdis: A True Televised Story” which tells the story of Daniel, sick with HIV, who created an intentional spectacle of his death on live TV to draw attention to poor healthcare and stigma. “When we are allowed to write the words / of our own epitaphs, we maintain the illusion / that death is our volition.” At first we focus on Gladdis—she is the named character of the title, the stoic dog in the truck cab when Daniel lights the Molotov cocktail. But really, the speaker of the poem is a young boy witnessing this scene between cartoons, and after the camera cuts away—from the man and the dog, the explosion—the newscaster apologizes, and there won’t be coverage of the clean-up. Daffy Duck returns, and the boy, “felt his beak, wings, and bones / shatter for the first time.”
The final section of the book is “Zoonomia” which perhaps refers to Darwin’s early work, or the literal “governing laws” of the “animals.” The poems speak of non-human animals from all taxonomy, and us—of course. But here, after the inevitable build of the book, we are called out and seen for all our errors, all our missteps. In “The Desert Snail at Once Awoke and Found Himself Famous,” this dormant mollusk is collected for housing in the British Museum, alongside all the other spoils of colonialism and conquest, glued to cardboard, but not dead; when discovered, its slime trails and still-living body call attention to the foibles of human trespass. In “Coal Mine Canaries,” newly-unemployed canaries traveled the world to warn mankind of danger, and ended up at the Reagan White House, “and startled Nancy Reagan, / crashing into her bedroom window. / She watched them in her nightgown, / as they one by one hit the glass / and scattered across the lawn.” In “The Battle of the Zoo,” we learn of Knautschke the hippo who survived the blitzkriegs in Berlin, was evacuated into a bunker, then wandered the destruction of the city, unbothered, after its fall. Even when Russian soldiers killed most of the remaining zoo animals, he survived and was re-installed at the new zoo—witness to all he’d seen: “Parents led their children, born of ashes and ruins, / heirs to the unspoken.” Each of these poems juxtaposes the non-human animals with their counterparts: us. They know what we’ve done, and although they might not be able to speak, we are called to account. For our unkindnesses, our cruelties, our myopia.
A stand-out poem in the book is “A Boy and His Piñata” which imagines these party favors animate; their bright crepe paper and frills like fur covering skin and bone. “Daddy told me not to get attached. / There are pets, and there are worker animals. / Birthday clowns and business clowns.” But the boy still fell for “Jenny,” his piñata, who “ruffled like a ball gown as she led / the plow team and I collected handfuls of Skittles / left in small piles dotting the field.” Jenny gets old —of course she does—or outlives her usefulness. The boy notes “her side ran raw with sores, pink syrupy pus / leaking. Might have been strawberry or cherry. / You can never tell based on color alone.” This is ridiculous, isn’t it? An animal as piñata? But for a child who fell for an animal, pet or worker, it’s just as magical. Each of their paws or hooves an amazement, their liquid eyes meeting yours as if they understood, as if each moment you spent together was some deep commune of understanding. And then it’s time to learn about the end of childhood, of death, the first hard learning that loving something makes it so much worse, but also awakens some greater desire to love even more next time—as if loving can protect both them and you. I won’t quote from the poem about how the boy and his piñata ends, but it goes the way of boys and their piñatas (as you would expect), with a bat that you must swing true.
Dimock’s Sentinel Species speaks to the animal in all of us, breaking down those arbitrary barriers we attempt to erect: between us and them, between human and non-human, between past and present, between nostalgia and trauma. In asking the reader to look at the history of human-animal interaction, to consider our cruelties (often cloaked in a misunderstood search for knowledge, or understanding, or empire, or maintenance of the status quo), we find ourselves reflected back.
C. Kubasta writes poetry, fiction, and hybrid forms. Her most recent book is Abjectification (Apprentice House, 2020). She lives, writes, and teaches in Wisconsin. Find her at ckubasta.com and follow her @CKubastathePoet