O’Brien, Damen. Animals with Human Voices. Canberra: Recent Work Press, 2021. RRP: $19.95, 104pp, ISBN: 9780645008951.
I read an article recently about how human impacts on the ocean will likely result in conditions better suited to jellyfish than to most other marine animals (Mathiesen). If we are indeed in for a jelly-ruled oceanic future, then prize-winning poet Damen O’Brien’s jellyfish-covered debut collection, Animals with Human Voices, is well worth a read. It begins with worms and their soil, and ends with a rocket-launched human abandonment of a doomed Earth, somehow managing to render each as profoundly and significantly as the other. This is an expansive collection in which the minuscule and the grand are treated as equally worthy of poetic investigation.
In his Afterword, O’Brien writes that Animals was written in a world ‘on an inevitable path toward environmental destruction and global warming […] a place of harsh politics, that values outrage over kindness, tribalism over empathy’ (85). These poems are very much of the Anthropocene, exploring the spiralling impacts of human activity on the environment and vice-versa. They take on a variety of voices and range from the richly allusive and highly specific, to the skilfully abstract.
The first section, ‘Animals with Human Voices’, takes non-human animals as its central subjects. Oyster farms and bee colonies collapse from page to page and cane toads asphyxiate; but this is not a collection of simple disintegration. Rather, from the very first poem, we are introduced to a world in which every actor and every detail is influential, even cosmic. The speaker of ‘A Rainbow Made of Soil’ muses that ‘There are no gods for worms, we are each alone. How would a god find me, scratching in the dark?’ (3). This worm needs no god, though, for it has itself ‘written in the book of the earth and left a bible / that no one shall ever die for’ (3). For O’Brien, the elements of the natural world take on active, powerful significance in their mundane workings, but without the traditional sense of right and wrong we expect within human cultures and religions: ‘If every fleck and / pith of soil I chew on is equal, each end is righteous’ (3). In this poem and others, O’Brien skips over the debate around the risks and benefits of anthropomorphising, or even acknowledging, human-like consciousness in animals. He suggests instead a mythical, often cosmic otherness in animals, beyond complete human comprehension. In ‘Eyes’, a Trilobite’s vision is treated as mysterious and wondrous, ‘polished and faceted to other spectra’ (4). ‘What light was pressed on the lens of each stone / that is forever lost?’ the persona asks; the answer is lyrical and suggestively ominous—‘the visions and the miracles and the first black wave’ (4).
Throughout this section, animals are presented as better connected to earthly and celestial marvels than humans. Spiders’ webs ‘write out this field of stars’, their creators ‘journeying / from one universe to the next’ (5). These mysterious patterns may be ‘arbitrary constellations’, with no clear meaning to be gleaned by humans. Though that doesn’t mean paying attention to them is discouraged, or that learning from them is impossible, as ‘we’ll move along those lines / ourselves one day’ (6). And those ‘Immortal Jellyfish’? They are ‘older than the weariest history of man […] the matrix and wafer for each tongue’ (19).
While the following three sections of the collection often maintain an interest in the environment, they are less overtly animal. The poems of ‘Measures of Truth’ skilfully trace the historical evolution of humans and our contemporary preoccupations, with abundant allusion to sources as diverse as Cold War events, the film Alien, famous jazz anecdotes and ABS statistics for religious adherence. O’Brien always comes at these sources from unique and unexpected angles. ‘Dust’ is a highlight—shifting from Libya to the moon to the home, we are instructed that ‘nothing in the long average of infinity can be done to clean the world’ (29) and reminded that ‘all of this too is dust’ (31).
The section ‘How the Angels Covet Heaven’ focuses in large part on death and its effects, and contains some of O’Brien’s simplest diction and phrasing, in some of his most affecting poems. Loss and impermanence are ever-present concerns. Even the wry ‘Dinners With Dead People’ has emotional weight, as dinner-party cameos from Jesus, Elvis et al. are followed by the presence of ‘Your Parents’:
They are quieter than they used to be
and won’t talk about what happens next. […]
They leave too early. (53)
Impermanence remains a focus in the final section, ‘The Line Marker’s Testimony’, where poems with a more distinct narrative base centre on various characters from the famous, to the imagined, to the persona’s father. Here we are confirmed in our suspicions that O’Brien is a skilful poetic storyteller, with characters and settings sometimes treated naturalistically, but more often—as with the animals of the first section—elevated to the mythic. In ‘The Nave’, winner of the Moth Poetry Prize in 2020, ‘one of those mad chapels’ stands deep in the bush like ‘shaggy prophets striking out into the wilderness’ (75). The deliberate dilapidation of a building and religion unsuited to the landscape comes to represent an anger and violence at how history is turning out:
There is such an urge to break things, […] to make
unseen corrections to the stolid dependability
of creation. (75)
As the persona insists, ‘God should do / better with his lesson. I choose a stone, take a throw’ (76).
These poems are mostly straightforward formally and stylistically, with occasional skilful rhymes or a collapse in punctuation. But they demonstrate—through their subtle rhythms, erudite diction and adroit variation in line length and pacing—both the poet’s careful control and the potential of a formally straightforward poem to be novel, entertaining and urgent. In the Afterword, O’Brien tells us ‘there are poems about the end of the world in this collection, but few poems of hope’ (88). In the final poem, ‘On The Day You Launch’, there is indeed a sense of inevitable hopelessness, where ‘the future of the Earth is a series of goodbyes’ (85). But overall, even if this prediction is fulfilled and we as humans can only expect self-imposed loss, this collection’s perceptiveness and attention to the grand and mundane gives some comfort—that there is much to contend with in the meantime, that important things will continue to happen and that, finally, the earth will persist without us. Jellyfish, at the very least, are immortal.
Mathiesen, Karl. ‘Are Jellyfish Going to Take over the Oceans?’, The Guardian August 22, 2015. Sourced at: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/aug/21/are-jellyfish-going-to-take-over-oceans.
Riley Faulds is an Environmental Consultant in the streets and a Creative Writing Honours student in the sheets. His poems and reviews have appeared in Rabbit, Westerly, Cordite, Plumwood Mountain and the 2021 Australian Poetry Anthology. He was the 2021 Editor of Pelican Magazine.