‘Zoospeak’ Gordon Meade with Jo-Anne McArthur – Reviewed by James Fountain

Reviewed ByJames Fountain
‘Zoospeak’ Gordon Meade with Jo-Anne McArthur - Reviewed

‘Zoospeak’ Gordon Meade with Jo-Anne McArthur 

Enthusiastic Press

ISBN: 978-1-9161130-4-6, £6.99

Gordon Meades’ tenth collection contains poems mostly inspired by Canadian photographer Jo-Anne McArthur’s recent book, ‘Captive’. Black and white images from this book accompany the poems.

Meade has made a career out of writing nature poetry, with previous titles including ‘The Singing Seals’ (1991), ‘The Private Zoo’ (2008), and ‘Sounds of the Real World’ (2013). Whether or not a poet can become too engrossed in the natural world, and, as a biproduct, over-focused in describing a perceived injustice associated with that world so that he or she fails to remember the basic tenants of poetic mechanics, is debatable. But this is exactly the mistake Meade appears to have made in ‘Zoospeak’.

This collection lays too great an emphasis on repetition. In ‘Brown Bear, Germany, 2008’, every stanza opens with the identical three lines, and the poem builds from there, in imitation of the large figure of a bear approaching:

‘I am aware of what you are

and I am also aware of what you are

thinking. You are a human being. 

I am aware of what you are

and I am also aware of what you are

thinking. You are a human being

and you are thinking I am something else.

I am aware of what you are

and I am also aware of what you are

thinking. You are a human being

and you are thinking I am something else

put here for your entertainment.’

The stanzas increase in size by one, and end with a seventh:

‘I am aware of what you are

and I am also aware of what you are

thinking. You are a human being

and you are thinking I am something else

put here for your entertainment.

that makes it easier for you to ignore me

and the wire mesh that surrounds me;

and the wire mesh that separates us,

and your way of thinking from mine.’

Use of repeated lines in poetry often strikes me as a heavy-handed and controlling approach, a form of ranting. It is possibly the least innovative of the various tools a poet has at his disposal, and only effective as a surprise inclusion. Therefore, through this notion of increasing the size of the stanzas to reflect the menace of the bear, the use of repetition has the effect of sedation: the reader (or listener) begins to wonder if the poet trusts his or her own imagination, so controlling does his approach seem. The meaning is clear: the Brown Bear does not want to be captive and it is an abuse of our ability to control nature, as humans, reflected in Meade’s controlling interior narrative. Predictably, the two photographs of the Brown Bear taken as the inspiration point, show the bear coming right up to the zoo’s mesh, taking up more of the camera frame.

However, Meade continues to use line repetition as his key technique throughout the entire collection, making this a very long-winded rant indeed – across 126 pages, no less. ‘Cougar, Canada, 2008’ begins:

‘It looks as if I might be 

just like any other cat

sprawled out on the floor.

It looks as if I might be 

just like any other cat

sprawled out on the floor

of someone else’s living room.

It looks as if I might be 

just like any other cat

sprawled out on the floor

of someone else’s living room.

The truth is, though, I am not.’

Without wishing to repeat myself, the poet uses an identical repetitive technique to ‘grow’ the stanzas in this poem by one line across seven stanzas, throughout the book, to ram home the cruelty of animals being held in captivity. And so, ‘Cougar’ ends:

‘It looks as if I might be 

just like any other cat

sprawled out on the floor

of someone else’s living room.

The truth is, though, I am not.

I am a cougar lying on the floor 

of a cage overgrown with weeds;

dreaming of not being like any other cat.’

The main problem with this use (or abuse) of repetition when applied to this subject matter, is that the cruelty of keeping animals in cages is beyond doubt. However, it does not give a poet licence to abuse his or her audience. Repetition, in any art form, inevitably amounts to abuse in itself, whether or not it is an attempted imitation of the control associated by captivity.

A wide range of animals are portrayed by McArthur in various zoos around the world across a fifteen-year timespan, a walrus in the USA, a Silver Fox in Sweden, a Sawfish in Australia, Red Fox in Lithuania. There are some wonderful images included, but, with respect to McArthur, the images which inspire the poems do not always marry up well with the poems, and, in several, her subjects are quite dark and unclear. Overall, the book feels as though it has been hurriedly constructed. Though its basic premise is admirable, the form utilised throughout does not demand the attention it should.

James Fountain

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