Poet­ry

Some Unimag­in­able Animal

  • Review
By – November 11, 2019

In a famous sto­ry from the Baby­lon­ian Tal­mud, G‑d instructs Moses to walk back­wards in order to dis­cov­er the answers to his ques­tions. As Moses walks back­wards he encoun­ters the teach­ings of Rab­bi Aki­va and glimpses — to his dis­may — the after­math of Akiva’s mar­tyr­dom. As often hap­pens in the Tal­mud, a sto­ry rais­es more ques­tions than it answers. It unset­tles even as it claims to clarify.

David Ebenbach’s col­lec­tion Some Unimag­in­able Ani­mal cer­tain­ly does not read like Tal­mu­dic lit­er­a­ture, but that is because these poems are stealthy. The lan­guage is col­lo­qui­al, the tone humor­ous, and the straight­for­ward titles promise clar­i­ty. For exam­ple, what’s not to under­stand about a poem titled Sukkot”? But be care­ful: this poem is actu­al­ly about a book fes­ti­val. What is the con­nec­tion between the feast of taber­na­cles and the feast of books? The poet walks the read­er into that very ques­tion and leaves them there — dis­com­fit­ed but in excel­lent com­pa­ny — sur­round­ed by authors, paper, and tote bags.

Oth­er poems back the read­er into a qui­et­ly thought­ful cor­ner, as in Hanukkah”:


Stars and drei­dels, drei­dels and stars.

Every­thing held up with tape. Meanwhile

the gifts are underfoot

in every direc­tion. And sure we make it

dark, lightswitch by lightswitch, unplug

the string of bulbs, let the candles

make their qui­et points.

But then we

plug the strings back in,

and tap the unco­op­er­a­tive set

until it works.


Is Hanukkah ruined by mate­ri­al­ism and dis­play, or is elec­tric­i­ty lit­er­al­ly and fig­u­ra­tive­ly cru­cial to the expe­ri­ence of the actu­al mir­a­cle? The poet asks the read­er to con­sid­er the com­plex largesse that lies just beneath their gaze.

In anoth­er series of daz­zling poems, Eben­bach makes a dec­la­ra­tion that he will repeat sev­er­al times: I’m going to write [some kind of book].” In one poem the poet promis­es to write a humor­ous how-to on intol­er­ance, and in the final poem in this sub­set, Everything’s Going to Be Okay” he vows that he’s going to com­pose a best­selling nov­el — itself an iron­ic promise from any­one in the poet­ry business.

But again, watch out. The poet walks the read­er back­wards through the pre­dictable moves of this type of nar­ra­tive until they end up here:


Though, seri­ous­ly, we both know what’s

going to hap­pen …That’s why you

bought the book, why you let your life fall apart

to read it: Because you know that somewhere

in the uni­verse things are in good order; somewhere

jus­tice moves for­ward and doesn’t flip back.


Is escape-lit­er­a­ture tru­ly an escape? Does the act of read­ing help us glimpse an alter­na­tive uni­verse? Is long-last­ing jus­tice pos­si­ble? The end­ing of this poem begs all these questions.

Some Unimag­in­able Ani­mal per­plex­es as it charms. The effort­less lyri­cism of these poems, as well as their tone and con­crete imagery invite the read­er into exis­ten­tial ques­tions with grace and joy. Ebenbach’s poems walk us — the ani­mals who dare to imag­ine — back­wards into a nuanced appre­ci­a­tion of our sur­round­ings, fam­i­ly, neigh­bor­hoods, his­to­ries, and our own thought process­es. This is a lumi­nes­cent, nim­ble col­lec­tion that invites us to think and feel more deeply and in more directions.

Stephanie Bar­bé Ham­mer is a 5‑time Push­cart Prize nom­i­nee in fic­tion, non­fic­tion, and poet­ry. She is Pro­fes­sor Emeri­ta of Com­par­a­tive Lit­er­a­ture and Dis­tin­guished Teacher at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia, River­side. A for­mer Man­hat­tan­ite, she cur­rent­ly lives on Whid­bey Island, WA.

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