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 poet, magical realist novelist and professor emerita in Comparative Literature at the University of California, Riverside. Read more about her at stephaniehammer.net.