Animal Purpose: Poems by Michelle Y. Burke
Swallow / Ohio University Press, 2016; 65 pp
Reviewed by Caitlin Pryor
The world of living things pulsates and hums throughout Animal Purpose, Michelle Y. Burke’s debut collection of poetry. The poems contained here speak softly but with great precision and feeling. Burke’s revelations are ebullient rather than explosive: more akin to scattering flocks of birds than detonations. In a poem titled “Pacifisms,” for example, Burke details a story of a voracious owl that had stolen chickens from a man’s henhouse. Rather than murdering the bird, the man caught the owl, upended its tufted body, and in an unforgettable image, “held her upside down / until she went limp, wings spreading / like a crucifix.” The poem builds toward the glorious compassion of its last line: “He whispered, I could have killed you, / but I didn’t. Then he opened his hand.” Animals, Burke’s poems affirm, do not exist in order to please or feed us alone; instead, it is their bewildering autonomy that we ought to praise most. It is the blessed sovereignty of creatures like pigeons, Irish Setters, ponies, and goats that allows us to reassess our own place in the universe.
Winner of the Hollis Summers Poetry Prize, the book takes its enigmatic title from a line in the book’s first poem, “Today the Horse,” in which the titular beast breaks from the speaker’s grip and launches a meditation on humanity and loss. Recalling a divorced couple’s amicable interactions, Burke writes, “The exes moved around each other / with the quiet assurance of those / who have shared close quarters.” The dance of former lovers mirrors the speaker’s own as she bridles the loose horse and brings him back to a barn: “He followed, a frayed strap / of leather between us coordinating / our movements, matching, momentarily, / his animal purpose to mine.” In this poem and in countless others, Burke deftly likens the casual cruelty and intermittent beauty of the natural world and its attendant animals to the heartbreak and joy of knowing and loving other people.
In the book’s stunning penultimate poem, “Farmer’s Daughter,” the speaker, having learned of the stones birds must ingest in order to digest their food, comes to grips with the woman farmer’s strength and the occasional agonies required of us in order to go on living:
In her ease of motion, in her strength,
I saw an unwillingness to believe
weakness could be a virtue. Come here,
eat this stone. Against it, whet your heart.
Burke’s Animal Purpose functions as just such a whetstone, permitting us to revel in the quiet majesty and dignity of living beings, humankind included.