Megan Alpert's The Animal at Your Side is a book of travels, inward and outward and sometimes both at the same time. Alpert leads us coast to coast across the U.S. to Ecuador to China. We follow her back to childhood and into mythic territory. Animals, alive and dead, real and imagined, join us along the way. Alpert's experience as a reporter allows her to write clearly and sharply, rendering even the most mysterious images and experiences with precision and directness. It's a compelling journey.
The book opens strong with "Dawn" mixing an unexpected resurrection with earthy images of dirt, soap, a trowel, and seeds. This poem further introduces one of the book's major themes: the search for a home or at least a place to be.
"My sister comes home
smelling of the dirt she was buried in….//
Will I wake anywhere/besides this house…?//
I wake again in the garden
crushing stems against my teeth."
Further in, we meet "The Wolf That Never Comes," the first of a number of animals that pass through these poems.
"The wolf would like a wife.//
He would like to set her up against the headboard//
Petals or stones against my window,
The wolf would like the pink skin tender, he would like to gnarl,
he would like to lick.//
The dark was soft. It ate
Against my skin."
The erotic undercurrent is both provocative and disturbing.
Skulls are a recurrent motif in this collection:
"The fire coming out
her eye-hole, nose-holes?//
The orange that glows when the woods are gone."
"My friend and I went to the lake, found a skull
and took it home. Washed it, set it out to dry….//
We buried it in the backyard
underneath the compost heap. Now my dinner tastes like bones."
This book, however, does not remain solely in these otherworldly realms. Alpert also takes us to Ecuador, where she observes the lives of indigenous people in conflict with oil producers seeking to ravage their land in search of its mineral riches but also experiences the kindness the locals offer a sympathetic outsider.
"When I woke at the oil camp, the others
By afternoon, I'd return
to the village, where the women took me to wash clothes
in the only clean river….//
When I left, I could never find the text
that said in recent years, the word for outsider
had changed from cannibal
to the one we have to feed so that they don't starve."
(See also "Reporting From Oil Block 16."
One would like to go on and on through the book, quoting lines, blocks of lines, indeed whole poems. Failing that, let's look at the haunting closing poem, "Ayil."
Ayil is a Hebrew word meaning both "oak tree" and "stag," a fitting image with which to close this fine book that erases the line between myth and reality, finds life in death and death in life, and tells tales of a nomadic existence while seeking home. The journey is long, perhaps never ending, and often frightening, but one always has a companion that is both roaming and rooted.
In order to learn more about this book and how the poems came to be, I posed some questions to Megan. She kindly and thoughtfully took the time to answer.
You seem to have lived a peripatetic life and The Animal at Your Side reflects this. Could you talk about your travels and how that life led to your book?
When I was a kid, I thought that going to a new place would solve all my problems. As a queer teenager, I thought college was going to be a magical land where most people thought and felt like I did. In truth, looking back, I was surrounded by many more like-minded people than I would have been at most U.S. high schools. But, regardless, I think once you get a taste of how moving to a new place can accelerate change in your life, it becomes very attractive. I moved to the West Coast with similar ideas, and then, feeling exiled and too far from home, back to the East Coast. I have recently been jealous of people who stay in one place their whole lives, or at least their whole adult lives. I think there is a lot to be discovered from staying, even though leaving always seems more romantic and exploratory.
I don't think I set out to write a book about these themes. It was more a matter of writing for years about things that troubled me, and then looking at the poems and finding (not surprisingly) that many of them were about my fraught relationship between going and staying.
It would seem that you have spent a lot of time looking for a home or at least a place to settle that you could call yours. I saw an interview in which you discussed how "home" and "place" both differ and are similar. Can you speak about these ideas?
There are many places that I love and am familiar with—Quito, Seattle, the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, Washington, D.C., New York City and its suburbs—but having lived in so many places, "home" is fragmented for me, and maybe a bit elusive.
In The Animal at Your Side, many of the speakers are trying to get to or create a home, and this work sometimes has nothing to do with place. It can be ancestral memory, a relationship, or lines of a song. They're often trying to leave and get back to home at the same time. In some poems, being very far from a homeplace gives the speaker a path to return.
In a more recent poem, I wrote about wanting to learn how to stay, "to house myself in the difficulty." I think that's the kind of bravery that home requires. Moving from place to place is easier, and perhaps a little addictive.
You have worked as a journalist, and Animal contains poems based on your reporting from Ecuador, among other places. Was it difficult to respond poetically to the events you were observing, or did the poems seem like a natural outgrowth from your work? How much time passed between the reporting and the poems?
The poems I wrote about reporting from Ecuador were what felt like a necessary response that complemented the articles that came out of that time. As a journalist, my job was to report on events without centering myself. Yet, there was a huge emotional weight to being in the rainforest as a white non-indigenous person and feeling how in danger that place and its people are. Being with the Waorani also made me feel deeply my own disconnection from the Earth, both the rainforest itself and the land I call home (the Northeast United States).
Embodying the "I" in those poems and in that place felt hugely complicated because of the history of colonialism and the placement of white people as supposedly impartial observers in that context. There were a lot of competing needs, standards, and desires that went into that reporting—wanting to be of service to the Waorani, to do my job well as a reporter (which means some level of "objectivity" or at least skepticism), and knowing that, in the end, the Waorani likely did much more for me than I ever could for them. It was hard to be in that place, to manage the expectations of both the Waorani and U.S. journalism standards, and not feel that I was "taking" from them. None of those concerns traditionally go into a news story (though perhaps they should), where the "I" should not be the main character. So, as an outlet, I had poems.
Going back further, when did you know you wanted to write poetry? Were there poems/poets who inspired you? Did you also aspire to be a journalist or did that arise from other circumstances?
When I was thirteen, my parents gave me a copy of Edna St. Vincent Millay's Selected Lyrics, and we did a poetry unit at school. For the first time in my life, I wrote something that I wanted to share with the class—a poem about a woman deciding against the emotional vulnerability that a relationship brings up. When I read it, there was a long silence, which was finally broken by a kid saying "that was awesome." The feeling was intoxicating. I started writing all the time. I also gulped down Edna St. Vincent Millay and Nikki Giovanni, and later Adrienne Rich. I'd memorize Millay's and Giovanni's poems and say them to myself at night before falling asleep. I really saw poetry as a vocation, and I was very serious about writing it from that point on.
Journalism came later. I spent nine months in China after graduating college. I was working as an English teacher with no training, and mostly messing up. Then I read Rivertown, by Peter Hessler. The empathy and grace in his prose helped me understand that I'd been wasting my precious time in China. In particular, his chapter on the lives of rural women, which he titled "Money," struck me. I was living in a small village outside Xi'an, and during my first few months there, I saw a woman walking in the street holding a ripped cardboard box in her teeth. It was an image that I didn't know how to process. Hessler's work helped me understand the desolate loneliness and poverty she was likely facing. I wanted to write stories like that.
Can you talk a bit about Airlie Press? They have a remarkable stable of poets along with you
Working with Airlie Press has been wonderful. The best part is that it's a collective, so everyone who works for the press is also publishing with the press. The collective aspect also means that the two fantastic poets I was published alongside in 2020, Amelia D铆az Ettinger and Jennifer Perrine, were part of the editorial group that selected my book and edited it. The book designer, Beth C. Ford, does amazing work. She has a great attention to detail and treats the book design process as a collaboration. That's why Airlie books always look like works of art. As the 2020 Airlie Prize winner, I'll help judge the book contest in 2021, which is an exciting opportunity as a poet, though I am already intimidated by having to choose from some great manuscripts.
Finally, what writing projects are you working on now or contemplating? I hope they include poems.
Too many. In 2016, I started a poetry collection about anger and sexual violence. The work has been slow because it can be triggering. But I am hoping to have a manuscript by the end of this year. I'm also working on a novel. Though I started it years ago, it is about a pandemic, which has felt very strange as the covid-19 crisis unfolded. The novel centers around a group of young queer people who steal and redistribute medical supplies. Finally, way, way on the back burner, I have a book of linked short stories that I drafted in 2014.
For more information about the author and to buy the book, visit Megan's website at http://www.meganalpert.com/.