The Knowing Animals by Emily Skov-Nielsen

Emily Skov-Nielsen’s first poetry book, The Knowing Animals, is not an easy collection. The poems are best read one at a time, given time to settle, then read again. Often deceptively open, just as often deceptively opaque, on second or third or fourth reading these poems rarely fail to surprise—a little like life, perhaps. As Skov-Nielsen writes in “Glimpse of the Hook”: “The world’s encrypted by our confusion”.

Skov-Nielsen divides The Knowing Animals, into five sections, plus the final poem, “Considering Physics, Destiny’s Child, BDSM, and Simone Weil at Drag Bingo”, which is as much fun as its title intimates. Each section brings together a clutch of poems loosely orbiting around a common theme. The poems of “Superbloom”, for example, orbit the dual planets Woman and Mother, those of “Her Sharps” circle rather less than blissful recollections of life on planet Teenager, while “Homespun” turns to adulthood and its betrayals.

A few poems from the first section, “Superbloom”, provide a good illustration both of how Skov-Nielsen writes her poems and of how she organized this collection. The first poem, “Menstromania” begins:

Loose and bloody in the bathwater, a crossbred
sea star/sponge/jellyfish of mucosal tissue,

a strand of uterus, a small stringed instrument,
a nest …

Beginning with the physical, regularly inflicted evidence (“f-o-u-r weeks to be exact”), she hands us an oblique suggestion (“a nest”) of what comes later, both in life and in “Superbloom”, then moves into a fraught rant—Skov-Nielsen’s word—about the subjective experience of menstruation:

this is what my body has become overnight
a ranting lunatic …

… Don’t call me hysteric, call me
wisteric …

I’m a head case with acute associative disorder
cells adrift, this intertidal ragbag tatter of a home, no longer
a home but a memory—far and near, loose and bloody.

From this, the possibility of motherhood and some of the not always welcome changes this possibility brings to the woman, Skov-Nielsen moves through pregnancy and birth to end the section with her daughter’s own imagined recollection of her birth, and a meditation on the very ordinary and very miraculous pair that is a woman with her child. First, the daughter:

A pony dropped me in water and mud,
and then I popped like a balloon! What in the world

are we to do with time. We’re held by a string and then let go

In mid-line Skov-Nielsen picks up her daughter’s thread—almost literally (“held by a string”), brings the poem around to two of them out walking, and to how even in this idyll time’s shadow, death are inescapable:

… My daughter and I walk as if she’ll always
fit into her yellow firefighter boots. A shining skull
stares at us, perfectly centered on the wooded path.
It was a deer, I say, giving death a sweet face—we’ll walk on

until she tires. A swift sleep waits for her, salvific, under
an awning of afternoon hours, back at home where air
pours through windows, stirring houseplants
who grew new tissues without our noticing.

The final line is particularly fortunate, bringing the poem and the section back to the first poem and its “mucosal tissue”. Whatever we think of it, however haunted we might be by time and its conclusions for us, whether or not we choose to notice, life asserts itself.

I should not conclude without coming back to “Considering Physics, Destiny’s Child, BDSM, and Simone Weil at Drag Bingo”. If the other poems of The Knowing Animals are very much about us between earth and sky in the here and now, despite our memories and our projections, our lives not so different than those of the knowing animals, “Considering Physics” launches directly from our carnival into the cosmos, pulling us along in its slipstream:

more glorious or better dressed—what a sweetheart
thing to say at a starlit bar superclustered

with sweetheart asses shaking this teeny town
out of its Tuesday orbit …

the beauty of the world is the mouth of a labyrinth—
at its centre, Madame Never in her leather Dom-wear,
cracking her 45.7 billion (and counting) light-year-long
whip …

What a fortunate phrase Skov-Nielsen’s “out of its Tuesday orbit”. Tuesday, the grey tedium of the teeny town. Tuesday, the weekly grind still uphill. Tuesday, the J. Alfred Prufrock of days. The antidote? Sweetheart asses at drag bingo of course!

Emily Skov-Nielsen’s has published poetry in literary journals across Canada. She is a graduate from the MA in English/Creative Writing program at UNB. She lives in Saint John, New Brunswick, where she mothers and writes. The Knowing Animals is her first full-length poetry collection.

  • Publisher: Brick Books (Fall 2020)
  • Language: English
  • Paperback: 102 pages
  • ISBN-13: 9781771315333

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Nicola Vulpe has published a novella, The Extraordinary Event of Pia H., who turned to admire a chicken on the Plaza Mayor (Quattro Books, 2008), and four collections of poetry, including Insult to the Brain (Guernica, 2019), which received the Fred Cogswell Award for Excellence in Poetry, and Through the Waspmouth I Drew You (Guernica, 2021).

(Photo: Paul N. Leroux)