Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Animal Poems -- a National Poetry Month book review

Yesterday, I picked up a copy of Animal Poems by Valerie Worth, illustrated by Steven Jenkins.

Let me say this about that: WOW!

The book features poems about twenty-three different animals. Some of them are Very Different Animals, such as the Star-Nosed Mole that is the penultimate creature in the book. And some of them are common animals, such as the Squirrel, the Groundhog, the Wasp and the Spider. And some of them are routine staples of poetry collections about animals -- like the Elephant, the Hummingbird, the Owl, and the Jellyfish. Why these last four are so, I don't know, but I have a lot of poetry collections these days, and I've seen the popularity of those animals as subjects trending upward. However, since Ms. Worth is no longer with us, having died in 1994, I'm pretty sure she wasn't following any trend, although she may have been predicting one.

The poems are all told using free verse -- not a typical choice in collections for children these days (at least not when it's the sole type of verse). And these poems are spectacular. In fact, I have to confess to having true difficulty picking out what to share with you, because I really want to sit here and read them all to you, each and every one, and then sit and discuss her vibrant images and excellent word choices and the fine details of observation that she managed to cram into succinct poems. But I can't, and so I will stick with a handful of choices.

Here's the text of the poem "Squirrel":

Late autumn rains
Fall colder than snow,
When the wet wind's floods
Wash down from the trees
Their last ragged leaves --
Except where the creaking forks
Of the high black boughs hold fast
These rough brown bundles, woven so deep
Not a drop nor a draft may seep
Inside, to the nest where
The gray squirrel sleeps:
Wrapped snug in his fat,
And his fur, and the curl
Of his tail.

I don't know about you, but that poem made me sigh with complete, satisfied happiness when I hit the end. The description of the rain, and of the bareness of the tree, and then of the nest, and the squirrel curled inside. *Sigh*

And that reaction was even more intense for me when I saw the art on the facing page, which is made by Steve Jenkins of cut and torn paper:

I know! That squirrel is inconceivably cute. And while I'm not certain that the on-screen image is nearly as evocative as the one in the book -- which looks truly touchable and dimensional -- it is nevertheless adorable, no? The squirrel poem is part of a two-page spread with the poem on a white page on the left, and the squirrel on the right. But the poem called "Bat" is a two-page spread done on black where the art extends into the neighboring page.

The poem begins

The bat sees
Only in the dark
Side of earth,
Taking dust and
Clay for his
Colors, holding
Aloor from
The gaudy sun;

The imagery and description, pitting night-bound bat against the sun, continues for two additional stanzas, each of them a thing of beauty.

Squeamish readers are advised that the poem called "Cockroach" features a few very convincing cut-paper specimens. This doesn't apply to , who has her own pet hissing cockroaches, but it does apply to, say, , who, like me, doesn't particularly care for the buggy critters.

Especially when the last lines of the poem are:

Today I dart from
Behind the sugar, tomorrow
I skulk in her sneaker
And twiddle her toes . . .
(italics in original as well)

To be fair, this particular poem is written decidedly from a human point of view, and those last lines are thoughts attributed to a cockroach by a particularly squeamish person. But still, eww.

Steve Jenkins's artwork throughout the book is simply spectacular. The jellyfish has a translucence to it that shines through, even though he's made it from paper. The porcupine (one of my favorite images) is convincingly prickly, but with a spot on his snout, just above his nose, that looks so velvety soft that I actually want to pet it. The hummingbird, while made of paper, looks as though its wings and tail are made for actual flying. And the groundhog -- well, he's cuter than any paper animal has a right to be. He appears to have been made from a particularly furry sort of paper, and but for a bit of a glint in his eye that appears to be a warning and some pretty sharp (and long) claws, he'd be the perfect object of a good cuddling.

Before I go, one more image, from "Bear"

and a line to go with it: "The bear's fur/Is gentle but/His eye is not". The poem concludes by coming back around to tell how the bear's "Hot eye/ Stings out/From the dark hive/Of his head/ Like a fierce/Furious/Bee." Oh, how I love the tying together of the bear with a bee, and the metaphor of a bear's head as a hive, and his eye being the stinging bee. *Happy sigh, again*

The two things this book is sorely lacking are not the fault of the poet or the illustrator. It should have both a table of contents and page numbers, to allow folks to find their intended poem choice more easily when sharing this one. That way, I'd be quickly able to tell you that "Snail," the first poem in the book, is not to be missed, and is on page 4, and that "Camels", the fifth poem in the book, is also not to be missed, and is on page 12. The eye of the camel is most excellently rendered, I must add. As is the evocativeness of the poem's reference to camels "munching and belching/Like smug old maids/ Remembering their ancient/Sway, when bearded/Traders sailed them over/The starry sand-waves."

By all means, have a look at this one if you possibly can. But don't say I didn't warn you about the missing page numbers and table of contents.

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