‘Before you were born your mother too was visited by dogs (…) They told her it’s not wrong to want a child who fights for its food. Sinks its teeth into the ankle of the world. Sleeps in the sun, vendetta-less, untroubled by strange men.’ (‘The dogs’)
And so we slide into Eleanor Penny’s strange dreaming world of animals, bones, teeth and blood. The world of Mercy is a cruel one, but it is not without its own tender mercies, as the lines between the human world and the animal world meld and shift. In this debut pamphlet, Penny’s dense, atmospheric poems weave rich and bloody interior worlds.
Throughout this arresting, uncanny collection, Penny’s imagery is often visceral, and sometimes grotesque: a woman gives birth in a gutter, ‘there is the gasping light, bloodwaters sluicing off into the drain’, a boy opens a crow to find its ‘stinking knuckle of a heart’, an unnamed speaker loves with a pig’s heart. Animals, and parts of animals, become totemic: in ‘For Jonah’, a whale vertebrae rests in the bed of the speaker, after ‘whales, with their empty car-sized heads, creep onto the tender shore, mouths helpless and unhinged’. The speaker talks to this vertebrae, as it puckers their sheets, and they long to lie like Jonah, ‘always blessed in the belly of the whale.’ I am reminded, here and throughout the collection, of Ocean Vuong’s ‘The Queen Under the Hill’, where a horse is a piano, a shadow, a ‘puddle of sky on earth’, that the speaker is at once within and without.¹
A good proportion of the pamphlet, including ‘The dogs’ and ‘For Jonah’, is made up of short, half-page prose poems. In the density of their language, the effect of the form is heavy and all-encompassing – without the neat distinctions of rhyme and metre the reader is subsumed into the consciousness of the poem, its own small world within a world, a pulsing consciousness in the wider consciousness of the book. As Penny evokes the animal to express and embody what the human cannot or will not, we are pulled into unreal worlds where the impossible is urgent and necessary. For example, in ‘Love song with a pig heart’, Penny asks how a pig might love better, more simply than a human might. The speaker reaches for an animal certainty – ‘soon I’ll have a pig’s heart and know what I’ve been hungry for. My love, it will be better then’.
Unlike the prose poems, ‘Vivisection’ is formally precise, but, as its title suggests, equally bloody. In opening up the body of a crow, ‘stinking knuckle of heart, bulb and filament / ballasted tightly to the spine’, a boy learns how to become one. The bird’s harsh cry is broken down to investigate its possible human meanings:
Core: an apple, nuclear
Car: a beckoning, tower of smoke
Inevitably, the figure of Ted Hughes rears its head amongst this transformation and animal magic. Nonetheless, Penny’s voice is relentlessly, doggedly her own in sharp and unexpected turns of phrase: ‘the evening sky is cunt-coloured. Day drooping like a lone white glove’ (‘Poppy Heads’), ‘Your daughter, she has the most beautiful blacksmith’s hands I’ve ever seen’ (‘The list of the missing’), ‘New-fish-in-the-deep-dark yellow’ (‘Paint chart’).
There are animals, which move as strange, terrible gods, and then there is God himself, who appears in various guises throughout this collection. He takes many forms – sending angels as awkward, disinterested emissaries in ‘When angels came’, railed against by a priest who ‘batters both his fists at the chest of god’ in ‘The priest’. God is not all-loving, he is another kind of animal, savage and unknowable, and even his angels are cruel. In ‘Brick by shining brick’, God is feral, and entirely unexpected: ‘God hangs his best skin on the door handle before he enters the house’, ‘God drags a packet of bad children back into the sea’, ‘God choosing a slice of cake and a new dress’. God is slippery, human, promethean, and mysterious.
God, Animals, animal gods and a ragged, raw love claw their way through the pages of this impressive debut. In its panting animalism and desperate aliveness, Penny’s pamphlet opens up new ways of animal existence, and asks us just how human we would really like to be.
Hannah Green 1st January 2022
1. Ocean Vuong, ‘The Queen Under the Hill’, from Night Sky with Exit Wounds, (Jonathan Cape, 2017) p.48