Author Essays, Interviews, and Excerpts

Sample Some Poems from Rachel DeWoskin’s “Absolute Animal”

Book cover of “absolute animal” by Rachel DeWoskin, featuring an illustration of an anatomical heart against a textured tan background.

With the rush of the holiday season coming up, we invite you to take a moment to pause and spend time with poetry. Rachel DeWoskin’s second poetry collection, absolute animal, navigates chaos and uncertainty, searching for the boundaries between human and animal behavior. Through these poems, DeWoskin considers questions about language and translation, selfhood, and the experience of being human. For this post, the poet has selected a few poems to share from absolute animal, along with some of her thoughts about the collection, touching on the major questions at play in her writing, her relationship to language, and the ideas behind the book’s cover image.  

Rachel DeWoskin, on absolute animal:

absolute animal is about wildness and politeness, racing and slowing to stillness, loving and ruining, lasting and disappearing. It asks whether we can articulate a bright boundary between human and animal behavior, and if so, whether words constitute that line. So it’s also about language itself. The poems are formal little containers for irreverent and sometimes chaotic content. I love rhyme, a soft landing, the natural cadence of iambic pentameter, the cozy worlds of poems that work. There are some Tang translations at the center of the book, tiny, combustible, Chinese poems which, in their originals, thread epic humanity up from centuries ago and make sense in this moment, too. Translating Tang poetry is an Olympic sport, training English words to do and to honor the varied work of Chinese characters. The book is also full of sonnets about our bodies and our lives, what’s fragile in us and what’s tough. Wonder, fear, and curiosity are the engines of the poems; I’m trying to make meaning out of the chaos of myself and the world around me, including various plagues and terrors that threaten to divide us. The hearts on the cover of absolute animal are jittering, wondering, worrying, a little bit arrhythmic, out of sync. Maybe because the poems explore how we love, betray, forgive, and understand one other and our planet, the book is, at its core, about our vivid, irrational hearts.”

double body, hot lasagna
decades of mornings strung, popcorning
a festive line, not twisted yet, still linear, so stop mourning
what you’ve yet to lose, weeping for girls not grown
up, old, done, done for—you
are always around
the next bend, just ahead of panic, as if preventing
each terror by predicting or wishing, inventing
order? dusting, mopping, grieving, you are chaos at its core, you
are, and married also to yourself. rhyme’s never new
enough to change the basic shape of questions too
tricky for deft analysis, say what? till death, in hot complexity, you do
vow such abundance, question scale, decorate your naked self: lipstick,
eyeshadow, lashes black as something burnt, one trick
in your deck is singing two babies back to sleep
at once, awake yourself, making promises no one can keep:
it’ll be okay, there, there, bake decades, iambs, lasagna, too,
to a crowd of selves, stay true
to a crowd of selves, stay true
it’ll be okay, there, there, bake decades, iambs, lasagna, too,
awake yourself, make promises no one can keep:
sing two babies back to sleep,
eyes closing, lashes black as something burnt, one trick?
vow abundance, another? question scale, decorate with lipstick,
stay tricky with deft analysis, till death, in hot complexity, you’ll do
enough to change the basic shape of questions too
close to see clearly, stay married to yourself. rhyme’s no new
order, still, rhyme, dust, mop, grieve, be chaos at its core. you
can live each terror predicting and wishing, inventing
next bends, keeping ahead of panic, preventing
the done in done for. you are always around
what you’ve yet to lose, girls not grown
up, still yours, a festive line glittering, so stop mourning
decades of mornings strung, popcorning

today although there’s light outside
we’re under something, all of us on a ride
half unsurvivable, uncertain, unconscious,
shivery, chilled, we quiver, whisper, hush
little baby. whoever tells you not to cry
is sleeping with an open eye—

in 1999, american planes flying for nato in yugoslavia bombed the chinese embassy in
belgrade. america called it “a tragic mistake.” chinese students rioted in beijing.

our ambassador ate freeze-dried
ice cream,
trapped astronaut in an embassy basement
hiding from riots while molotov time took us
by hideous surprise and now nobody’s about
except me,
losing my vocabulary
it tastes like winter on the street
at 3 a.m. it’s always
today in beijing, yesterday
in the west. you and i were tie-dyeing
shirts at “five colors earth,” spinning pottery, too—when
the demonstrations began. here, a new
barricade blocks my courtyard. i climb, twist
my ankle, sit a minute thinking of your hips,
often sharp against mine, your zipper
you once called an access site, like
at the great wall, it makes me laugh
every time, such fun for tourists like me
this was a foreign policy decision
your america made, you propose. i slip
into something less miserable than english:
silence, don’t say not mine, not mine, back
at the embassy i can’t see
what is happening until I see you
throwing something. you are frozen,
holding something, throwing something
what are you holding, throwing? you see
me, explain: i came to rubberneck, see what’s up —you
pass your banner to a friend, drop rocks,
your sign in his hands reads: “down with naot
it’s nato, i say and float away, this city
wasn’t mine but youth confused me, you
have made something from english and not
asked me to proofread, silly, i know, but
so painful all the same that i can’t make anything
except broken chinese letters to you, i do not
write the story i owe an american paper
i don’t know what the story is. can i
promise this impossible thing
please: that you will be my only reader,
and everything i’ll make from here
will be a question?
burn this translation

Poet Rachel DeWoskin smiling and leaning against a ledge on a rooftop overlooking several buildings and trees.
Photo by Dreibelbis and Fairweather Photography

Rachel DeWoskin is the author of five critically acclaimed novels: Banshee; Someday We Will Fly; Blind; Big Girl Small; and Repeat After Me; and the memoir Foreign Babes in Beijing; along with the poetry collections Two Menus and absolute animal. Her essays, poems, reviews, and translations have appeared in the New Yorker, Vanity Fair, Sunday Times Magazine of London, Condé Nast Traveler, Asian Wall Street Journal, Far Eastern Economic Review, Agni, Ploughshares, New Delta Review, New Orleans Review, Seneca Review, and numerous journals and anthologies. She is on the core creative writing faculty at the University of Chicago and affiliated faculty in Jewish and East Asian Studies. DeWoskin serves on the national steering committee of Writers for Democratic Action (WDA).

absolute animal is available now from our website or your favorite bookseller.