May 2013

Mary Mann


A Swarm, a Flock, a Host: A Compendium of Creatures by Mark Doty and Darren Waterston

Open the book to any old page. A white silhouette on glossy black paper, a complicated scene: a pelican and a lion next to each other, or perhaps joined -- the dreaded lelican? the legendary pion? -- anything's possible since the page cuts off the body (or bodies) below the heads. The lion's mane boasts the tumbling waves of a Pantene commercial, but that's nothing compared to the pelican, who appears to be holding the sun in its engorged beak, the rays of that celestial body escaping like difficult spaghetti strands. A mossy tree rises from behind them, or perhaps out of their heads, and curled around its branches is a twirly, curvy, fangy snake, straight out of the Bible or Disney's Jungle Book -- it's clearly up to no good. The text to the left provides the only color on the page: the word "snake" in blue, followed in white by a two-line portion of this book-length poem: "whose black and yellow signature / unscribbling itself across the path?"

In content and form, Mark Doty and Darren Waterston's A Swarm, A Flock, A Host: A Compendium of Creatures follows in the footsteps of the medieval tradition of the bestiary. A bestiary was originally a collection of short descriptions of animals accompanied by illustrations: part education, part moral lesson, and part entertainment. Royalty commissioned them (Aberdeen Bestiary was first inventoried in 1542 in Westminster Palace, though it is probably much older), and the writers and illustrators of the day (usually monks) obliged with elegant illuminated manuscripts and accompanying tales both fanciful and moral (the panther, according to a twelfth-century Latin bestiary, has only one enemy, the dragon -- which is only natural since "the true panther, our lord Jesus Christ, snatched us from the power of the dragon-devil when descending from the heavens.")

While some of the animals were real (panther, lion), some were imaginary (griffin, dragon), but it's hard to say whether the illustrators knew the difference. The average citizen of Europe -- in the days before planes, trains and automobiles -- would have had no opportunity to see a hyena, so the illustration of the hyena in Aberdeen Bestiary has the body of a greyhound, the feet of a bird, the face of a demon, an external spine with barbed vertebrae, and both male and female genitalia. The illustrator simply drew what explorers reported having seen, and if there wasn't much detail... well then, the illustrator made it up.

Fast forward several hundred years: zoos, museums, photographs; Planet Earth and National Geographic -- in 2013, the wonders of the natural world are accessible to anyone with a television or a library card. Waterston's silhouette illustrations in Swarm are a simultaneous acknowledgement of all that we know today (he does not pretend not to know what a lion looks like) and a nod to the imaginative illustrators of old: the choice of silhouettes keeps things vague. Is this a staid, twenty-first-century drawing of a lion, pelican and snake? Or is it a curious, twelfth-century rendition of a lion-and-pelican-headed creature with a snake living in its tree-like horns? The ambiguity links the centuries without force or farce.

Doty's accompanying poetry is more of a departure from the traditional bestiary -- it is neither moralizing nor encyclopedic, but rather quietly descriptive, as though the reader is accompanying Doty on a walk through the gardens of some eccentric animal collector. We pass cardinal and turkeys and peacocks; bend down to notice the tiny ticks, toss back our heads to witness the migrating monarchs, take note of the dog trotting alongside, "the very domestic dog, who would not know how to live in the city / were it not for the men who love him, who fill his bowl." We stop and watch Doty struggle to "describe the sound frogs in the small pond make... / What to call it? This ought to disturb us / more than it seems to. We've needed this word / for a thousand years and I cannot find it..."

Doty is exhausted by the end, and here we find a nod to the monks of old, and an allusion to the common bestiary illustration of a biblical Adam naming the animals -- a task the "first man" shares with poets of any age: "All day my work of naming goes on and on."

A Swarm, A Flock, A Host: A Compendium of Creatures by Mark Doty and Darren Waterston
ISBN: 978-3791347578
108 pages