(Tuscon, AZ: Spork Press, 2012)
Until recently, I would not have considered myself a spiritual person. Maybe I still wouldn’t. I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit that, like many who look to higher-powers only during times of need, I gave myself over to a dreamcatcher to heal a reoccurring nightmare about my ex’s new girlfriend. She continually climbed into my jeans, and because she is about ten inches shorter than me, and because this was a dream, they not only covered her nether regions and her navel, but zipped all the way up to her perfectly crescent-shaped collarbone. She wiggled her surreal body all around inside my pants that, somehow, looked much better on her than they ever did on me, even though they certainly didn’t fit the way that the manufacturer had intended. After waking up in tears for the fourth morning in a row, I’d had enough; I went online and purchased a handmade dreamcatcher—one that seemed authentic, because 1.) I wanted to try my darnedest to avoid some unintended, disrespectful form of cultural appropriation, and, 2.) honestly, I really wanted it to work. And it did. The night that it arrived, I slept more soundly than I had in a week.
Around that same time, one of my best friends sent sage so that I might purify my apartment. In a thoughtful note, she explained that burning sage is one of the oldest methods of cleansing a space, and this was important during a time in which all-of-the-things and all-of-the-places reminded me of my former beau.
These discoveries about myself led to a discussion with this same close friend about other aspects of her spirituality; she shared a poem with me in which the speaker ponders her father’s animal spirit just moments before her car crashes into a bolting deer. I learned about totemism, the notion that every human has a special connection with a physical being, such as a plant or animal. While neither of us had a firm grasp of the rich history of these beliefs, we discussed whether it might be possible to have more than one animal spirit, or if it can change over time—and we found ourselves hoping that human nature could realize such flexibility. Immediately, I wondered if my animal spirit could be a jackalope. Sometimes I believe this is a marker of my free-spiritedness; other days I’m quite certain that I’m simply avoiding reality.
And so, with animal spirits nestled within my subconscious, I departed for the AWP 2015 book fair in Minneapolis. There, I had the pleasure of briefly meeting the warm-hearted Spork Press author, Colin Winnette. I couldn’t help but notice his stack of stunning hand-made books, titled Animal Collection. From the covers burst vibrant blue and pink letter-pressed rabbits with x’s for eyes. I was drawn to them. I needed to learn more.
The collection opens, “It’s in your best interest for you to take the BEAVER’s call. It might be awkward, but he’ll keep calling if you don’t, so just talk to him. He doesn’t want anything from you, only to talk.” It seems clear from the very start that this flash fiction collection is not about animals, but rather human nature. As a reader, I am able to identify with these animals, these people. Who hasn’t been on both sides of the above; who hasn’t, at one point, called someone a few too many times, and who hasn’t, at another, hoped that the phone would just stop ringing?
In the next lines Winnette writes,
at the Larson’s pool party; remember, Abby got sick in the bushes and didn’t tell anyone, and her sick made the dog sick, and you and Rob strained half-digested birthday cake out of the deep end of the pool with those long-pole blue net things, and Abby started crying and got sick again on the grill, and you told her it was okay then burned your hand trying to clean it up with a paper towel”
Despite the surrealism of a beaver making phone calls and philosophical statements (“survival is only the first step, and after that comes the living”), the collection carries a truly down-to-earth tone. The prose is exceptionally conversational; we know Abby, even though we don’t know Abby. We are not given the precise details, but rather we are reminded of them. We’re never outsiders.
Spork Press has packaged Winnette’s alphabetized animal tales within a modest-sized hard cover that reminds me of a children’s book. These aspects render the collection so comfortable that, despite the bizarre and oftentimes violent characters and events – ranging from abortion to cannibalism – all boundaries become contentedly blurred. For example, sometimes it is unclear where the personification ends (“On the drive home, the QUAIL tells me she’s had an affair with Raymond Carver”) and the antithesis, chremamorphism, begins (“I scratched my neck until a lion’s mane appeared”).
Unlike Aesop’s Fables, for example, these stories do not seem didactic in anyway. In fact, they seem to, via the animal collection, palatably pose life’s big questions: “Is this something I should worry about?”; “But there’s no why to how Kenny acted, right?”; and “but do you think he’d be the one to blame if some nut in the audience stormed the stage because he pretended to kill his assistant?” – to list only a few.
Within the cover of my beloved copy, Colin signed his name and wrote yet another question: “Heather, which animal are you?”
“A jackalope,” I tweeted to him later that night. “And you?”
“A shark,” Colin responded.
Neither of which is in Animal Collection. And, so, once again, I’m left with more questions than answers. Or, maybe, I do have the answers—answers that I just don’t understand. Regardless, this is something with which I am gladly learning to live, and that Colin Winnette’s Animal Collection, which watches me from my living room coffee table, constantly reminds me.
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Heather Lang is the Managing Online Editor of The Literary Review.