Salamander: A Bestiary, a collection of poems by Leonard Schwartz, with woodcut prints by Simon Carr, from Chax Press, is not a routine poetic waxing on the animal kingdom. Each of a near-alphabet of 24 northwest beasts is uniquely rendered, suggesting a different genre or even the possibility of a new project that could grow out of the individual poem and image. No philosophy or taxonomy influences the collection, and every page spread contains its own animal, appearing on its own terms, demanding or provoking something new from the reader.
In his introduction, Schwartz notes that the “light and dark” of Carr’s woodcuts “allows for ambiguities of representation between animal and void, contained and container, capture and release, opened and closed, conscious and unconscious.” Carr’s images create these entwined oppositions through distinct variations in the degree to which the woodcut process is evident: The negative space that composes earth, sky or water also composes the frog, the fish, the rabbit, and the dog. Meanwhile, monkeys trapped in darkened cages of ink are barely visible, barely mobile; still other animals exult in their frames, mastering landscape or darkness (the spider) or vibrating with the energy of Carr’s ruckling, grainy illustration.
Playful, with an improvisational quality, the woodcuts reflect Schwartz’s poems. Some poems are slight, some skinny, some linger or stretch into prose, halting or conversational, mythic or mundane. For Schwartz, many of the beasts are “around here,” living in nearby woods or backyards or in the mountains of Washington; others inhabit the zoo; and others still, the “boundless space” of the sea, or some liminal zone between our lives and theirs (“A crow looked through an orb / And saw doctors in scrubs”).
Bits of familiar whimsy and cliché are embraced. Along with a single-line poem on the hard heads of raccoons (I’ve almost given it all away), spiders weave webs, coyotes are intelligent, and ravens are stoic. Such familiar sentiments appear in all their frankness and frailty, woven together with luminous oddities. Schwartz frequently delights in linguistic surprises, including cleverly broken lines and grammatical play that can swiftly doom. “Snow Monkey I” describes a scene at the zoo:
Continuous revelation of,
no subject but light.
Too, tied to the stake
of foundational doubt
Steam off rocks of this perception…
The poem continues toward discontinuity through these de-parsed tokens of abject experience; in the image, the animal stares through bars of steam and light, repeating the law of the zoo’s universe: the cage, where one has “no subject but light,” and all is a tethering stake.
Closer to home, where we might expect comfort, we find “dog”:
People always want to make dogs self-identical. To dogs. To themselves. But it isn’t true. Dogs are not dogs. Dogs are
Dogs are not dogs.
Repeating “dog” reminds us of the arbitrary nonsense of words, names. Carr’s woodcut shows a snarling beast, digging its claws into the inky earth from which it has barely emerged. It seems to be a mirage receding back into the wood. Life, in such poems, is mere light and shadow.
The salamander, which appears on the book’s cover, re-appears in a different form at the end. While the cover image evokes a wriggly, soft-bellied pet, the later image depicts a blob-like, nearly monstrous form — not threatening, but estranged and looming. The accompanying poem identifies the salamander’s poisonous defenses with a type of alchemy from which we could benefit; however, it concludes in parenthesis, “It isn’t easy, / Not internalizing / Necessary poisons / For one’s own defense.” If there is a thread through these poems, it might be this alchemical — and unspeakable — fine-tuned precision of life’s solutions.
Chax, rooted in the fine printing tradition, has produced an elegant book, classically styled on lush papers with distinguished design touches. The recto and verso carry the conversation between word and image, whichever way it flows, and while Carr’s images are frequently dense compared to the light touch of Schwartz’s spacious and inviting poems, the two are syncopated in their respect for the otherness of our animal familiars.