Bear Stories, by J’Lyn Chapman

Bear Stories cover

Welcome to the chimerical wilderness of neo-animism, a “forest built from a tree,” a “specific world in a dense abstraction.” Step away from mindless consumption; rent yourself a cabin and engage in a more mindful brand. Trace the meat back to its source. Become a connoisseur of the hunt, gather stories of appetite and violence, gaze at auguries through telescopes and read your own entrails. I know in my gut what a hunger for narrative can do to a poem, how it can lead one to toy with non sequiturs and build alluring traps from a spare rib. But this book is set before the genesis of numbers: its pages are brown and speckled and its cover is a summons to the dissolution that awaits us all. I got it several months ago as a gift in the mail from a poet in Oregon. The protagonist, who may or may not be the author, is hot for the hyperbole of heat and need, in heat or out of it, married to the bear or the barmaid. The book is small enough to fit in a pocket, and in fact I have taken it into the woods with me, as much to introduce it to a real woods as to savor its dense language, printed almost to the edge of the pages. But it’s cold out this morning, so this time I’m reading it in the living room of what I never thought to call a cabin. I hear a squirrel’s claws on the kitchen window and what I suspect is a young woodchuck bumping against the cold air return duct under the floor. (Isn’t it nice of the furnace to take back the cold?)


This time I am trying to read Bear Stories as if the speaker in every poem were really a bear, in keeping with the book’s own thought-experiment or being-in-the-world-experiment style. But it doesn’t work. The first page in Animism for Dummies says, Know your animals before they know you. I begin to think that Chapman’s bears are really raccoons: bear-like, to be sure, but more charming and much less discriminating, adaptable to the habitats eviscerated by human habitation. Her wolves are bloodthirsty mustelids. I do not think this is a fable about consumerism, but it could be. Consider the raccoon’s obsessive-compulsive washing of its food. Consider its sense of fun, its legendary appetite for sex with multiple partners and its highly marketable lucky penis bone. The protagonist claims she knows nothing about “the fish in the bottom of the river … the winter birds in their molting. I cannot tell the difference between this tree and that one.” But she says, “I want no project except to watch and to give over the body to the body.” Chapman’s prose poems are full of beautiful fragments, the kinds of trinkets a raccoon would hoard. Even more tellingly, she compares her stories to wasp nests, with their drones and sugar wrapped in paper. But now I am feeling a bodily urgency of my own. The morning coffee has run its course, and when I go out to urinate I station myself, as I do so often, in front of a dead wild rose with rapier thorns, as if my hairless trouser mouse feels some primal need to face down the sharp-fanged weasels of the wood. This is the easy bravado we bring to what’s left of the wild these days, forgetting that the midnight oil we burn day and night is nothing like mother’s milk, and that we could be getting almost all the meat we need from the motherly oaks.

(I’m reading a book a day for National Poetry Month. Click on the book cover to go to its page in Open Library.)

7 Replies to “Bear Stories, by J’Lyn Chapman”

  1. this is delight: “The book is small enough to fit in a pocket, and in fact I have taken it into the woods with me,” — that it was built to travel well, and in fact, you have carried it with ease.

    i love that.

    i’m simple. mostly. except when i’m not.

    on a note about the more complex: i wonder if you’ll get any poems out of these posts. this one feels like it could easily stray into one …

    1. Glad you liked that. I think regular book reviews don’t mention the physical pleasures of books often enough. With some of these responses, too, I’m trying to imitate, not merely describe, the style of the original to some extent, so inevitably that will feel like poetry, although I do think of this as creative nonfiction.

  2. So here I am, catching up to you after the excesses of National Poetry Month, and I find I like this way of talking about poetry books. I will admit to finding many traditional reviews, including my own, somewhat deadly to read.

    1. That’s good, because when I get your book, it’ll probably come in for the same treatment. (Are you reading the posts in order? I think you’ll find they get less interesting, more review-like, as I went along and the month wore me down.)

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