Megan Alpert’s The Animal at Your Side (Airlie Press, 2020) is a collection that airs on the longer side for poetry books but consists of shorter, digestible poems. It is made up of five sections: Trails, Shores, Interiors, Out Further, and Ways in the Dark. These sections stitch together a multitude of narratives, where the heart of them is a longing for foundation while navigating the ways in which one becomes uprooted from a place, history, or a specific person. They read like lore, like a book uncovered by some mysterious happenstance, or like a fairytale suppressed in your memory. The themes travelled across the board but are rooted in foundation and how one rediscovers home, or a place that can resemble some consistency to such a term. Reading this collection, personally, was both inspirational and an act of discovery as someone who naturally admires poetry about yearning for a place or person, both in an erotic and mournful approach. Alpert has done both, effortlessly, and in a way that feels original.
At its core, The Animal at Your Side is a book about loss, longing, queerness, nature, and location. This collection displays ecopoetics in a way that is accessible to any reader, even one who may not have a background in poetics or environmental interest. Ecopoetics, in its simplest definition, is poetry with an ecological message; the message here being places that will eventually be impacted by climate change, more so than they already are. The Animal at Your Side exists in a surreal and confessional world, blurring the lines of grief and desire for an abundance of things.
The first section, Trails, introduces the reader to the lore of the speaker, their family, their roots… the trails one stumbles upon, and the tracks they leave behind, footprints settled in the dust. The world that is created is one of wild dogs, teeth, wars existing under tongues, bones, and the dirt these things return to. It explores and praises the undesirables. “The dark was soft. It ate / against my skin.” This line from the poem “The Wolf That Never Comes” shows one example of how this collection juxtaposes the dangerous and the inviting—something scary, like darkness or a wolf, can exist simultaneously as soft yet ravenous. Another example of this can be found in “Dawn,” where the first stanza reads: “My sister comes home / smelling of dirt she was buried in, / dandelion milk under her nails.” This poem, along with the others where the speaker grieves for the sister, are haunting and delicate within the flora and fauna planted throughout the book. We are introduced to war hidden in first love and cereal bowls, an aunt who lies and has an intuition for teeth, and a mother who doubles as a storyteller: “Said, Go down / into the earth, / the only / place I will not follow.”
This section leads to the second part, Shores, where we are introduced to a speaker exploring the waters off Massachusetts, the glassy rain in Seattle, and a yard below a purple sky, where they share a moment with their sister, prior to death. A later section eventually leads the reader to a village near the oil road, an apartment with stolen CDs, and a mountainside where a lion waits. Shores explores households, shared spaces, what it means to find home—even when that home is temporary. Despite exploring a new environment, the concerns remain the same, as does the writing—the entrapment of swaying between grief and want, because what else is there to write about? The truth of this book shares a story through new environments, persona poems, narrative tales, and curiosity of a strange eagerness that comes from intimate moments, as well as the melancholic.
One of my favorite poems, “Village at the End of the Oil Road” takes the form of one long stanza, almost looking like the image the poem is about. This narrative piece sets the scene at an oil camp, where the speaker chats on a porch littered with dead katydids while a mother holds her son in a hammock. “When I left, I could never find the text / that said in recent years the word for outsider / had changed from cannibal / to the one we have to feed so they do not starve.” The collection continues to lead toward that sentiment, the idea of being fed as not to starve. The sadness is snapped open and what remains is the fullness from the unburdening of it, or the “Desahogarse,” which “is to unburden yourself, not to undrown / or even to unhome.” The Animal at Your Side shows a world of curiosities through a voice that you can’t help but empathize for, and internally feel a kindred spirit to. Ecopoetics serving as a throughline throughout a collection whose place-based writing encourages the reader to think deeply about the places being written about in these poems. Themes of loss and longing that exist at the core of this collection feel all too real in a world being damaged by climate change, as if these poems are speaking to both ends: loss on the personal level and the concerning loss of the homes the speaker has found. The Animal at Your Side introduces these concerns through a lens that works to get every reader onboard with the fear of loss and the desire to gain.
Ryleigh Wann (she/her/hers) is an MFA poetry candidate at UNC Wilmington. Her past experiences include reading poetry for Ecotone, editing with Lookout Books, teaching creative writing, and working for the Parks and Recreation Department in Michigan. Her writing can be found in Rejection Letters, Flypaper Lit, and Kissing Dynamite Poetry, among others.