With sharp lyricism, Emily Skov-Nielsen “superblooms” plant, animal, and human life in her debut book of poetry, The Knowing Animals. From botany to astronomy, she entangles the groundedness of earth with the expanse of the cosmos, which is most striking in the couplet poems that appear in all seven sections of the collection. Though rooted in earth, Skov-Nielsen’s precision of technical language to the microscopic nature of ecology opens up the expansive possibilities of being.
The collection’s first poem, “Menstromania,” reads: “My body / is the red ring of a tart, hidden pomegranate, // the air is appetite, tonguing the pulpy seeds / (of what?) inside me, including a slow evisceration, // catabolization, breakdown in the bloodstream.” The syllabic weight of the lines, as well as of the individual words within each line, slowly creates a visual experience of reading.
Excavations and animal explorations thread throughout the collection. “Photophobic,” a poem in the second section “Rewilding” opens with the lines: “You only walk at night, in the malarial hours, / when the earth cracks // into a cold sweat, dreaming of the passivated / satellites banished to the out- // field of a diamond-rutted sky, caught in a grave- / yard orbit.” Images and scenes firmly associated with the ground, such as walks and graveyards, meet the celestial, with the reader walking at the precipice between the two. Not only is Skov-Nielsen describing the earth cracking, her syntactical craft is able to evoke “the crash of gravitational collapse / to the asterisk // of electron-degenerate matter.”
Skov-Nielsen demonstrates an awareness of how words carry weight and uses this to the advantage of the core feeling of the collection, such as in the poem “Riddle,” another one of the couplet poems that shines out in the book. She writes: “trailing the words / mythopoeic, clarion, and equipoised, // the elegance of their consonance rippling / in her wake, incantatory, cascading // to the shore,” morphing words into garments “brushing against the floor.” The blur between materials and matter is another of the core themes Skov-Nielsen explores.
Imagery of fracturing naturally leads itself into an excavation of how we experience grief, something that is intangible but holds a real felt weight. Meanwhile, “Wind Shear” explores the boundary between abstract and material: “After all, where does grief hurl us but to the undomesticated margins? / Burning our ecstasies into the woodsmoke motion of starlings // that whisks them away like grains of wheat stripped from straight, / taupe stalks, scattering them over fields of bluestem, lonely and thin.” Grief remains when joy, in its loneliness, is made to isolate itself from the malleable body.
Against the fast-paced rush of the world, Skov-Nielsen brings a slowness to the act of reading. The immersive quality of each poem matches the themes of ecology, cosmology, and objects of both physical and metaphorical qualities residing in the fissures of a fracturing Earth. It is a collection to savour within moments of each day, and one that brings new layers with each read.
The Knowing Animals by Emily Skov-Nielsen was published by Brick Books in 2020.