Alex Manley‘s We Are All Just Animals & Plants (Montreal, QC: Metatron, 2016, $12, 61 pages). Review by Klara du Plessis.

“Instead of writing a poem about this mess I made, / what if I wrote a poem about the natural sciences?” Alex Manley asks in his debut collection of poetry, We Are All Just Animals & Plants. Here he projects imagery from the natural world onto a series of reflections on the contemporary climate of dating and relationships. In contrast to the emotional distance and cynicism that is often associated with millennial love, the inherent growth narrative of the organic images employed throughout—namely, animals and plants—allows Manley to capture a sense of vibrancy, even in the face of rejection; if not outright optimistic, the poetic speaker is willing to keep putting himself out there. Accepting present-day dating at face value, and not comparing it with past or alternative modes of romantic love, he is able to highlight the charm of contemporary times; when lovers check their phones in-between bouts of passion, they are not separated by technology, but rather insulated from the landscape of “Instagram flakes” snowing outside, together in a moment of quiet tenderness.

While the title We Are All Just Animals & Plants insinuates a devolutionary agenda—humanity being governed by their baser, animalistic instincts, the proverbial birds and bees—one of the collection’s major concerns, on the contrary, is the poetic speaker’s persistent urge towards personal evolution or reinvigoration of self: “All I want is for it to be springtime … so I can be a new me.” Absorbing the vitality of verdure in order to discard the old, unwanted self, the poetic speaker imagines himself to be “sprouting / leaves, vines, tendrils” burgeoning from his limbs as “a new person grow[s] over top of you, like / ivy.” The implicit caveat within this duality, and coexistence, of old and new is that, while a linear narrative of maturation may lead to a stronger, more rounded sense of self, dependency on change can also become a cyclical avoidance of difficulty in favour of the constant thrill of renewal.

Case in point, the accretion of vegetal images of revitalization soon leads
to a body superseded parasitically by plant matter: “I just have all these
bonsai trees growing in my torso. // It’s pathetic, I imagine them whispering,
a grown man / who can’t stop accumulating miniatures.” It is one of
Manley’s strengths as a poet that figures of speech consistently maintain
the vividness of metamorphosis. The bonsai trees are more than the poetic
speaker’s psychological state. In contrast to other “people [who] are
photographers / dancers, chemists, lepidopterists,” the poetic speaker is
immobilized, unambitious, unable to manipulate his transformation to his
benefit; he is paralyzed by “the way the roots snake; the way the leaves
fall,” by the way his entire being has morphed into that of a tree. The poetic
speaker never reverts from this transfiguration back into his human
anatomy. Instead the image lingers intact till the next metaphor, the next
metamorphosis, and poetic suspension of disbelief when he suggests:
“I’m the panther.”

Formally, the collection is divided into three sections labeled as Animals,
Paraphernalia, and Plants. The poems in the first two sections of the collection
are exclusively written in couplets—a constraint, which maintains
an orderliness and thematic resolve to break away from solitude, to meet
someone, and to couple with them. The final section opens up to stanzas
of varying lengths, and a concomitant dissolution of the hopes and dreams
expressed before. Stripping the poetic speaker of the drive to find his better
half, Manley revokes the gentle insinuation of domestic animals and
houseplants, embracing the feral instead. We Are All Just Animals & Plants
concludes with an apocalyptic poem “Noahtic,” a reversal of the biblical
tale, not leading to redemption and safety, but destruction and bloodshed;
now the “animals will not / be loud as we kill them off. The / leaves will
not be loud as they detach, slow, languid / bodies, from the evaporating
trees.” As the violence abates, the collection leaves the reader with a pervasive
sense of calm, a dismantling of the metamorphic jungle of dating,
and a clearing, a blank page, for Manley’s next book to germinate.

Klara du Plessis is a poet and critic residing in Montreal. Her chapbook Wax Lyrical (Anstruther Press, 2015) was shortlisted for the bpNichol Chapbook Award, and her debut collection Ekke is forthcoming (Palimpsest Press, 2018). She curates the monthly, Montreal-based Resonance Reading Series.

This review was published in issue 14:1 The Wild. To see more from this issue, please visit Vallum’s website.

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