Book Review   

Low Down and Coming On: A feast of delicious and dangerous poems about pigs by James P. Lenfestey, ed., Red Dragonfly Press, 2010. $20 (Hardback)

Reviewed by Athena Kildegaard

W. H. Hudson, an English nature writer, wrote that the pig “views us from a totally different, a sort of democratic, standpoint as fellow-citizens and brothers, and takes it for granted, or grunted, that we understand his language, and without servility or insolence he has a natural, pleasant, camerados-all or hail-fellow-well-met air with us.” Hudson feeds one of these camerados several sprigs of elderberry, and then in the last paragraph, imagines diners enjoying the hint of elderberry to be had in “their morning rasher.” It seems downright black-hearted to write so delightfully about “My Friend the Pig” and then send the pig down the road to the neighbor's breakfast table in only one sentence. But surely it is this porcine dualism—friend and bacon—that makes the pig especially delightful as a subject.

Who has not fallen for the romance of E. B. Whites' Wilbur? Or the more-than-equal pigs of Animal Farm? Or more recently, Wu's carnivorous pigs in the HBO series Deadwood? Throw a human body into Wu's sty and your guilt is forever secret. How primal to have your crime eradicated by hooved and snouted creatures.

Porcine delights and dangers are aplenty in the new anthology Low Down and Coming On: A feast of delicious and dangerous poems about pigs (Red Dragonfly Press) edited by Minneapolis poet James P. Lenfestey. Lenfestey reminds us, in his introduction, that anthology means literally “a gathering of flowers,” or as Samuel Johnson had it, “a collection of flowers.” That is to say, metaphorically, a collection of “small choice poems,” according to the OED. Anthologies, by their nature, purport to be the first and last word—the best of _____ (sonnets, moderns, Hawaiian, war poems, and so on). But opening an anthology in anticipation of being served the sine qua non of whatever the theme is a fool's errand. We are at the mercy of the anthologist's tastes. And therefore, an anthology's delights grow from the anthologist's delight in the subject.

It is hard to imagine being handed a more choice selection than we find in Low Down. This anthology has as its amenuensis the poet and essayist Bill Holm, a Minnesota legend who left this world too soon, but left with Jim Lenfestey the idea of this book. Holm collected pigs of all kinds: porcelain, ink, clay. He loved bacon and pork roast and vinegared pig stomach lining. Low Down is a feast dedicated to the memory of Bill Holm and at the table are many poets who loved Holm: Carol Bly and Michael Dennis Brown, Jim Heynen and John Rezmerski, Robert Bly and Joyce Sutphen, and Lenfestey himself. And there are poets Holm would have shared a pig feast with, if the time had been right: William Blake, Sylvia Plath, Carl Sandburg, and Walt Whitman.

The poems in Low Down are small choice poems: most are one page with only a few spreading out over several pages; in this way a reader can feast on page after page like a voluptuary, or nibble away one delicious or dangerous serving at a time.

Here are poems that speak in the voice of the pig, such as Margaret Atwood's remarkable “Pig Song”: “I am yours. If you feed me garbage, / I will sing a song of garbage” and Louise Erdrich's “Pig”: “I am almost human: / I proliferate beyond my means.” Here are poems that celebrate the beauty of pigs: “from the fourteen teats into the fourteen mouths sucking and blowing beneath them: / the long perfect loveliness of sow” (Galway Kinnell, “Saint Francis and the Sow”).

Here too, as must happen in an anthology of poems, we find the poet's delight in language: “Then the blunt end of an ax put the kibosh on her bliss” (Colette Inez, “Little Pig of Beauty”) and “Gruffle / through your nose // that gods will wake / & feed their children” (Coleman Barks, “The Hog Poet") just to name two.

Here are poems that capture the voluminous hunger of pigs. Sylvia Plath in “Sow”: “that hog whose want / Made lean Lent // Of kitchen slops and, stomaching no constraint, / Proceeded to swill / The seven troughed seas and every earthquaking continent.” And Donald Hall's much-anthologized poem “Eating the Pig” that celebrates the voluminous hunger of humans.

Here too are poems that do not look away from the violence of pigs:  “She haunts me decades later, / a cloven old testament matriarch / willing to consume her children, / and me, and mine” (Susan Thurston Hamerski, “Sows I Have Known”). And some consider the filth of the sty and the dangers of farming hogs: “the overwhelming fumes, gases of decomposing manure / pooled and etherizing in the pit” (Greg Pape, “The Hog Boss”).

The poems, like the last two mentioned above, that refuse to romanticize pigs, we perhaps appreciate most, for as the poet Jane Graham George writes, “Something about a hog does bring you right back to earth” (“Swine Judging, Dakota County Fair”). And so we're especially grateful for Patricia Smith, who faces up to the brutality that humans have exacted on pigs. In her poem “What Keeps Playing on the B-Side” she commemorates the death of 9,000 piglets in a 2009 hog confinement fire. Her poem ends “But when the screeching song went dim, the pen was soup and ruin, the stench of crisping hide / was gospel in the belly. Now and then / a kindled heart would hiss, then hiss again, / the only sign at all that they had cried.”

An anthology is, of course, only as strong as the individual poems. An anthology that focuses so narrowly is probably doomed to have weak moments, and while that is true with this one, the weaknesses are few and far between. Instead we have Lenfestey's delights, well chosen and beautifully produced. The attentive reader will not stop with the poems but enjoy the dessert found in the author bios and acknowledgments. Finally this is a book to cherish for the attention to detail that only an artist-printer can offer—an elegant letterpress slipcover and a tiny porcine footprint at the bottom of every page. In short, this is an anthology to wallow in.

Athena Kildegaard lives in western Minnesota. Her books are Rare Momentum, a series of fibonaccis, and Bodies of Light, both from Red Dragonfly Press. In her first year of marriage she lived in southern Minnesota and her husband in Chicago, and they traveled many times across Wisconsin full of eagerness.