The Deep Zoo, by Rikki Ducornet. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Coffee House Press. 126 pages. $15.95, paper.
“It is the work of the writer to move beyond the simple definitions or descriptions of things,” states Rikki Ducornet in her new essay collection The Deep Zoo. To her, the unmapped world is of greater interest, as it presents an opportunity “to bring a dream to life through the alchemy of language; to move from the street—the place of received ideas—into the forest.”
Ducornet writes by her own charges: there is alchemy aplenty in The Deep Zoo. The collection comprises fifteen short essays, each of which offers up a roiling stew of subjects: from Werner Herzog’s film The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser to Gaston Bachelard’s architectural poetics; Egyptian mythology to American politics; scientific principles to the author’s childhood memories. Ducornet moves between these facets of human experience with otherworldly grace, creating surprising parallels and associations. For instance, after describing the aromatic topography of Wan-Ming’s palace in China (“One found one’s way by smelling distinctly fragrant things that filled large basins set out in each room … The children never tired of inventing and navigating new itinerates blindfolded”) she moves into speculative metaphysics (“hyperanimation and virtual reality … that evoke and subvert known physical bodies”). The result is a kind of kaleidoscopic reading, one that mimics the natural movements of human consciousness. What we are given as readers—as guests in Ducornet’s own Deep Zoo—is an invitation to witness her mind at work: a chance to walk through a menagerie of insights.
The breadth of material Ducornet draws upon is as vast as her body of work. She is the author of nine novels, as well as numerous collections of short stories, essays, and poems. She also creates visual art and has illustrated books for Jorge Luis Borges, Robert Coover, Kate Bernheimer, and others. Her paintings are exhibited internationally. Finally—and only adding to her mystique—she is the subject of Steely Dan’s seventies hit, “Rikki Don’t Lose that Number.”
Rikki, evidently, lost that number. But why would she need it? The Deep Zoo is a testament to her acrobatic intelligence and unflinching curiosity. Ducornet not only trusts the subconscious, she celebrates and interrogates it. Quoting Bachelard, she writes, “And the words wander away looking in the nooks and crannies of vocabulary for new company, bad company.” This wandering for the sake of wandering is a means to self-knowledge, but also as an act of artistic integrity. “There is a persistent (if hazy) idea that art must be serviceable—provide moorage for a mummy, accommodate the Holy Water, match the sofa, teach us something uplifting, serve to move merchandise,” writes Ducornet, beginning her essay “Her Bright Materials: The Art of Margie McDonald.” McDonald’s sculptures and installations—which include pieces built from whimsical detritus like fishhooks and cellophane tags—emphasize notions of play over fixed purpose. Her work deconstructs the mechanics of the everyday, recombining discreet parts to new forms that are objectively unfamiliar, yet subjectively stimulating. It makes sense, therefore, that Ducornet would choose an image of McDonald’s studio as her book cover. The physical space, awash with bits and pieces—with possibility—parallels the fertile inner landscape from which Ducornet sources her writing. In McDonald’s studio we see the glittering site of process. It trembles with the unknown. It is, in other words, a Deep Zoo.
In addition to interweaving a wide range of topics, Ducornet is a master of manipulating the authorial camera lens. At times, her attention becomes microscopic. For instance, describing the courting rituals of butterflies, in her essay, “Books of Natural and Unnatural Nature,” she writes: “When a male monarch encounters a female, he will use his pencil hairs to reach for a fragrant powder of crystals, and dust her antennae. Enthralled she will let him enter her in a dust storm of fragrance.” In a later essay, titled “War’s Body,” she zooms out to address the American psyche in a post 9/11 world. “Ours is a democracy undone by chronic fear and loathing of the body, our own bodies and the bodies of strangers … A sentiment evident in our irrational terror of health care, our willingness to allow the food industry to poison us, our fear of a woman’s right to choose, gay rights, and so on.”
While these two subjects—butterflies and democracy—might seem wildly unrelated, they both address our relationship with our bodies and our natural instincts. Furthermore, the subjects’ governing perspective is not statically micro and macro. Depending on the context in which the butterfly fact is read, for instance, the minuscule gesture can become as large as a dust storm. And vice versa. Similarly, returning to the images of McDonald’s sculptures, one might observe how the individual pieces appear large enough for a museum pedestal, while also—given their bacterial features—small enough to fit on a scientist’s slide. It’s hard not to think of guts, intestines, the microbes that move us. When it comes to art, after all, it’s what’s inside us that matters. To quote Ducornet: “if we could somehow see with our naked eyes at the smallest distance of scales, we would know that ‘all this’ is beautiful, always in flux, mindful, and oscillating.”
Allegra Hyde’s stories and essays have appeared, or are forthcoming, in The Missouri Review, Southwest Review, Passages North, Ninth Letter, and elsewhere. She serves as Prose Editor for Hayden’s Ferry Review and curates similes at allegrahyde.com.