Spectral Sensitivities: Devin Johnston’s Creaturely

by Edward Helfers

In his 1965 thought experiment “Go Away,” the surrealist poet Michael Benedikt asks us to reincarnate ourselves as everyday objects. “Go away,” the poem begins, “go away, and as soon as you come back/be something better…”:

An earring bobbing like a float at high tide, against the neck of
somebody very sweet,
A weather beaten, moth eaten coverlet,
Or the arrows on the arm of a diving suit or a space suit
where to thrust through the arms.

Benedikt concludes this list (itself a tutorial in the power of specificity) with a delightful question: “Think: in reference to the mainstream of human desires and wishes/what would you know now, if you briefly waved goodbye to the world?” The proposition here is both playful and disarming: a pebble knows something humanity does not, simply by virtue of perspective.

This subject—call it perceptual tourism—kindles Devin Johnston’s new book of essays, Creaturely. Yet where Benedickt ponders inanimate experience, Johnston appeals to scientists, philosophers, artist and poets to explore the inner lives of the animals that cohabit our cities and suburbs. Considering how much time we spend in the presence of sparrows and mice, of raccoons, rabbits and crows, it would seem natural that such “weedy species and volunteers” seldom cross our minds. And when they do (filching croutons from a café table, nosing among flowerbeds, tugging our sympathies as cartoons or plush toys) their motives often resemble our own. Johnston hopes to reverse this trend. “If anthropomorphism interprets the world in human terms,” he suggests in the titular essay, “we can with patience arrive at its inversion: not humanizing but creaturely.”

To get there, Johnston takes a magnifying glass to the south St. Louis neighborhood where he lives, a drab, forgotten block suspended between wilderness and ruin. Following in the footsteps of Henry David Thoreau, Johnston records natural phenomena while walking his dog or cleaning house. In “Murmurations,” a starling flitting through drizzle gives rise to a consideration of acoustic probes, thermodynamic systems, Mozart, and political activism in France. We are reminded that this avian omnipresence, along with the entire catalog of Shakespearean songbirds, was actually imported to America in the late 1800s by the drug manufacturer Eugene Schieffelin—an act Johnston adroitly describes as “an extremity of period staging.” In “Crows in Winter,” it is symbiosis that diverts his attention:

Crows in my neighborhood have learned the city’s infrastructure with a detail unmatched by human residents: the routes and schedules of garbage trucks, the tides of traffic, and the timers of streetlights. In so many spaces we have made—concrete islands, the crow’s nests of telephone poles, war zones—they are more at home than we could ever be. Crows effortlessly merge with smoke and cloud in the dense cross-hatching of an etching. As the foreboding book of Zephaniah prophesies, after the destruction of Nineveh, “the owl shall hoot in the window,/the raven croak on the threshold.” I am reminded that raven can refer to the black precipitate of alchemy, the nigredo or caput corvi associated with the Earth and chaos.

Creaturely abounds with comparable invocations: allusion, etymology, and anecdote all figure into the architecture of these essays. There is also a good deal of poetic analysis (which in the hands of a novice could easily backfire) and Johnston deserves much credit for reinvigorating old favorites like Yeats and Homer. But the more telling detours veer into Johnston’s personal experiences, which are equally amusing and unsettling. In “Specific Worlds,” we learn of his childhood fondness for squirrels, which he smuggled into school in the pockets of his parka. For a time, his home even served as a hospice for sickly litters, ending with a euthanasia episode involving chloroform and a bucket of water. “Our imagination for suffering,” Johnston reflects, “begins with small creatures, envoys of life and extinction.”

“Mouse God,” addresses a less traumatic predicament: deer mice have laid siege to the author’s house. Powerless to the pantry with its “rich cache of salt crystals and carbohydrates,” these tiny intruders may not really be intruders at all, as the Scottish farmer in Robert Burns’ “To a Mouse,” opines after plowing a nest. Hoping for a peaceful resolution, Johnston pursues a capture-and-release strategy by way of trash cans and neighboring parks. But after sealing all edibles with Tupperware (“an embargo in our cold war”) he discovers the remains of a recipe a mouse has chewed through because,“either its pleasure in food had become vicarious or else it detected savory splatters of cooking oil on the cards.” The final straw comes when Johnston learn that deer mice carry the Sin Nombre virus. Out come the traps.

Surprisingly, the digressive nature of Creaturely does not stand in the way of cohesion. In fact, its narrative skeleton is quite simple: each essay revolves around a species and its unique sensory knowledge. We smell the world as a border collie, inhaling “quiet, local gossip” with “nasal membranes the size of a handkerchief unfurled.” We visualize the ultraviolet spectrum that birds perceive, best approximated by the secret scripts revealed in blacklight. We touch the “pliant armor” of a sycamore, exercising our earliest sense, “felt by a fetus curled in the womb, just as it was felt by a primitive ancestor of the sea anemone some 630 million years ago.” As the book progresses, however, Johnston gravitates towards the gaps between creaturely and human experience. Of a pair of great horned owls engaged in a predatory duet, he writes:

Suddenly, the female opens her wings and enters a long swoop, the field pouring away in her wake. Her flight is graceful and efficient, yet a large event, like a schooner under sail. With talons extended she lands in a sycamore, intently focused on the field beyond. A distant mockingbird, singing too late, may dilate in her eye, its throat pulsing with song. The two owls exchange rounded vowels, low tones of a friction drum. The male follows to the sycamore, from which they both take flight. As Basil Bunting observes, for owls, “it is never altogether dark.” But I can see no more than two darker patches of the general darkness, saturated black against the grass. They soon merge with woods beyond, where no human sense can follow.

Compared to the owl, with its dime-sized corneas, we are effectively blind. And while biology might explain our nocturnal myopia, it also pronounces the alien workings of the animal psyche. As Johnston writes in “Second Sight,” science can “observe rather than close the distance between the starling’s eye and my own mind.” But none of this annuls the kind of communion Johnston seeks. We may not smell, see, or hear as well as other species, but we have learned to compensate through other faculties. Chief among these are imagination, empathy, and metaphor, vessels that Johnston believes bring us closest to an understanding of our furred and feathered brethren. His narrative and poetic skills are a testament to all three, and Creaturely stands as a work of literature, expanding our vocabulary for the intimate, animal knowledge that resides in each of us.

Turtle Point Press, 2009