Welcome to the Jungle
by Susan McLean
Ed Shacklee is a connoisseur of beasts, especially the ones inside you and me. His mordantly
entertaining first book, The Blind Loon: A Bestiary, is a wide-ranging satirical guide to types of
human behavior, characterized as if they were animals—the lesser pundit, the snipe, the snub,
the mope, the common retronaut—or groups of animals: a fog of blurbs, a riposte of gibes, a
pry of gossips, a now of hipsters, an aloofness of snoots. A few actual and mythical animals
also make an appearance: the otter, the crocodile, the rhinoceros, the lamia, the wyvern, the
kraken, and others. The sly wit of the verse is matched by the aptness of the phantasmagoric
illustrations by Russ Spitkovsky.
There are two kinds of satirists: the kind who stands at the zoo, pointing a finger at the silly
animals, and the kind who stands at the mirror and stares into his own heart, as Shacklee does
in “The Doppelgänger” and in “Pandora,” which reads in its entirety
There weren’t a million evils, only two,
for all I found within was me and you—
and just a glimpse at truth was all it took
to be condemned by those who wouldn’t look.
The satirist at the zoo can find a lot to laugh at in the animals’ ludicrous antics, but the satirist
at the mirror sees not only the behavior itself, but also the reasons for it. That view is often just
as darkly funny, but sadder, too, and more humane. Shacklee counterbalances this sadness
with the lightness of his touch in meter and rhyme. His rhymes are often multiple,
multisyllabic, and unexpected (“fatten us / gelatinous / brat in us” in “The Slink”) or even
internal (“its blush is rose. It holds its nose. Its mind, kept closed, is pure” in “The Prim”).
Though he usually uses iambic meter, the rhythm that most closely approximates English
speech patterns, he often writes in the relatively rare long lines of heptameter (a seven-beat
line) in stanzas of three (or even four) lines that all rhyme. Occasionally he uses the bouncier
anapestic meter, as in “I Am What I Am”:
I’m the grave of my death and the air in my head,
the puzzle I question, the answer I dread—
each shadow I’ve thrown, and the life that I’ve led,
the monster below and the boy in the bed.
Shacklee’s themes and approaches are various. At one extreme are the near-nonsense verses
like “The Cat’s Meow,” in which contradictory metaphors are deployed to define the speaker in
a way that leaves everything undefined. The speaker says, “I’m the glare of a window, the
smoke from a chimney, /a hound on my trail and a scorpion in me.” We get the impression of
one who is simultaneously menaced and menacing, solid and illusory. In contrast is the ghoulish
fantasy of “The Carrion Flamingo,” in which the campy lawn ornaments are reimagined as undead
carnivores that surround one like something out of Hitchcock’s The Birds. “The Peakalooster”
starts out somewhere between nonsense and menace, but soon takes a turn toward topical satire:
“The strutting, crowing Peakalooster rules a snooty roost / littered with the bones of those
it’s bullied or seduced” and “its twitter lips emit miasmic blasts of ghastly force, / plus pearls
of wisdom last seen near the south end of a horse.” This twittering, seducing
bully of bluster and horseshit—who may remind you of a certain resident of the White House—
has a name that combines “the peacock’s vanity, the rooster’s need to boast.” However, Shacklee
warns the reader not to take it lightly: “it traps its prey in circuses and kills them while they laugh.”
Media circuses, perhaps.
The satire is even grimmer in “This Xmas,” which starts, “Buy your girl a gun and show / she’s
just as good as any boy” and ends, “So, give a gift that keeps on giving, / and separates the dead
and living.” The accidental shootings by tots with guns and the school massacres that the poem
evokes are justified in the name of “mak[ing] your little angel tougher.” Shacklee turns a
similarly deadpan eye on religion in “Butterfly Collection,” the whole of which reads
Christ, immortal butterfly,
pinned and always on display,
bless this house, so prim and right,
where nobody believes in flight.
In contrast, “Ode on a Commode” sounds like a Keatsian meditation on Man’s relation to the
Poor relation Augean stable,
tell me, toilet, art thou able
to see what moon, composed of skin,
dares frame thy oval porcelain?
Classical allusions? Check. Inflated archaic diction? Check. Echoes of other poems? Check.
Hilarious puns on “moon,” “incommoded,” “deposit”? Wait a minute—that’s not Keats
or Blake; that’s more like Mel Brooks.
I won’t attempt to pin down all of Shacklee’s literary influences because resemblances to other
greats of humor, satire, and light verse are so many. But let’s try a few: his long lines full of
internal rhymes are reminiscent of Edgar Allen Poe, while his ingenious multisyllabic
rhyming calls to mind W. S. Gilbert. Like Edward Gorey, Shacklee has a talent for literary
nonsense with hints of the sinister, mournful, or irreverent, but “False Dawn,” his rueful
sonnet about being seduced and abandoned by the charming bastard of the title, could have
been written by Dorothy Parker. The fierceness of his satire sometimes rivals that of Jonathan
Swift, yet he can also be as playful as Lewis Carroll. He’s a chameleon, one of the creatures
not featured in his bestiary. Enjoy. (How could you not?)
Susan McLean is a Professor of English at Southwest Minnesota State University and the
author of two books of poetry: The Best Disguise (winner of the Richard Wilbur Award) and
The Whetstone Misses the Knife (winner of the Donald Justice Poetry Prize).
Her book of translations of over 500 Latin satirical poems by Martial, Selected Epigrams,
was chosen as one of the books of the year by the Times Literary Supplement and was a finalist
for the PEN Center USA Literary Translation Award.