THE DEEP ZOO
by Rikki Ducornet
Coffee House Press, 106 pages
reviewed by Kim Steele
Rikki Ducornet begins her newest book of essays, The Deep Zoo:
To write a text is to propose a reading of the world and to reveal its potencies. Writing is reading and reading a way back to the initial impulse. Both are acts of revelation.
And, just as a text is unknown until it is written, the deep zoo—the essential potencies at the core of humanity—exist unknown until explored. In this book of essays Ducornet boldly ventures into this essential human core.
Ducornet is the author of nine novels, three collections of short fiction, two books of essays, and five books of poetry. She has received an Academy Award in literature as well as a Lannan Literary Fellowship and the Lannan Literary Award For Fiction. Ducornet is also a painter who exhibits around the world.
While slim, The Deep Zoo is not a quick read. In the barely three page piece, “Eros Breathing,” Ducornet manages to reference Lewis Carroll, Dick Cheney, Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning, Rig Veda, Victor Jara, and Borges. She draws connections with the grace of someone who has been doing this a while, the breadth of reference speaking to her intelligence. You get the sense that she sees pathways everywhere and draws connections where others don’t. This kind of connecting of people, concepts, and ideas naturally makes for a slow and methodical read.
A handful of Ducornet’s essays include visual examples of the art she references. In “The Egyptian Portal: The Art of Linda Okazaki,” Ducornet explores Okazaki’s personal history and the ways that history informs her visual art. This essay is embedded with examples of Okazaki’s art, the presence of which adds richness to the analysis. “In Her Bright Materials: The Art of Margie McDonald,” Ducornet includes a photograph of the artist in her studio. This photograph works to remind the reader of how much a work space or–if we want to keep up with the reading analogy–a draft or notebook, also acts as a reading of the world.
In “War’s Body” (just a page and a half long), Ducornet proposes that “[a] chronic fear and loathing of the body, our own bodies and the bodies of strangers” is a contributing factor to the undoing of our democracy. It’s an ambitious and interesting theory that Ducornet only barely begins to explore. The brevity of essays such as this one makes the book as a whole seem a bit more casual than it might otherwise. It is as if she is in conversation with us, suggesting ideas and theories as they occur to her.
What struck me most about this collection, and what I am confident will pull me back to it again, is Ducornet’s obvious passion for life. She is, as a writer and presumably a person, all the things she asks us to be: attentive, fearless, and curious. And for a hundred pages we get to see how it feels to exist like that, what it’s like to think critically and still be open to the world.
Ducornet left me with a list over half a page long of other authors and artists to research during my next trip to the library. The book made me feel even more compelled to slow down and take notes. I wanted to understand the arguments and ideas that Ducornet proposed. I wanted to uncage my own “deep zoo,” a task she claims requires one “to be attentive and fearless—above all very curious—and all at the same time.”
Kim Steele lives in Chicago where she spends most of her days reading near the space heater. You can follow her on Twitter at KJ_Steele.