In her essay collection The Deep Zoo, novelist, poet, and painter Rikki Ducornet makes glittering connections between art, nature, and myth, beading them upon a string of deeply felt personal inquiry. Allusive and sometimes fragmentary, these essays take the form of crystalline observations, attuned to the pleasures of both language and thought.
The collection begins by reminding us that in the tradition of Islam, the sacred exhortation Read! was the first word revealed to Mohammed. Accompanying this is the idea that “the world is a translation of the divine and its mirror.” Writing and reading are both acts of revelation, both tied to initial creation.
From this anchorage, Ducornet proceeds to create a series of poetical “sympathies,” moving gracefully thought to thought, granting readers access to an interior slideshow: the Deep Zoo at the core of the author’s sensibility. Readers familiar with Ducornet’s work will not be surprised to encounter certain recurring themes and allegiances—particularly to certain authors (Calvino, Borges) as well as to Eros and the creative imagination.
At 165 pages The Deep Zoo is slim, yet packed. The opening piece alone contains ruminations on Ottoman calligraphy, ancient seeds, Egyptian mythology, the writings of Julio Cortázar, the fevered bestiary of a little known 19th-century painter, and quotes from Charles Darwin and the philosopher Gaston Bachelard. There are “lucent tigeries and tigered lucencies.” In fact, there’s more—much more—all mixed in a heady, alchemistic brew.
Other essays cover such ground as film criticism (among others, the films of Werner Herzog and David Lynch), war and the body, the Marquis de Sade, the works of contemporary visual artists, the Epic of Gilgamesh, and a disapproving grandmother in Florida. But the project, one feels, of Ducornet’s searching intellect is always to reconnect the realm of the mind to the body, to bring thought back to flesh. In this slim volume she succeeds, in gloriously lyrical language, in echoing the sacred animating breath she references so often.
The Deep Zoo has its flaccid moments. While individual sentences, paragraphs, and pieces are stunning, taken as a whole the collection even at its short length contains repetitions and shorthands. These are most apparent when Ducornet turns her attention to the American response to 9/11. In outrage her writing turns more predictable and less exquisitely individual—though it’s hard to fault her anger at military abuses.
Still, it’s exhilarating to see the map of connections—text to text, work to work—that Ducornet illuminates. The Deep Zoo offers an implicit invitation to mount our own investigations, and in these pieces Ducornet presents a roadmap of the form the journey may take. We may not have the white phosphorus of her poetry (really, who can write like she does?), but we’ll have her example. Let us take our own obsessions and follow them to their ends.
The Deep Zoo
By Rikki Ducornet
Coffee House Press (January 2015)