Bestiaries were among some of the most lavish of the illustrated books and manuscripts in the Medieval period. They were animal stories for adults, compendia of tales in which natural and mythological beasts imparted moral lessons through both fables and factual stories. The pages of some of those bestiaries are preserved and displayed in museums throughout the world, and the glowing inks and vivid renderings of the beasts make them a visual treat.
Elena Passarello is a writer whose talent is such that her modern bestiary, Animals Strike Curious Poses, is a delight for all of the senses. While the text is accompanied by gorgeous black-and-white illustrations by Kristen Radtke, Passarello’s prose evokes a visceral response all on its own. In her previous book of essays, Let Me Clear My Throat, Passarello turned sound into a sensation that readers could feel as a thrum under their breastbone. In certain of the new essays, the certainty that you can feel the wolf’s breath upon your neck may make you turn around to check for glowing eyes.
Passarello begins 39,000 years ago, with Yuka, a wooly mammoth, and finishes with Cecil, the lion killed in 2015. The essays range in structure, style, and length but all carry emotional heft and lovely, sometimes aching, prose. Readers may be surprised to find themselves in moments of resonance with creatures that bear the least resemblance to human beings, or finding drama in the most mundane of animal behavior.
For me, the tension that builds in the essay “Arabella,” about the cross spider who was taken with the Skylab III crew in 1973 in order to observe how a spider would spin its web in microgravity, became a page-turner, as I cheered on the ability of the spider to adapt. My emotional investment in Arabella’s web-building was in part due to the luminous prose, but also because of Passarello’s ability to spin a story as strong as all humanity comprising spider’s silk.
Or consider this. In another essay, Passarello writes of Mozart’s music:
Songs from his early operas confounded audiences with their false endings. He reveled in keys like A minor, with its air of turmoil and instability. These caprices, though stuck inside the pinfold of common practice, are what made him a star. As the old German saying goes, the music of Bach gave us God’s word, Beethoven gave us God’s fire, but Mozart’s gave God’s laughter to the world. He found the accidents in song that reminded music to glorify the playful, the mischievous, the pop! that sends Jack exploding from the box after so much measured cranking.
In careful detective work, Passarello tracks Mozart’s purchases, and discovers his ownership of a bird, known for its ability to mimic and adapt that mimic with random notes that make it the bird’s own. Her essay argues that a bird that many consider a nuisance may have aided Mozart in writing his magic. Next time you see a murmuration of starlings, thank them for some of that magic.
And while the point of a bestiary was to impart moral wisdom to human beings, in Animals Strike Curious Poses, there’s a recognition that animals owe us nothing. Like us, they’re just trying to get to “next.” Sometimes, we get in each other’s way, but always, animals make the human journey so much less lonely.