Endlings by Joanna Lilley (Turnstone Press 2020)
Reviewed by Rebecca Valley
“How carefully we preserve the dead and eat the living” (109)
How to write an elegy for animals? Not the ones closest to us, our dogs and cats, chickens, rabbits, the domesticated fauna we use to name and sustain ourselves. How do we write an elegy for the animals we did not save in time; the “endlings,” the final link between past and present? How do we write an elegy for the victims of a murder we won’t even admit we’ve committed?
In her latest collection of poetry, Endlings, Joanna Lilley asks herself these questions as she wanders the imagined landscapes of deceased animals and the real landscapes of natural history museums, looking for reason in the mass extinction that has characterized the last few centuries. The book is both a memorial and a warning. Lilley makes it clear that we are foolish to believe that we, the harbingers of so much death, are the only species safe from extinction.
“There’s a rumour that the forest
took the beauty,
that the people who took
the forest took the beauty” (3)
Lilley writes into a space that’s becoming increasingly popular in contemporary poetry, due in large part to its urgency. It is a record shaped by poets like Juliana Spahr, Forrest Gander, and Alice Oswald. Lilley adds to this record the voices of the animals themselves, moving beyond a human view of climate destruction into a frame that centers on animal life, and animal struggle. By speaking from the voices of animals themselves, she offers a sometimes less nuanced, but more honest depiction of human cruelty. With logic stripped away, we see only violence; the brutality of both intentional and accidental death.
Lilley’s record of extinction is well-researched, thoughtful, and lyrical. She travels the globe in the halls of natural history museums, training a sympathetic eye on animal remains and a judgmental one on the other homo sapiens gawking through the glass. The most sentimental and loving lines in the collection are dedicated to the deceased bodies of animals. Lilley writes:
“You pour into the space
I hold. I carry the air
of you, the nothing
you have become” (117).
Lines like these speak to Lilley’s grief, and the metaphorical space she creates for each animal in this collection. The bottom of each page offers the Latin and common names of endlings, creating a kind of animal cemetery, with each page a grave marker for a lost species.
Ultimately Endlings is both a memorial and a message; a reminder that none of us is above reproach, that we each carry responsibility for our planet’s losses. Lilley even directs her scrutiny inward, writing, “I’ve always known what I wasn’t doing” (129). As the collection comes to a close, Lilley makes it clear that no one is safe in a world where we blatantly ignore the limits of the natural world.
“The water will flood through my door
and down the street to Alaska Highway.
My wooden house will float as I dreamed
it would and I will be inside the sea” (121).
There is some of each of us inside these creatures, living and dead. In their bones, we find traces of our actions, our ancient selves. Endlings succeeds because it offers a chronicle of not only grief, but environmental and civic responsibility. It is a book which asks us to look outward in order to look more closely at ourselves.
Buy this book: Turnstone Press