A Sharp Debut: Jamie Sharpe's Animal Husbandry Today

John Gibbs

Animal Husbandry Today CoverJamie Sharpe's debut collection of poems, Animal Husbandry Today, pushes the boundaries of poetry in new directions. One quick flip through the book's hundred plus pages might startle the seasoned connoisseur of poetry (or one who is at least mildly familiar with the typical construction of a collection of poems) as the book contains not only poems, but also reprints of the poet's artwork. Sharpe places poems next to accompanying visuals, as is the case with the poem entitled "Curtains," where a visual on the opposite page depicts a woman looking out through a window framed by curtains. By combining the visual arts and the written word, Sharpe creates a curious book that questions our conceptions of what a book of poems should look like.

In addition to including his own artwork within this collection, there are also moments within Sharpe's poems that reference other already canonized artists such as Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, Georges Braque, John Cage, and Tom Stoppard. By placing himself beside these monoliths, Sharpe creates a world where the reader can experience his pieces, while simultaneously considering their placement within the larger scope of art and literature.

Among the poems included within this collection are three with a particularly intriguing construction: "Stained Cedar," "Two Heirloom Tomatoes," and "Goldfish Tears." Instead of traditionally placing the title before the body of the poem, Sharpe opts to place it at the end of the poem so, ideally, the reader has the experience of reading the body of the poem first. This is a clever reversal of reader expectations and aims to upend the understanding of how to read a poem. This form echoes one found among the works of the Impressionist composer Claude Debussy who composed a series of preludes for the piano, placing the title of each at the end of the piece. The purpose was, theoretically, for a pianist to play through the entire piece, letting the music influence his or her own moods and feelings before coming to Debussy's own interpretation and understanding of the music. While this musical analogy is by no means perfect, the form still remains an intriguing possibility for those interested in pursuing new structures in poetry.

Sharpe further experiments with new-found forms and music in a pair of poems both referred to in their titles as “Mixtapes.” The first of which, “Psychic Attack On My Children: The Mixtape," begins:

in the background Terrible Angels
Shabop Shalom
to the Black Angel's Death Song (36)

Sharpe composes these poems, in part, by inserting a song title in each line, which adds a new dimension to the poem. With a quick Google search, a reader can reconstruct and listen to the hypothetical track list, while also getting a sense of Sharpe’s taste in music. The found nature of the poem, given that it borrows a substantial amount of language from a source, makes it more like an avant-garde art piece and less like a poem. Or, it makes us consider the poetic implications of mixtapes (as sappy and clichéd as they might be to some people), implying that a special selection of songs can stand alone as unique and meaningful.

As is the case with Sharpe's "Mixtapes," other poems within this collection also hint at their creation myths. "Rated" begins, "This poem is rated ‘*’ for nudity / and a brief traumatic moment" (30). A poem entitled "(Noun) & (Noun)" humorously admits to its origins in the beginning:

Today is the 50th anniversary of this poem
and although the chapbook it was published in
is long out of print it's been kept alive
by backwoods, misinformed, literary perverts (35)

This meta-awareness can be tricky to pull off. However, when done well, this technique can reveal the so-called "man behind the curtain" in new and original ways. It can allow the reader a backdoor entrance into the poem in order to access a new level of meaning, whether factual or facetious, as in "(Noun) & (Noun)" when we learn of the poem's against-all-odds survival. It is not hard to see this poem as directly relating to the self-supportive nature of the literary community—a reality all poets and writers must face at some point in their creative endeavors.

Apart from the thread of cognizant poems in this collection, Sharpe also develops a series of logic puzzle poems. "Two Trains" reworks the familiar word problem into a kind of creative, nonsensical conclusion:

Two trains depart from stations in opposite
Cities. If train "A" is going 155 km/h,
What's the fuel economy of my '86 Chevy
As I drive to the corner store for cigarettes? (21)

Likewise, "A Is To B" follows in a similar manner. Juxtaposing a library (A) and a bomb shelter (B), it closes with a rhetorical question:

Given the analogy,
and the number of books you've read,
are we in the midst of an emergency? (67)

Sharpe constructs these types of poems in a cool, calculated manner. By placing these utterly universal questions within poems whose construction is highly rational and ordered, he insists on contradiction, asking us to finish the poem—or, better yet, answer it. Participatory in nature, this turn to the reader is more inclusive than exclusive. For many of us, our ability to prove theorems and solve logic puzzles was probably left in high school. While Sharpe does not exactly demonstrate how to take the square root of a negative integer, he is using his knowledge of logic as the basis for creating a poetic equation.

While there are many components to Animal Husbandry Today not discussed within this review (such as Sharpe’s neat invention of the term “Rachmaninoffing”), given the book’s multimedia contents, Sharpe’s work will ultimately reach a large audience of readers, connoisseurs, and artists. His variety is his strength. What are you into?

Animal Husbandry Today
by Jamie Sharpe
ECW Press
ISBN: 978-1-77041-106-7



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