Poetry review – ALL ANIMALS WANT THE SAME THINGS: Charles Rammelkamp examines Jeanne-Marie Osterman’s poetic explorations of human needs and desires
All Animals Want The Same Things Jeanne-Marie Osterman Slipstream Press, 2021 ISBN not given 35 pages $10.00
What is it that we all want? In the title poem of the 2021 Slipstream chapbook award winner, Jeanne-Marie Osterman writes about feeding her ill cat raw meat to revive her. It works! When the cat sees a mouse crossing the living room floor, she springs into action, stalks and cripples the mouse. (“Seeing the mouse brought my cat back to full health.”) It reminds Osterman of her sister’s slaughterhouse at the cattle farm, stunning the cow to bleed it out.
The heart keeps beating, which speeds the bleeding out, which is the actual slaughter. When my husband left, it hit like a bolt. He’d held his infidelity in like a breath, then walked away, recoiled.
Are we fundamentally all predators? The dozen and a half poems in All Animals Want the Same Thing cover a wide span, from the conformist 1950’s, jobs in a paper mill, a strawberry farm, Brad’s Buffet, to the horrors of the pandemic year, 2020, in New York City.
Outside Lenox Hill Hospital, white refrigerated trailers are lined up the length of the block – the super-luxe kind used for wardrobe and makeup on location shoots. Chutes at each end eat white body bags, stacked three wide by three deep by knights in white gowns.
Childhood is something of a jungle, the animals out establishing their turf. In “In the Mill” Osterman recalls a summer job in a paper mill, $8.75 per hour (“My ticket out of mill town”). A man looks away for a brief moment and loses four fingers to the cutting blade, blood all over (“he used his other hand / to hide his distorted mouth, / his shame….”). The atmosphere of violence continues in “Strawberry Picking,” and in the following poem, Miss Iris, head waitress at Brad’s Buffet, “sucking on a Lucky,” teaches more life lessons:
In every couple, one always loves the other more than the other loves them back, because wouldn’t it just be something if two people found each other who loved each other exactly the same amount?
There’s always struggle, always give and take, an exchange of power. This is the 1950’s, when everyone is expected to obey certain rules and adopt accepted behaviors. The poem “In 1958,” more or less spells it out. A certain Mrs. Burkhardt wears the wrong clothes and her hair falls to her waist in a ponytail.
My mother said Mrs. Burkhardt’s husband wouldn’t let her cut her hair. My Aunt Dodie said it was Mrs. Burkhardt’s church that made her wear her hair, and her skirts, long. My mother’s friend, Jo, told me that if Mrs. Burkhardt cut off her hair, her head would fall off.
For shame! Mrs. Burkhardt finally finds her place in New York’s East Village, but conformity is yet another hammer to keep us in place.
“5-F” is a poem about the husband who left. (“Over dessert of blackberry pie, he said, / I don’t want to be married to you anymore.”) She begins to feel as though she “was living in a Warner Brothers cartoon.” Miss Iris’s prophecy comes true. Life’s a constant struggle to find balance.
Yet there are moments of humor in these poems. “Girdles” recounts her mother in 1959 struggling into hers like a deep sea diver donning scuba equipment (“dipping down / frog-leg-style / to get its crotch / lined up with her crotch”). “Communion” recalls adolescent rebellion which involved smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee behind the church. And later, in “This Smells Like My Vagina,” Osterman recalls working with Victoria Principal, the Dallas soap opera star, writing TV commercials about shampoo – years before Gwyneth Paltrow marketed candles with a different scent.
Those years? I admit – all I wanted was to see my commercials on TV, keep the lacquer on my nails, the occasional warm body – living for what eventually dried up, went up in smoke.
There are also some tender poems, “Requiem” and “Rugs,” recalling her late hardworking mother which express the same groping toward “want.”
So there’s no avoiding that ultimate question, what do we animals really want? Love? Comfort? Power? In that final poem, “White,” the one where she finds herself outside Lenox Hill Hospital, Osterman reflects about “the most beloved god,” the African god Obtala, who “doesn’t see humans as imperfect beings / who cause their own suffering.”
He blames himself, his own negligence – loves his glass of white palm wine – imperfect god.
Do we yearn for perfection, then? Jeanne-Marie Osterman’s poems show us the most imperfect examples of humanity, as we bumble through life seeking those things that we blindly want, whatever they are.