Kate Sutherland. How to Draw a Rhinoceros. (BookThug 2016).
Kate Sutherland is a scholarly lawyer with a troubling sense of mission, almost obsession, concerning the now nearly extinct rhinoceros, & in How to Draw a Rhinoceros she has constructed a complex compendium of historical rhinoceros lore, which when read in that context becomes a fascinating & deeply troubling introduction to a hidden history of colonial exploitation. What she has made is a kind of book length documentary-(become-near-or-wholly-) found poem, although only one poem, ‘Great Family of Giants,’ is forthrightly distinguished as such, perhaps because it’s the only one ‘with all of the text taken from a single nineteenth-century circus poster.’ For the rest, her general notes about ‘Fragments of text borrowed from…’ serves to warn the reader of just how much of this text is, indeed, other texts she has sought & found in archives around the world.
How to Draw a Rhinoceros is a good title, because it seems no one knew how back at the beginning of its introduction to the European world in the renaissance & later. So the first piece, ‘A Natural History of the Rhinoceros,’ presents a series of contradictory descriptions (not the last: a major aspect of the book has to do with how poorly ‘western man’ perceived the rhinoceros [& its countries &, if we but make the imaginative leap, the people thereof]). The poems entertain, as did the exhibitions of Clara, the famous first one in the 18th century, & the others brought to England & Europe in the 19th.
Sutherland is somewhat sneaky here. She presents the presentations, the comments by important viewers, the slowly expanding tale of exhibitions of the exotic, without comment, & it is kind of easy to read these with that pleasure of knowing better & seeing the past as simpler & less sophisticated in its understanding – of biology, geography, etc. The many false (the ‘fake news’ of the time) reports of Clara’s death suggest an historical comedy of errors, but the final one, & the poem’s uncertainty about even that, remind us of how she was used: ‘London / died unexpectedly / at the Horse and Groom / may or may not have been stuffed / by a pioneering taxidermist / and continued on tour’.
How to Draw a Rhinoceros slowly builds a lawyer’s case that, like many such, takes in a much larger situation than the singular one it seems to be about. Readers (like me, perhaps like you) can enjoy the early sections, the historically distant stories of this extraordinary animal (& seen as such, then), being transported across Europe & put on display for the amazement & amusement of the locals. Only a few, & look at how they fascinate. But, as How to Draw a Rhinoceros draws nearer to the present, with the chilling descriptions of such hunters as President Theodore Roosevelt, King George V, & Ernest Hemingway & his friends, laid before us with a dryly nonchalant tone that dissolves into a sardonic accusation, what came before falls into its proper perspective. The section of the Roosevelt poem that repeats the ‘I’ over & over again as ‘I put both barrels into and behind the shoulder / I fired into the shoulder again’ devolves into pure slaughter on the male egos behalf. The even darker repetitions of ‘Officials said,’ a wonderfully (de)constructed series of broken reports in which the repetition of poachings overwhelms formally as well as factually. The lovely lyrics, sort of lovely lies, about Clara as a star, eventually an astronaut, with her final comment (‘from a very early Buddhist text known as the Rhinoceros Sutra’), ‘wander alone / like a rhinoceros,’ cannot undo the knowledge of colonial destruction How to Draw a Rhinoceros has slowly built throughout. Like many documentaries, it entertains with its arcane knowledge, but it packs a dark political punch.