Taxidermy is the unlikely focus of Aurian Haller’s outstanding collection, Song of the Taxidermist. The eight-part title-poem, which opens the book (“Song of the Taxidermist II” closes it), sometimes looks at taxidermy, sometimes at things that are preserved, like Togo, a dog that took part in the famous mission to bring serum from Anchorage to Nome in 1925. Haller uses couplets that are as sharp as a scalpel to present his subjects, and his lyrical tact is superb. To choose one example, “Novecento, Maurizio Cattelan, 1997. Horse in taxidermy with sling” ends with a fine metaphor, “See, even the moon is / a hoofprint on the darkening shore.” Haller’s description of the creations of taxidermy is essentially a variant on that popular form of our time, the ekphrasis, a poem describing a work of art. The book has seven poems based on paintings of Betty Goodwin, and there are others that describe rocking horses, with pictures of the horses provided in the text. Haller’s intellectual brilliance is made clear by his poems about the nature of language, gathered wittily as “Speechless”: another set of poems in precise couplets. Cleverness does not trump feeling in the book: the reader never knows when a descriptive poem will open vistas of terror or create pathos (as in the poems gathered as “Five Drownings”). He may go too far with a poem in which a man kills kittens by dropping them in boiling water: “He spoons them one by one / like blind dumplings / into soup.”
Bert Almon teaches a poetry masterclass with Derek Walcott at the University of Alberta. His most recent book is Waiting for the Gulf Stream (Hagios Press).