The Deep Zoo
Coffee House Press
Words are powerful, potent forces that shape nature and name gods, turning intangible ideas into tangible actions, and Rikki Ducornet wields them with the deft hand of a poet. The Deep Zoo defies one’s expectations of what essays are, bringing a rich, vibrant sound and inspirational tone, which illuminates the role of the artist in the 21st century. Ducornet’s book stirs the boundless energies of the artist; writers, sculptors, and painters alike are challenged to capture their inner muse, whatever it may be, and make something magnificent, beautiful, and memorable.
We quickly learn that the peculiar title of the book, The Deep Zoo, is Ducornet’s metaphor for what an artist uses for inspiration, passion, and creativity. It is, in other words, a sort of inner museum, where all of an artist’s strange, exhilarating ideas come together to create something magical. This so-called “deep zoo” is different for different writers and artists. For instance, Ducornet mentions that the famed Argentinian author, Jose Luis Borges, was inspired by tigers (probably referencing his seminal book of poems and essays entitled Dreamtigers), and the French philosopher, Gaston Bachelard, was captivated by natural objects, such as sea shells and the nests of birds. Whether it’s an image, idea, or specific word, inspiration takes many forms, nature being chief among them.
In her essay entitled "The Practice of Obscurity," Ducornet emphasizes the deep connection between writing and the natural world. First, she discusses the book of Genesis and the origins of Adam’s name. As she states: “... there was the magical idea that the structure of a thing was connected with its name; that to change the name was to change its inherent qualities. Such as Adam, who is formed of clay: adamah.” The same was true for the ancient Egyptians, Mesopotamians, and Hindus. Clearly, nature not only inspired ancient writers and poets, but writing itself was a part of nature. Perhaps such connections between nature and literature are best summarized by Rumi, a 13th-century Persian poet and Islamic scholar:
Every particle of love
any sprig of an herb
speaks of water.
Follow the tributaries.
Everything we say has water in it.
Ducornet is also fond of quoting obscure (although great) artists like the aforementioned Borges, Bachelard, and Rumi, along with ancient texts such as the Vedas of Hinduism, The Epic of Gilgamesh, and Metamorphoses by the Roman poet, Ovid. Such allusions are a welcome change from more mainstream works, but it also assumes a certain level of acumen that few readers (myself included) have attained. Along with her unorthodox writing style, this may make it difficult for readers to follow her overall message. Nonetheless, after researching these authors and texts myself, I have come to appreciate her ideas and certainly admired her expansive reading list.
To be fair, Rikki Ducornet does offer modern art aficionados a chance to glimpse into “the deep zoo” in an essay discussing the sculptures of Margie McDonald. Margie sculpts all kinds of organisms, but specializes in underwater life, including coral reef, amoebas, and nautiluses. What makes these sculptures more impressive is the fact that they are made from recyclable materials, such as aluminum insulators, copper wires, and boxcar locks. The essay features photographs of Margie’s work, which offers more visual learners the ability to conceptualize some of Ducornet’s more arcane philosophies. The same is true for Linda Okazaki, an artist from Japan, whose abstract, surreal paintings (including a dog transposed against Anubis) allow us to see the so-called "unseen forces" that permeate art.
While these visuals help alleviate Ducornet’s surreal imagery and abstract writing style, some readers may be turned off by her spiritualistic, New-Age tone. However, for every cumbersome sentence or odd phrase there is a beautiful line just around the corner. A couple of my favorites include: “... as we rush to pave the planet over with graves and extinguish the stars ...” and, “The one name, the one flame that cannot stand still ...” Ducornet herself mentions that artists possess the ability to reinvent forms and structures, going beyond the content of their message and focusing instead on the beauty of sound and feel. In her own words, “... when known patterns are disrupted, we are forced to consider (and reconsider) the meaning of things.” It is no coincidence then that these essays sound more like poems or lyrics; a far cry from the prosaic essays that most of us are accustomed to reading.
However, in her essay entitled "A Memoir in the Form of a Manifesto," Ducornet forgoes obscurity and cuts to the point: “... it is the work of the writer to move beyond the simple definitions of things ... and to bring a dream to life through the alchemy of language ...” Ducornet defies the convention that art and literature are commodities, unnecessary detractors from more important social issues. Rather, art is a sound of awakening, a rallying cry that can shed light on social issues as wide-ranging as global warming and 9/11 (as she touches upon in her essay, "War’s Body"). “Poetry,” in the words of author Italo Calvino, “is the enemy of chance.”
The Deep Zoo is a museum, full of strange, exotic ideas and bewildering exhibits; Ducronet is our tour guide, showing us the depths of creative endeavors and reminding us of the beautiful fluidity of language. Her words flow like a waterfall across the page, each new insight a torrent of ideas and images, offering us a glimpse of the power of writing. During a recent trip to the Natural History Museum in New York, Ducornet mentions how the various animals in their enclosures offered her a "glimpse of Eden." After reading The Deep Zoo, one can’t help but feel the same.
Cardoso is a writer of science-fiction and comedy and sometimes both. He has published one essay and graduated from Sacramento State University with a bachelor’s degree in English.