Before you even get to the poems in Ryan W. Bradley and David Tomaloff’s poetry collection You Are Jaguar, you are provided with instructions on how to approach them, calling the book a “study of process and collaboration…of style and voice…of how poetic moments are defined.” The reading guide characterizes the poems as translations of one another, and the book is set up as if a bilingual collection, which gives Bradley and Tomaloff’s poems space to converse with one another. But also, in light of the animal imagery, the presentation also made me think of zoos and the way we curate artificial habitats in order to present magnificent beasts to the general public. You Are Jaguar, in its best moments, inspired in me the kind of curiosity that always comes up when I study a strange creature that is not of myself. In reading, each poem seemed like an animal that could’ve come from the same place as the one housed next to it, even it they are not quite the same species.
Jaguar is a collection about the gaps between things, the room left alongside experience for interpretation. Each pair of poems is a conversation that illuminates how even a small shift in perspective makes all the difference when it comes to perceiving the meaning of absence. In “We Are Cracks In Everything,” Tomaloff states that “what once was full of stars/now houses only empty rooms” a sentiment twinned by “The Union, Forever,” where Bradley replaces “empty rooms” with “empty atoms.” But even using the same progression of imagery, tone is far from common between the two poems. Both play on the idea of space, but where “Crack” begins with an ampersand and resembles an observation made in the midst of something much larger, unfolding in six short stanzas, ”Union” seems a much more final sort of rumination, taking place over the course of two longer, mor solid stanzas. Such shifts in scale exist throughout You Are Jaguar, and these shifts beckon the reader to think about what she might do in her own revision of the same groups of images.
The most notable moments of departure are the alternate titles Bradley and Tomaloff have for their translations. Where Tomaloff meditates on the fact that, “We Are Stolen & In Need of Repair,” Bradley uses the same vocabulary of images to speak about “Returning To The Fold.” Both poems rest on the image of a body splintering “while the heart remains intact” but Tomaloff’s airier arrangement somehow reads as more hopeful than Bradley’s more dense arrangement. In examining the similarities and differences between the two author’s poems, I was struck most by the way the space of a poem changed when it changed authors. Tomaloff seems to favor more architectural arrangements, employing indentations and frequent stanza breaks to give each of his pieces room to move on the page. Bradley, on the other hand, favors a more straightforward approach, with fewer flourishes in his presentation, conjuring a simplicity that at times borders on severe.
Both writers’ poems use very visceral language about bone and blood, which lends each poem the urgency and corporeal weight of a physical experience. The repeated motif of animal life interspersed with human activity complicates the experiences discussed, making them emblematic of both instinct and emotion. Tomaloff’s “You, A Radio of Quietly One” exemplifies the heart of the collection, stating, “for I have too much love to give/too much blood to run so thick/I am electric with the noise/of two voices joined as one.” This assertion highlights the way the shared vocabulary is traded between the two authors and made to sing from two throats. While conceptually compelling, sometimes the pairs of poems seemed less like reinventions and more like repetitions of the same, different verse of the same song more than anything else. In some cases, I found myself nodding and humming along, but for much of the time, I was less than impressed by Tomaloff and Bradley’s volleying.
Read an interview with Bradley, editor of Artistically Declined Press, here
by Emily O’Neill