‘Zebra Feathers’ by Morris Stegosaurus

  • PUBLISHED BY: Minor Aracana Press, 2013
  • REVIEW BY: Stephen Burt

stegosaurus coverMorris Stegosaurus is a Seattle-based poet, stage performer, and rock musician whose first book came out last year from Seattle’s Minor Arcana Press (Minor Arcana has also published an anthology about superheroes, with poems by Sherman Alexie, Rae Armantrout, John Ashbery, and, um, me). Stegosaurus is also a furry, someone whose sense of himself, and whose sexual self, can involve an unusual identification with anthropomorphized animals, and also someone who goes to parties and conventions dressed as, if not pretending to be, a necessarily anthropomorphized animal (in his case, a zebra or a dingo). “Furry” can be a subculture, an identity category, and a sexual orientation, but it seems to be something you are, not just something you do. It has nothing to do with bestiality; it may have something to do with the strong feelings some people develop in childhood for and about talking animals in cartoons. (Cultural critic and furry Michael Arthur: “The Lion King is one of the big furry generators.”) It’s the kind of identity you might hear about from people who have never met one (even if you later decide you are one): “I knew furries were the butt of jokes,” one furry tells a documentary filmmaker, “and it was weird to be one.”

Morris Stegosaurus—despite the allonym (which predates the TV show Dinosaur Train)— has a public identity: you can see his face (and his costume) in performance on YouTube. Moreover, his poems have a public identity: they fascinate me not just for their verbal energy, their fireworks—readers really cannot know what’s coming next—but for the way that energy lets Stegosaurus investigate identity in general, and furry identity in particular. He not only says it loud, and says it (that is, furry identity) proud, but looks at its awkward, overdetermined, basis.

Furries—at least, the ones who wear fursuits— “do furry” in the way that Judith Butler has told us that we all “do gender”: this identity is obviously what Butler says all identity is tacitly, something both felt as inward, as unchangeable, and yet strenuously, at some cost, performed. “It’s not how old you are, it’s how old you act/ and everything is an act, with us,” Stegosaurus writes, making in two lines a point that took Butler two books: our bodies matter to our performances, and we do not simply get to perform as we choose. If your identity feels like a bad fit, to you, then you might perform it badly; if it energizes you, you might make your performance energetic too. “I’ll be the daftest milliner in all the haberdashery,” Stegosaurus promises, “the loosest loose leaf speed boat/ the leakiest petticoat.” And if it is obviously artificial (no furry is really a dingo), your performance of it might show how other, less marginalized, more common identities, like those of straight white male poets with MFAs from [pick your school]—involve artifice too. (Twenty years back Butler made such a claim about drag queens, confusing and offending many trans people; she has since made clear that she, too, thinks trans women are women, and trans men are men.)

For more about furry politics, go read Arthur, who tweets at @funnyanimalbook and writes for Noah Berlatsky’s great comics-and-politics site, Hooded Utilitarian. (Berlatsky himself writes for The Nation.) For more Stegosaurus, start at the beginning, with “The Puppy Who Would Be Pope,” a coming-out poem of sorts, addressed to “Friends and fellow clergyman,/ priests and beasts,/ yeast councilors and honorably reticulated spermatozoa.” He’s over the top, Monty Python-ish in his eagerness, and he wants to bring us along: “Take hold of my boundless leash and lead me/ to defile the gardens of thine enemies.” But as he works to come out and explore the gardens, he struggles against deprivation—the pretend puppy is also the bricoleur, like Wallace Stevens’s “The Man on the Dump,” with paws:

On new moons, I dig holes
in abandoned lots and bury
what passes for treasure:
tinsel, crayons, scraps of crinoline,
squares of linoleum, pewter tea kettles…

I eat only one meal each day,
but I try to make it a lavish one.

It’s become a struggle to keep my pants up.

(That last line implies both “I grow thin,” like Prufrock, and “I keep getting caught with my pants down.”)

Blake said he had to create his own mythology or else be enslaved by someone else’s: freedom for Morris Stegosaurus involves trying on, appropriating, dressing up in his own selection of preexisting mythologies, from Kabbalah to baseball (“Sephiroth on the Field”) to The Last Starfighter: “I pretend a lot of things, but hardly anyone’s/ impressed: just often enough to keep pretending.” Reversing the usual defenses of what we are still pleased to call pop culture, this poet of bricolage, of dress-up, reminds his peers that high culture can be as exciting, as good for pretending, as anything else: “Nothing is surprising after you’ve read enough/ Classics. Dante was a used car salesman.” He is as capacious in his range of reference as any Flarfist, any omnivorous ironist, but Stegosaurus has no use for air quotes—he may be deadpan, or exasperated, or appalled, but he is always vulnerable, because he can’t help what he likes. He can’t even help what pops into his mind, and so it is no wonder he feels like a radio: “I learned I’m able/ to record music via a copper cord/ extending out of the radio… through one of my molars.”

When you see all identities as helplessly, collaboratively created, and then strenuously maintained, because you are all too aware that yours is, you can take pleasure in that discovery: “Most of the people I interact with/ are robots, and they know I know.” In some sense that’s true (we are socially programmed), and in another sense we may set out to defy our programming, to prove that it’s not true, by doing weird pointless things: “Whenever someone asks/ ‘why are you doing that?’/ I say ‘why does anyone do anything?’/ and make a loud whooping noise.” (It’s like the Surrealist acte gratuite, except no one gets hurt.) Distance from cultural programming, attempts to get away from our ephemeral desires and our evanescent, commercial likings, would be the wrong choice: instead, we should try to embrace them. “The rules of the game are less esoteric/ than they are Brechtian, less Brechtian/ than they are Malthusian, less Malthusian,” Stegosaurus continues, “than they are farfanarfnarf.”

That last word must mean “absurd,” but it’s also a puppy-dog noise, and it contains the word “fan.” I am tempted to say that Stegosarusus’ poetry differs from, say, Mark Levine’s in Debt, or Steve Healey’s in 10 Mississippi (both books I like, and books that can sound like this one, though they come from quite different traditions), not just in that Stegosaurus’s work is sometimes uncontrolled (though it is) but in that it’s fannish. That word, taken from science fiction culture, denotes free rein for subcultural enthusiasm, a willingness to speak in wacky code, a sense of who-cares-what-outsiders-think. You can see the same quality in Bernadette Mayer (whom Stegosaurus does not otherwise resemble), and to some extent in Albert Goldbarth, but it does not commonly go with the choppy, anti-realist techniques that animate many contemporary poems: those techniques and the fannishness work together here, to help us enjoy a voice that’s clearly a patchwork. Stegosaurus sounds like a person, or a gaggle of people, having fun, but he’s also using the fun, the verbal all-over-the-place-ness, to articulate serious claims about identity, how it is something discovered rather than chosen:

I didn’t choose this Pinocchio suit
from some rack like a garish dress
on discount: it fell on me
with the weight of my ugliest habits.

Stegosaurus can also tell jokes. “Contrary to the opinion so eloquently expressed/ in the Village People’s 1978 hit single,/ staying at the YMCA is an unpleasant affair… The swimming pool oozes with a nacreous fluid/ pumped from the livers of captive Nephilim.” That’s the sort of twisted storytelling that would go over well with the right live audience, and Stegosaurus seems to have begun as a performer—the publications came later. But that kind of joke (though funny) is an exception.

Here is as good a place as any to note that I too have a odd, dress-related identity: usually I’m Stephen, but sometimes I’m Stephanie. I tell people that I’m transgender, that I am transfeminine, that I seem to have two genders; I am a cross-dresser; I am not a drag queen. I imagine that way of life makes it easier for me to get Morris Stegosaurus’s goals; I’m pretty sure that it’s not a prerequisite for enjoying his poetry. Furries don’t recruit (so far as I know) and Zebra Feathers did not leave me wanting to be one, but some of its best passages show what furries get from pretending to be—or in some sense becoming—a dingo or a zebra or a hawk. It is the same thing many of us (including furries) get from reading, the chance to become something magnificently other than yourself:

You wonder why I clutch feathers like bread,
like children, like the night clutches the moon and all the stars:

ours is a short and rude trip from sun to dirt,
and I envy flight like a lake might envy rain.

It’s not fair to say—or at least not fair to assume—that just because a poet is a furry, or Deaf, or from Boise, that all his poems have to say something about, to represent, furry or Deaf or Boisean identity. (It’s rather like assuming that very tall people must play basketball.) For all I know there are ten or twenty publishing poets who are also furries—they just don’t say so in their books. Stegosaurus, though, isn’t just an out furry who happens to publish poetry, nor does he simply publish (zzzz) straightforward narrative poems about what furries do. Rather, he seems to have found a way of writing that’s not only a source of weird, sparky delight, but also a verbal correlate of sorts for the way that he experiences his furryness—cartoony, exciting, full of paradoxes; able to use the contemporary vogue for disjunction to his own heart-on-sleeve purposes; nervy; immersed in his own mythos; vulnerable; aware of the wavy line that separates the sublime from the ridiculous, liable to cross it in both directions, often, and happy to bring us with him as he does.

I don’t want to overpraise this good book—Stegosaurus isn’t William Butler Yeats; nor is he Louise Glück, or Rae Armantrout, or any other poet whose self-editing lets him or her publish a book that appears to have not a word out of place. Stegosaurus’s goals, indeed, require misfires: to celebrate the outré, you have to risk sounding merely, pointlessly odd. But the celebrations are worth it, and—like all serious celebrations—they take place under the shadow of mortality: Et in Arcadia ego, as the man says.

If I were making an anthology (and I am) I might represent Stegosaurus by his shortest good poem, “RainFurrest 2012 Con Report,” which explains what kind of fun, or more than fun, he had at a furry convention: “it’s not so much cure as inoculation:/ bundle your bunnies,/ keep them close.” The identity that delights the poet also renders him vulnerable, “a sweet & craven ingenue-cum-puppy.” The lines slide back and forth between short and long, “eager,” “timid” and “tame”: “We were both lions,/ but you were the brave one.”

That last, short sentence comes from a restrained elegy for a poet named Gabrielle Bouliane, dead at 33. If Stegosaurus can use his enthusiastically awkward poetics for mourning, he sounds more comfortable—even triumphant—when he uses them more fannishly, asserting that his own mythologies, his own shared version of furry pretending, seems to him and to his ideal readers like the best or only way to push back against “the pressure of reality” (Stevens again), to win small battles against what Is: his kind of mythology, like older mythologies, can even be seen in the night sky—

beware of Astricannum,
the Star Puppy,
who glides like a comet
from galaxy to galaxy,
his tail wagging behind him,
as ever he hunts—
hunts for you, Death.

It’s Death and Reality vs. fursuits and astral puppies: Stegosaurus may let you imagine the puppies can win.