Creature Comforts: Private Pen Pals: a reference of emotions

Rochelle Lynn Holt.  Creature Comforts:  Private pen Pals.  A Reference of Emotions.  iUniverse.  ISBN 978-0-595-49167-4.  2008.  $22.95.

Reviewed by Robert Zaller. (published KS: KINDRED SPIRIT ’09)

Rochelle Lynn Holt’s latest book is a fresh exploration of an ancient genre:  the bestiary.  The traditional bestiary depicts human traits and foibles through their animal cognates; for example, the crafty fox or the assiduous spider.  Such fabulism reached its peak in the seventeenth and early eighteenth century, but has never lost its hold.  Whether or not we are animals with immortal souls may be a matter of conjecture, but animals we certainly are.  It’s true that we project our virtues and vices on the animal kingdom rather than find its traits in us–the species barrier is finally an insuperable one, however we may sentimentalize our relations with other sentient creatures–but, still, there is something to be gained in reflecting ourselves through the image of the Other.  We have no other kin in the cosmos but our fellow creatures of this planet, at least to our present knowledge, and if we do not see ourselves at least partially in them, we have no other mirror but each other.  And that is the most dangerous reflection of all.

Holt’s bestiary is also a calendar, with an entry for each day of the year.  Each entry begins with a brief commentary that links her subject to a specific attitude or emotion, followed by a letter addressing the creature in question, and concluding with a brief parenthesis and a prompt to the reader to write his or her own letter.  This open-ended form fits her project well, which is not to describe or relate as such but to use her creatures as pathways to personal exploration.  Because each entry is a separate and distinct journey, a journey to what Anais Nin called the cities of the interior, what emerges finally is a coded self-portrait of the author and a whispered dialogue with the reader.

The tarantula; the zebra; the angelfish; the mastodon; the gryphon.  Holt’s bestiary consists of living (often endangered) species; extinct ones; and the imaginary ones that we create in our own image as God is said to have created us in his.  Shall we imagine ourselves, then, as God-like with respect to actual creation?  A modern bestiary must confront the fact that we are exterminating the species we share the planet with even as we speak of them; that we are not creators but destroyers, and at our present rate will soon have precious few companions left.  For that reason, the most problematic of Holt’s creatures is Man himself (April 9), whose signature is Immolation, with its double-figured connotation of death and resurrection on the Cross.  Holt concludes, “If you’re the hu/man who has sacrificed body and mind for serenity; or know one who is dead on the cross, take both bodies down.”

This is a wise and witty book, full of perception that is simultaneously provocative and healing.  In many ways, Holt herself is the immolated witness, venturing into our common dark to pluck the seeds of insight.  Creature Comforts is, quite literally, a book for all seasons.