Beautiful Behavioral Sink: Review of Lily Hoang’s A Bestiary

A Bestiary
Lily Hoang. CSU Poetry Center, $16 paperback (156p) ISBN: 9780996316743

            In “The Animal Mode of Inescapable Shock,” Anne Boyer writes, “If an animal is shocked, escapably or inescapably, she will manifest deep reactions of attachment for whoever has shocked her. If she has manifested deep reactions of attachment for whoever has shocked her, she will manifest deeper reactions of attachment for whoever has shocked her and then dragged her off the electrified grid. Perhaps she will develop deep feelings of attachment for electrified grids. Perhaps she will develop deep feelings of attachment for what is not the electrified grid. Perhaps she will develop deep feelings of attachment for dragging. She may also develop deep feelings of attachment for science, laboratories, experimentation, electricity, and informative forms of torture.”
            In her book-length collection of essays, A Bestiary, Lily Hoang explores this complicated relationship between abuse, attachment, affection, and autonomy. Juxtaposing fragments of the author’s personal life and other ephemera, Lily Hoang weaves together images of rats, tigers, fairy tales, a dead sister, Asian/Orientalism, time, an abusive ex-husband (a self-described anarchist who demands alimony), myth, memory, an occasionally lying, occasionally cheating lover, family etched onto the body, feminism, teaching, an addicted nephew, violence, compulsion, and one night of hedonistic pleasure with an old school friend. This structure, like Tender Points by Amy Berkowitz or The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson, works best when the fragments speak to each to create a whole, something larger than the sum of its parts. Hoang’s A Bestiary accomplishes this through both subtle and clever means.
The book is broken up into sections, each a loose thematic collection: on the Rat Race, on Catastrophe, on Measurement, on the Geography of Friendship. Some sections sprawl across fifteen, twenty pages, allowing the fragments to speak to each other in surprising ways:

Before I found her seizing on the floor of her bedroom, before she died, I watched my sister polish off a ninety-count bottle of Hydros. She gave her son Justin some, but the rest she ate as if garnished with the finest sea salt. She doesn’t die of overdose, but she dies. 
             My doctor ups my dosage of Xanax. There are too many things I can’t think about.


                        Dionysus is the god of epiphany, the god who comes.


The only time Harold kisses me the way Jacob does was after rough anal sex.  “I feel like I just raped you,” he said afterwards. 

            Other sections are shorter, like the tight, controlled section entitled on Violence:

on Violence

Once, my father's friend, the Skinny Man, brought over a dead goat. He had hit it with his mini-van. My father helped him bring it in because it was too heavy for one man to carry alone, but they sent me to my room first. I had never seen a goat before—not up close—but I didn't argue. I didn't fight. I was just a kid then, still sleeping with my mother even though I was too old for that. I played house with marbles; they rolled and sat and drank tea out of tiny plastic cups.
Later, the men will drink beer and eat stewed goat.
Later, when I am taking a bath, the Skinny Man will come in and wash his hands, and I will watch how lathering makes bubbles and how quickly the water washes it all away. I will not look at his eyes in the mirror's reflection. The marbles will be slick with soap.        

As the book’s title suggests, there is no shortage of beasts in this book, both animal and human. The humans in this book treat each other badly and then try, sometimes, to do better.  They struggle against addiction and their own asshattery; they feel the pull of family like thread sewn just beneath skin.  They drive 500 miles to visit their lover who lies. They themselves lie.  They burrow into friendships, into teaching, into fairy tale and myth. And alongside the humans, the beasts roam, both symbol and salve. Rats run mazes and press levers, tigers haunt villages, goats are both feast and sacrifice, rabbits perform cunning tricks, and in the Great Race, the pig always, always finishes last. (April 2016)

Purchase A Bestiary HERE.

Reviewer bio: Melissa Reddish is the author of The Distance Between Us (Red Bird Chapbooks, 2013) and My Father is an Angry Storm Cloud: Collected Stories (Tailwinds Press, 2015). Her stories, poems, and reviews have appeared in print and online journals. She teaches and directs the Honors Program at Wor-Wic Community College on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. When not writing or teaching, she likes to do stereotypical Eastern Shore things, like eat crabs smothered in Old Bay and take her Black Lab for long walks by the river. Girl & Flame, a hybrid novella, is forthcoming from Conium Press in 2016.