“Patience/but not complacency,” a description of the hippo in “Leap Years,” captures the tone of Ansel’s book as a whole. The poems see deeply, precisely, in a way that’s both calm and full of curiosity. Violence lives in them—not exaggerated or heightened, but given clearly, in the same steady voice, placed side by side with moments of lucidity and beauty. There’s the violence of the non-human world in the orange kitten “who bent his shape/growling, over the heart of a chipmunk” in the title poem, and the violence of the human in, for example, “After the Party”:
Cruel neighbors did cruel things:
beat an owl with a stick
goaded the whipped bull with dogs.
There’s also enormous, quiet compassion throughout the book. In the long title poem, Ansel’s meticulous eye and heart take in a litter of feral kittens (“someone hates them, someone tolerates them/someone wants to tame them”), probing their world with respect for its separateness and the same understanding that it is not separate, that the kittens can’t and don’t live apart from the human world, no matter how hard they might try to do so. And yet the two worlds—the cats’ world, the human speaker’s—are not the same: over and over the narrator tries to help, to care for the cats (“some things you cannot save… though I tried/to watch their night movements,/tried to know their lives”) and can’t quite succeed.
Ansel’s empathy extends to the human just as surely, both to the intimate and familial (a sick aunt, a great grandmother) and to historical figures who are somehow also intimates: Bruno Schulz, Dorothy Wordsworth, and the poet Edith Södergran, who inhabits the title poem, marginalized and vulnerable as the feral kittens, subject to the same tender and questioning regard. These poems seem to ask what our role is in relation to the fragile world over which we seem to have so much power, to which we can do so much damage:
If a cat nests under your shed
is it your work to nudge and cajole
the offspring into domesticity,
if a wren nests in your yard, surely you will give it
a wide berth until the nestlings fledge. Planetary
your movements around them—
their incendiary hearts.
(“Somewhere in Space”)
In their open-eyed, open-hearted attentiveness, the poems encourage us to ask, as well. They encourage us to look—at the world around us, at ourselves—and to do our best to see.