Yemassee Review: "With Animal" by Carol Guess and Kelly Magee

Black Lawrence Press, May 2015
Paperback: 151 pages, $15.95
Review by Sarah Benal

I’ve never been pregnant, but I suspect when a woman goes into an ultrasound, she more or less knows what to expect: a head with a nub of a nose, body curled around itself like a snail. I’ve heard when the baby is born the mother suddenly feels cold. I once saw a picture of a newborn baby panda, and it struck me how similar it looked to a newborn human baby: fingers curled in tight fists and eyes squinting against the light. This symmetry is what came to mind when I read With Animal.

Carol Guess and Kelly Magee’s With Animal is published by Black Lawrence Press. The artwork on the cover contains two jars, each holding a sparrow, their colors blurring into each other. The cover contains movement, which is fitting for a book that never stops running. In a blurb on the back Ben Loory describes it as “a short story collection that grows and builds upon itself ’til it becomes a ladder to something somewhere else.”

When a reader opens With Animal, they should brace themselves for the fauna that lifts from the pages. In this odd and lovely world, human mothers give birth to animals. Each chapter explains which, “With Horse,” reads a chapter, “With Cat” is another. But Guess and Magee don’t limit themselves and draw from the fantastical (“With Dragon”) and galactic (“With Nebula”). But their concerns lie in the normal. Caught between two worlds of magic and reality, each mother faces questions about love, nurturing, injury, and the conclusion when all those come together and the animals run off.

In the chapter “With Sparrow,” a mother finds refuge in her nurturing abilities during a disconnect with her husband. She hides her babies, calming herself by listening to the flutter of their wings. When they literally must leave the nest, she says “things are hard, but that we’re working it out, like couples do, exactly like couples everywhere are doing, exactly like we’re supposed to.”

Tucked into each chapter, amidst the feathers and scales and water, is the question about what families are supposed to do; what a family is supposed to look like. Nontraditional houses must fight, cry, and learn to love the children that they breed. Guess and Magee build language the way animals build nature: twisting and dark and bursting toward the sun. With Animal is a thin book, but a complex book in a way only a family can be. One mother observes, “How could she protect a spider? But Spidie was alone, and so was she. They stared at each other from across the room until finally Ella held out her sleeve. Spidie crawled onto it. They watched each other silently for a while, arachnid to person.”

With Animal is a book about connection and love that blossoms from unexpected places. It’s about family and motherhood, but it’s also about redefining family, and being willing to blur the lines.


Carol Guess is the author of thirteen books of poetry and prose, including Switch, Tinderbox Lawn, and Doll Studies: Forensics. She is Professor of English at Western Washington University, where she teaches Creative Writing and Queer Studies.

Kelly Magee's work has appeared in Gulf Coast, Crazyhorse, Kenyon Review, Indiana Review, Booth, Barrelhouse, and others. She teaches in the undergraduate and MFA programs at Western Washington University and can be found at kellyelizabethmagee.com.

Sarah Benal is an MFA in Fiction at the University of South Carolina. She reads for Yemassee.