Recent Work Press, 2020
Reviewed by Alison Clifton, StylusLit
In the brilliant and unsettling Airplane Baby Banana Blanket, Benjamin Dodds takes as his muse a chimpanzee called Lucy. This is a nuanced and complex reimagining of a true story. Lucy is raised as the “daughter” of the Temerlin family for thirteen years as part of a university cross-fostering program. Dr Maurice Temerlin, a psychotherapist and lecturer at the University of Oklahoma, his wife Jane, a social worker and academic, and their son Steve have their lives upended when they adopt Lucy. Yet, although Lucy is seen as a disruptive and destructive force by the Temerlins’ neighbours and visitors, the reverse is true: it is humans who have derailed her existence irrevocably, with disastrous consequences.
The extraordinary series of events plays out in 1960s and 1970s suburban America. This setting, so familiar from television sit coms, is rendered incongruous through Dodds’ deft writing. The “whiskey sour” (“The Temerlins Entertain” 43) plucked from a cocktail cabinet, the “sun-faded football” with which Steve and his friends play (“Hierarchy” 29), the “green shag rug” under the “coffee table” (“Toilet Training” 20) – these are the trappings of life in Norman, Oklahoma. Each mundane accoutrement becomes an alien object of fascination as Lucy studies it with the mind of an intrepid scientist. Her experiments determine which is good to drink, which is a threat to provoke her sharp-toothed wrath, and which is the preferred place for defecation. The research subject becomes the voyeur; the object being studied launches her own investigation.
After the Temerlins’ first chimp, Charlie Brown, suffocates in his security blanket at the age of four, they decide to “adopt” a new one. Believing that they need to “obtain the subject / before it knows / what it is” (“Professor Bill’s Vision” 8), the Temerlins acquire Lucy from a roadside zoo in Florida. In “This Woman’s Work” (9), Dodds shows Jane “offer[ing] a Coke” in “exchange / for a daughter” (9). The drink is laced with phencyclidine to enable the zoo owners to prize Lucy from her mother’s arms. For a moment not much shorter than the brief time she holds Lucy, the mother chimpanzee becomes the focaliser as she tastes her drink: “Such sweetness / tickles the tongue” (9). In playing with perspective, Dodds subtly manipulates the reader’s emotional responses. The poem ends with Jane escorting the baby chimpanzee to Oklahoma on an aeroplane:
Somewhere above Alabama
to a mother
tending a covered
to a child she calls
The baby chimpanzee is raised as a human from the moment she is purchased.
Dodds is aware that the anthropomorphising of an ape is a fraught subject. He rightly observes in the Afterword that “nobody will ever read Lucy’s autobiography” (76). He handles Lucy’s story with obvious empathy, writing as much to his subject as for her. Dodds seems less to be writing to ventriloquise for someone who cannot communicate because she is not human than to be summoning the voice of the dead. Indeed, the title of his collection shows that he does not fall into the trap of believing that he is providing a voice for a mute creature. Lucy can sign many words in A.S.L. – “Airplane,” “baby,” “banana,” and “blanket” are among the first words that Lucy learns to sign.
Dodds envisages Lucy frantically signing in “Stuck” (59-61). When the Temerlins tire of their scientific experiment after thirteen years, they send Lucy to Baboon Island with a graduate student, Janis Carter, who is tasked with introducing her to the wild to live among other chimpanzees. With impressive economy of style, Dodds imagines the encounters between Janis, “stuck” in her protective cage, and Lucy: “stuck” on an island thousands of kilometres from the only home that she has ever known. We ache in sympathy for both Janis and Lucy confined to their island prison. “Janis” becomes “Janus” – the Roman god of transitions and duality – as Lucy is supposedly transitioned into life as a “real” chimpanzee. The duality of Lucy’s nature is oxymoronic: she is neither human nor ape and both human and ape at once. The last few lines of “Stuck” hammer home the pain of this paradox:
On days meant as
weaning isolation, she
beams ASL through bars
at a blankly turned back.
food. drink. Janis. come out.
The rationed response
is no. Lucy. go. and
the turning away starts
again. no. Janis. come.
Janis. come out.
Lucy. hurt. (61)
The final word-sentence is so powerful in its brevity and typical of Dodds’ style. He displays his mastery of the poetic form through concise diction, precise word choice, and the considered placement of key words at the start or end of a line or stanza. Dodds’ poetry is mostly devoid of metaphor and simile, yet rich with meaning elicited through the juxtaposition of details and sensations. Such fertile material as Lucy’s incredible story allows Dodds to select the most impactful moments: this collection is replete with startling, shocking, heart-rending, gladdening, traumatic, exciting, comic, and tragic vignettes.
Airplane Baby Banana Blanket is the sort of poetry that stays with the reader long after the last page is turned, and Lucy’s fate is revealed. It is notoriously difficult for a writer to sustain reader empathy for a non-human protagonist – so often animals, particularly primates, are used for comic relief in texts. Certainly, there are many moments of humour in this collection, but Dodds avoids rendering Lucy grotesque or naïve. It is in Dodds’ insistence that Lucy is not human that we may find the most damning condemnation of certain aspects of humanity. Lucy loves with such abandon and such passion that she inadvertently harms other creatures, including her pet kitten, which she apparently crushes to death. Conversely, humankind’s destructive streak seems to stem not from an excess of love, but from indifference. In particular, environmental degradation often results from human carelessness. Dodds draws our attention to such phenomena. And yet he resists valorising Lucy even while painting her as innocent. He also shows restraint in refusing to demonise her human handlers.
On the back cover of the collection, Judith Beveridge observes, “Long after I finished it, this book’s contrapuntal tensions made it unforgettable,” and Natasha Mitchell notes, “Lucy will never leave you.” These are fitting words. Airplane Baby Banana Blanket is haunting and poignant, and Lucy is a spectral figure – the kind of ghost who will remain with you like an old friend. Dodd has adroitly turned what might easily be macabre or absurdly comical anecdotes into a paean to Lucy: someone who could never be human, yet who shows us the better path to being humane.