Grammar of the Cage by Pam Ore. Les Figues Press, 2005. $13. Reviewed by Victoria Chang.

Pam Ore's Grammar of the Cage is inspired by the author's background as a zookeeper in Oklahoma City and Portland.  But here there are no cute barnyard animals and no children carrying balloons and lollipops:  Ore's landscape is that of the human condition. She uses the zoo as a trope for entrapment and the ruin of the natural world, and language in the form of poetry as a trope or human tool for both freedom and destruction.  Beyond the world of the zoo, Ore investigates larger natural landscapes through the lens of one who has witnessed, contributed to, and experienced entrapment. 

Ore's subject matter is arresting; it is certainly not every day that a zookeeper publishes a book of poems.  Early in Ore's collection is "Cutting Up Tamba," a poem about a speaker who must kill an elephant in the zoo, dice it up, and dole out the parts to various claimants: 

                        The researcher and scientists moved in
                        like a cloudbank, with wishlists and priorities: 

                        The distal 12" of trunk and her head,
                        for the olfactory pits, 

                        go to the gas lab for chemical
                        gateway studies; Seattle wants 

                        her reproductive tract - they're not sure
                        what for.  The curator set the order,

                        then 15 of us, like crows, with hayhooks and x-acto knives,
                        began cutting up Tamba...

Such a poem is representative of the poet's perspective throughout the collection.

Zoo animals as a metaphor for entrapment seems predictable, but Ore throws the role of language into the mix and suddenly the book opens up into grander possibilities.  Ore views language as both an opportunity to free animals and humans from their own self-destruction, as well as the weapon of humans to ruin the earth, as she articulates in "Grammar of the Cage":

                        When I see the bears behind blue bars,
                        and know language put them there,
                        what should I let stay unsaid, unprojected, 

                        and what must I pull through myself
                        to help humans imagine a different
                        perspective?  What is it I should not write 

                        in order to give the earth half a chance?  

In these poems, the self is implicated, and that recognition of complicity is central to the book's mission. After all, the zookeeper - the speaker of the poem - helped to cut up the elephant.  With the awareness of self-implication, many of these poems still have a very strong stance; without self-implication, these poems read more like manifestos than poetry.  In some instances, Ore's language is fresh and lyrically engaging, as in "Evening":

                        My path leads straight into apathy
                        and humans sound like humming. 

                        Sacred things are filled with red,
                        thinking requires ink 

                        and my brain is composed of 80% rain...

But the collection would benefit from a heightened lyric intensity.  In several instances, the language falls flat, into a sort of reportage or essayistic hypothesizing - language that lacks both rhythm and lyricism. For example, "A Theory and Practice for Poetry in an Age of Extinction and Environmental Collapse": 

                        Language is an ecological adaption, an evolved
                        behavior that helps humans negotiate the environment,
                        to gain resource and reproductive advantages. 

Or in "Grammar of the Cage": 

                        Language time has a beginning and an end,
                        a producer and a receiver.  Non-language time
                        is something produced between us, in endless collaboration. 

It's obvious the speaker has a particular point to make: Our natural world is gravely at risk; continued human destruction and apathy will ensure the demise of the natural world.  It is when the writing is not superseded by the rhetorical stance that we hear Ore's true poetry.