Basically, a bestiary is like a zoology textbook: pictures of animals with descriptions of them. However, since bestiaries were most popular in pre-Enlightenment times, the animals and descriptions are somewhat different from what we would expect today. In a new show, An Elizabethan Bestiary Retold-now on exhibit at the North Gallery of DUMA-poet Jeffrey Beam, illustrator Ippy Patterson and photographer M.J. Sharp explore this tension between past and present reality. They present some 30 drawings based on three Elizabethan bestiaries from between 1601 and 1608 next to poems accompanying them.
To us, the animals depicted in Patterson's beautiful and lovingly detailed images are not all 'real'-who among you has seen a unicorn, a manticore or a lamia lately? Fortunately, the poems-which preceded the pictures in composition-explain the characteristics and habits of these animals as well as those of 'real' ones such as the crocodile, lion and dolphin.
To a seventeenth-century British audience, however, all of these creatures would have been equally fantastic-who was to say what 'really' existed and what didn't? This is part of the point of An Elizabethan Bestiary Retold: It challenges our perception of reality and encourages us to think with our imagination rather than our reason. As Beam puts it in the exhibit's catalog: "Bestiaries also teach us life has violent as well as peaceful moments, miracles and magic do occur, 'truth' and belief sometimes change, and for every way of thinking and looking there is always another perspective." It certainly is a violent moment when the crocodile gets eaten from the inside by an "Ichneumon (or Pharaohs-mouse)," or when the manticore severs its prey's limbs.
For the text of the show, Beam has constructed what he calls "found poems." In the original Elizabethan bestiaries, Beam has 'found' words he has recombined into new poems. The texts of these bestiaries were fairly straightforward: beginning with a passage from the Bible, followed by a description of the animal and concluding with a moral. In contrast, Beam's short poems have completely abandoned the first part and lost most of the last; instead, they concentrate on giving brief descriptive commentary on the beasts.
Stylistically, Beam likes repetition and alliteration. The exhibit begins and ends with (different) poems both titled "The Creatures" and many poems take up topics such as death and destruction. In addition, the verses are type-set to leave plenty of space, indicating their status as artifacts gleaned from an earlier text while simultaneously enticing the readers to fill in the blank spaces with their imagination. Occasionally, the poems will refer to the moral or medicinal significance of the animals.
The pictures, which require a minute or two of observation before one catches all minutiae, perfectly represent the points made by the text. For instance, when the hippopotamus is "Bloodletting itself by/sharp reeds," or when the dolphin is "Enamored especially of/little/boys," we see this in the drawing. They give no indication of the reality status of their subjects, but they do let us know, as Beam puts it, that the world is "serious, divine, mysterious and playful [and] promises us that the Imagination is primary to human life." That is a pretty strong point to make, and Beam does an admirable job in making it.