Peter Burzynski reviews COMPANION ANIMAL by Magdalena Zurawski


Litmus Press, 2015


Magdalena Zurawski’s Companion Animal is a book of poetry that asserts itself with the various boundaries of open forms. She bookends the contents of her book with lyric essays that not only bind her vision of poetry, but also embrace the power of language. In addition, these poetic essays are the poet’s own affirmation of her need to write poetry. The essays shape this book’s theories on poetics are interesting explorations of the self-imposed rules and boundaries of poetry that sometimes stifle the creative energy and intellectual potential for exploration. Zurawski examines these rules and then proceeds to break them.

In a similar gesture of poetic exploration, explanation, and self-affirmation the book ends with a note addressed to the reader written as a grateful nod to those who helped her find her way back into poetry. After being preoccupied for several years by writing a novel she mentions that she felt she had lost her way, in a sense forgotten how to write poetry. While addressed “Dear Reader,” this essay is just as much for Zurawski and her need to reaffirm her poetic abilities as it is an explanation to the reader. What it does tell us is what the whole book accomplishes in conveying: poetry is hard work and it should not be taken for granted.

One of themes addressed in her note to the reader and in Companion Animal as a whole is that sometimes we, as readers and writers of poetry, must sometimes have the support and encouragement of a friend. Zurawski mentions that her friend C.A. Conrad helped her back into writing poetry by assigning her a ritual from which she could derive poetry. The poems themselves also have a friend, or a companion if you will. The book explores the relationships that humans have with animals, specifically pets. These pets, namely a small dog, find their way into these poems not only connecting the speaker to the animal in a bond of friendship and love, but also as thread woven throughout these poems of different shapes, forms, and tones to each other.

In one poem, “[Unlucky Pierre],” Zurawski illustrates a scene in which a small dog enters the personal space of the speaker’s bed and lies down across her legs. The speaker in the poem displays a kind of nervous tension that mimics what sometimes precedes a sexual encounter with a new partner. Despite this anxiety the speaker manages to pet the dog on its head. The question then becomes who is the “unlucky Pierre” in this situation? Given that the lucky Pierre is the “middle” recipient of sexual gratification in a ménage trois, we have some idea of what being the unlucky Pierre would mean. There are only two beings involved rather than three and given the contradiction of being “unlucky” one can assume that the contact was not fortuitous. However, the poem accomplishes much more than this odd nervous tension between pet and human companion. It is also a nod to Frank O’Hara’s positioning of the poem itself as the lucky Pierre receiving gratification between two people, the poet and the addressee, as laid out in his ludic essay, “Personism: A Manifesto.” This allusion to O’Hara along with position the speaker, the dog, and the poem itself as possible stand-ins for an unlucky Pierre exemplify not only Zurawski’s careful word-choice, but also her impulse to contribute to the ongoing dialogue of poetic tradition. In this way, Zurawski enacts a sort of palimpsest redirecting and re-inscribing her poetic influences via the creation of her own poetry and poetics.

The many echoes of different poets, O’Hara, Bishop, Ginsberg, and Williams to name a few, and their influence are evident here, yet Zurawski firmly establishes her own voice and language. Several of her poems are concerned with the seemingly perverse act of monetizing poetry. These poems, “[Distressed Property],” “[Money Is the Form of My Regret],” and “[Pencils Would Lay Bricks],” place poetry’s value as something much greater than that of money, even to the point that the two are beyond any sort of comparison or equivalence. She writes “[Money Is the Form of My Regret],”

What I mean is
when I said “Marco”
you didn’t say “Polo.” You
said my last name
could get us a longer
line of credit.

I wish I hadn’t had
a last name. I wish
I had traded my
last name for 1,000 poems
and a blow job.

But you would have
taken my poems from me
every night when you came
home with money
in your pockets.

I would have cursed
you for taking my poems
instead of me.

(I would have wanted
some of your money) (28)

This is a brilliantly clever moment in this book not only because of the poet’s fraught relationship with the addressee, but also because of her complex relationship to money. It would seem that she would rather have poems and sexual gratification than money, but she also acknowledges the need and desire for money in spite of where it falls in her hierarchy of value.

The playful, yet morose dichotomies between the speaker and money, the addressee and money, speaker and addressee, and finally both of their relationships to the give and take of poetry as if poetry were a give and take of love are evident at the surface here. This in no way means that these relationships are simple and shallow, they are quite the opposite. What is underneath the surface of the language here is particularly interesting to me as a reader and writer of poetry. Also, a child of Polish U.S. immigrants, I can see conflicts of identity manifest themselves here. The addressee insists that her name, perhaps by virtue of being another co-signer on a credit application, can merit a longer line of credit. Zurawski plays with the idea of length as her last name is longer and that might contribute to her credit. Yet the speaker is uneasy regarding its worth. She is willing to trade it for 1,000 poems and a single sexual act. Certainly, the speaker is being wistful in some sense here. I can’t help but make the connection especially since the discussion of the last name is immediately preceded by the game of Marco Polo. The addressee does not say Polo, he or she instead shifts from play to the language of commodity. Given how careful the poet’s metaphors, imagery, and narrative are throughout this book one can see the wordplay of Polo as a label for identifying the poet’s Polish heritage and perhaps some of the negative stereotypes unfortunately associated with that identity. After all, the poet both embraces her last name but also regrets not trading it in for poetry. Perhaps this is a subtle lament and acknowledgement that many actors, writers, and artists with long, complicated, or overtly ethnic names have changed those names for the sake of ease of pronunciation, but also not having that stigma of being “other” immediately ascribed to them.

In addition to all that is on and below the surface of this poem, the enjambment in this is well wrought in its capability for ambiguity and innuendo. This pleasure carries through much of the poems that so neatly populate this careful book. Companion Animal is a quick, yet enjoyable and thought provoking read. Zurawski is a poet’s poet and this is definitely a book that I would recommend to anyone interested in contemporary poetry, specifically to those who still have lingering doubts about their own composition of poetry and moreover, poetry’s power and worth. Those who find themselves in the latter group will both be comforted and entertained by this playful, yet at times poignant book.


Magdalena Zurawski’s novel The Bruise was published in 2008 by FC2/University of Alabama Press. It received both a 2008 Lambda Award and the 2007 Ronald Sukenick-American Book Review Innovative Fiction Prize. She holds a BA in Comparative Literature from Brown University and completed her PhD in American Literature at Duke University in 2013. She is a Professor at the University of Georgia.

Peter Burzynski is a third-year PhD student in and Graduate Assistant Coordinator of Creative Writing-Poetry at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.  He holds a B.A. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, a M.F.A. in Poetry from The New School University, and a M.A. in Polish Literature from Columbia University. He is the Assistant Editor for the cream city review, and his poetry has appeared or is forthcoming from The Best American Poetry Blog, Thin Air, Prick of the Spindle, Working Stiff, Thrush Poetry Review, Your Impossible Voice, RHINO, and Forklift Ohio, amongst others.