Chapbook Review: Chicken Scratch by David Alexander

David Alexander. Chicken Scratch. Kingston: Puddles of Sky Press, 2014, 24pp.

Being Chicken
You hatch
but before you hatch
your brothers and sisters are chirping
Your mother feeds you
you are hungry from being born
you feel you could live ten years
She shows you dust bathing
to clean your feathers
and shake off parasites
In communal flock
roosters cluck for you
tidbitting beetles and seeds
You roost together for warmth
home is the highest protected location

Like zines, chapbooks are lightning rods for the weird. To paraphrase my friend Mat Laporte: what’s the point of running your own micro-press if you’re just going to publish the same shit as a larger press? David Alexander is a Toronto poet who will no doubt one day have a book published by a larger press, but Chicken Scratch seems more like a side project, a decidedly minor work in the best way. Part empathy exercise, part vegetarian manifesto, Chicken Scratch revels in the experimentation and play characteristic of all the work published by the Kingston-based Puddles of Sky Press, which is a ten-dollar way of saying these poems are all about chickens.

Whether you’re concerned about the carbon footprint of livestock farming or the connections between processed meats and cancer, there are more good reasons than ever to become a vegetarian. However I can know every ethical and practical reason to avoid meat and still eat it because, at least for me, eating is more stimulating than knowing. When I eat saffron chicken, the memories and other associations it triggers are far more visceral than, say, my knowledge of the horrors of industrial-scale chicken sheds. If you want someone like me to stop eating meat, you’re better off bypassing my intellect and going straight for the heart, which is why I love the poem “Being Chicken.”

Throughout Chicken Scratch, Alexander channels Karl Marx, Ted Hughes, Burger King ads and the Centers for Disease Control; he uses poetic forms, rhyme, wordplay and anaphora with skill and, mercifully, moderation. In the midst of this variety, a poem like “Being Chicken” stands out for its restraint. There’s no sprung rhythm and the lines are effectively end-stopped or chopped into stand-alone clauses. Alexander depoliticizes his subject by isolating the facts of a chicken’s daily life from the greater context of agribusiness; the details are personal, but also informative in an endearingly transparent way, as in a child’s science project: I feel I could live ten years, thinks the most prescient hatchling ever.

It appears Alexander is letting the facts speak for themselves, but then whose idea was it to write this poem in the second person? The poet’s intentions are also deducible from the arrangement of the details: “the highest protected location,” for instance, casts a sinister shadow over everything that comes before it, emphasizing the “could” in “you feel you could live ten years.” Even in the absence of human predation, chickens’ lives are a struggle for survival, to which end communal cooperation is their best hope. For such a simple, understated poem, “Being Chicken” is quite moving, and enough to make this lifelong carnivore reconsider the fucked-upness of how humans are the only species that will breed, confine and variously harvest members of several other species for the sake of an Arby’s Melt.