Book Review: “Our Held Animal Breath” by Kathryn Kirkpatrick

I have a deep and abiding respect for poets. Poetry, I think, is among the hardest of art forms to do well; it requires a painter’s skill with imagery and visualization, a musician’s sense of rhythm and beat, a writer’s craft with words and metaphors, and a philosopher’s or a monk’s contemplative view of the world. It demands incredible variegation of words – which of course means that one must have a thorough versing in the depth and breadth of language to do it well. So it is no small thing when I say that Kathryn Kirkpatrick’s  OUR HELD ANIMAL BREATH has achieved all of these things in an elegant and highly approachable book of poetry.

Her subject is primarily nature and the natural world, but she’s no Romantic – rather than idealizing nature, she draws us back into it by reminding us of our own animalism. The title of the book, which is also the title of the final poem in the collection, sets the tone for that theme, and though the book deals with many serious and sad topics, she ends on a hopeful note: “we cheer / because, for the moment, escape, / survival in the common release / of our held animal breath.” The commonality and universality of human nature is another strong theme in the collection, as we are united through animal life and joy.

One of the great strengths of Kirkpatrick’s words is in her similes – she has an uncanny ability to find parallels between seemingly disparate situations, and unite the two to create a powerful image or emotion. Here’s one of my favorites, from the poem Recalling Virginia Woolf:

I won’t beat him at this–

that’s certain–his own head

more full of facts and opinions

than cellars millenialists stock

with provisions for the end of the world.

Her poems are, on the whole, delightfully approachable. She’s no T.S. Eliot, writing in eight different languages and referencing back to thousands of other works so dense you have to be an Eliot scholar just to read the poem – Kirkpatrick has created a language simple enough to be understood by a layperson. There is power in that. The ease of comprehension leads to deeper emotion, a feeling of shared pain and hope, a connection between the poet and the reader that is made more friendly by the fact that Kirkpatrick does not swaddle her ideas in impenetrable phrases or incomprehensible metaphors. You don’t have to work to feel the strength of the words, you just have to let them flow through you.

Years ago I had you

on the tip of my tongue–

we were that close

to a dangerous language.

You were such a disarming

lover of vowels,

I couldn’t believe

a word your said.

Then you took up

spelling backwards

and I refused

to rhyme.


This simplicity is not to say that her poems are not full of meaning, depth, and complexity. To say otherwise would be an insult, for here is a poet who clearly chooses her words to ask questions rather than answer them, to bring iniquity to light rather than to solve problems. Her words are clear but deep, like a blue lake you can look into and see the bottom but it’s not until you dive into the water that you fully experience the layers and levels therein. They ask questions about war and violence, men and women, prey and predator, wilderness, domestication, death, loss, love, and whether we aren’t “all in the grips / of something more or less unbelievable?”

The collection is just long enough that you become accustomed to her style without quite getting tired of it, and I suppose the only thing I can say against her poetry is that if the book were longer, the rhythms and structure might become too common, no longer surprising, and thus lose some of their power. A bit more variety of beat and arrangement on the page could have helped to keep the words as fresh as possible, but honestly, that’s the only real fault I can find with the book.

Her poems are, in a way, intensely personal, but as she shares her experiences with us, they become universal. She shows us her scar tissue and lets it rend apart our flesh as well. And they all share a common nostalgia, a memory of a wound or a joy rather than the fresh blood or the present smile, a sepia-toned image retouched and brought to life again.

No track, no earthbound sign to lead us on.

Just wings, and the memory of wings. Just cries,

and the memory of cries. After snow

everything not visible.

– Trackless 

And so we read the memory of her wings and of her cries and together we take flight.

Her poems, particularly her nature poems, remind me very much of my favorite band, Shearwater, so for a bit of trans-media, I’ve included the video to one of my favorite Shearwater songs.


Overall, a haunting and passionate book of poetry, and a quick and accessible read. Recommended for all who love poetry, wordcraft, or naturalism.

Rating: 4.5/5 stars