March 30, 2006


The Beauty of the Beast: Poems from the Animal Kingdom. Selected by Jack Prelutsky. Illustrated by Meilo So. Knopf. $19.95.

     One of Jack Prelutsky’s absolutely best books of poetry isn’t by Jack Prelutsky.  This redoubtable author of numerous poetry books for children – many of them focusing on animals – here goes outside himself to select more than 200 animal-related poems by others.  Introducing each of the book’s five sections with a clever and highly appropriate haiku, he offers poetic views of insects (“In Trillions We Thrive”), fish (“Jubilant, We Swim”), reptiles (“Dragons in Miniature”), birds (“Hollow-Boned Singers”), and mammals (“Wrapped in Coats of Fur”).

     Although the poems themselves are of varying quality (and widely varying length), there are many gems among them.  Here is the entire “Elephants Plodding” by D.H. Lawrence: “Plod! Plod!/ And what ages of time/ the worn arches of their spines support!”  Here are the first two lines of “The Heron” by Theodore Roethke: “The heron stands in water where the swamp/ Has deepened to the blackness of a pool.”  Here are two lines from the middle of “The Shark” by John Ciardi: “Wherever he swims he looks around/ With those two bright eyes and that one dark thought.”  Here is that poem’s final line: “Be careful where you swim, my sweet.”  And here is Prelutsky’s own haiku introduction to his section on reptiles: “Winders and sliders/ Dragons in miniature,/ Our life blood runs cold.”

     There is so much variety here, from well-known poets and less-known ones, that The Beauty of the Beast becomes a truly remarkable tour of well-known and less-known creatures.  Some poems are pure and delicate, such as “Rain” by Joanne Ryder: “Rain/ bends/ the tall grass/ making/ bridges/ for ant.”  Some have descriptions that seem absolutely perfect, as in “A Jellyfish” by Marianne Moore: “Visible, invisible,/ a fluctuating charm…”  Some have considerable complexity, such as “Eagle” by Ted Hughes: “His trapeze is a continent./ The Sun is looking for fuel/ With the gaze of a guillotine…”  Some are straightforward and humorous, like the four-line “The Tortoise” by Colin West: “The tortoise has a tendency/ To live beyond his prime,/ Thus letting his descendants see/ How they will look in time.”  Meilo So’s lovely, evocative watercolor paintings flit by at the exact same pace as the poems themselves, delighting as they illustrate.

     Profundity – amusement – wryness – wit – description – impression – classically gorgeous lines – all are here.  Prelutsky casts his net wide in his search for apposite and appropriate poetic descriptions, even to the point of including John Milton’s marvelous (if anatomically inaccurate) lines on whales: “There Leviathan/ Hugest of living creatures, on the deep/ Stretched like a promontory, sleeps or swims,/ And seems a moving land, and at his gills/ Draws in, and at his trunk spouts out, a sea.”  This is heady material for a children’s book – leading inescapably to the conclusion that The Beauty of the Beast is not a children’s book at all.  It is a book of genuine delight for the whole family, filled with wisdom, the sense of discovery and the loveliness of language.  The beauty here is not only of the beast but also of the book itself.

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