A review of Airplane Baby Banana Blanket by Benjamin Dodds

Reviewed by Beatriz Copello

Airplane Baby Banana Blanket
by Benjamin Dodds
Recent Work Press
ISBN: 9780648834311, 90 Pages, October 2

The first thing that surprised me about Airplane Baby Banana Blanket by Benjamin Dodds was its title and the sign language pictures that illustrated the cover. With curiosity I read the back cover with the praises for the book then the title made sense to me. In poetry form Dodds tells the story of Lucy, a chimpanzee who was raised as a human being and treated as a member of the family by Dr Maurice Temerlin, a researcher psychologist, his wife Jane a social worker and their son Steven. 

In the Afterword of the book Dodds explains the following: “Though Airplane Baby Banana Blanket is inspired by and closely based upon actual individuals and events, all thoughts, feelings and positions conveyed by these poems come entirely from my own mind.”  From the first poem in this compelling book, the reader will experience a variety of emotions as well as thoughts questioning the ethics of the experiment. In narrative poetry form, with creative talent and imagination, the author recount events in in the life of Lucy. His words flow with musicality and stories that are fascinating. Some of the poems are prefaced by actual quotations from the people involved in the experiment, like in the following poem titled “This Woman’s Work”:

The airplane flight and the act of taking Lucy away from her mother had been for Jane the symbolic equivalent of the act of giving birth. Maurice Temerlin, Lucy: Growing Up Human

In exchange

    for a daughter
             Jane Temerlin
        offered a Coke.
Such sweetness
    tickles the tongue
             and masks the
        phencyclidine
that allowed Bob
      and Mae Noell to pull
            from fortressed arms
        something pink
and rare. 
        Somewhere above Alabama
                  passengers nod
                            congratulations
to a mother
    tending a covered
           bassinet, hushing
                  gentle reassurance
to a child she calls
     Lucy.

Page by page we find out about Lucy and the Temerlins, their daily routine and the way they taught the chimpanzee, from learning how to use a toilet to learning to how to sign in sign language. From the funny to the serious we read about Lucy’s experiences, her relationship with the world, and her human family. In the following poem “Heights” Steve teaches Lucy how to climb a tree:

Steve steadies

the fourteen-month-old
in the fork
of a backyard mimosa’s
very lowest branch.
She’s terrified
and cries
for her brother
to unhand her
to give back the safety
of lawn’s green low.
He isn’t cruel.
The pre-teen
Lets her down and tries
again with another tree
another branch
even lower than the last.
Long-term investment
of brotherly play
will one day yield
the wisdom
that windblown canopies
are perfect
hiding places in times
of mischiefs
when our good doctor
and his wife
call out her name
but for now Lucy has had
quite enough. She knocks
at the door
waits to be let back inside.

Throughout the book I keep thinking about the ethics of the experiment, and how no matter how a chimpanzee is trained they are still an animal. Their nature will come out, as any domesticated animal. Dodds hints at this in the following excerpt from “The First Bite”:

(i)

A game with the girl
get as rough as they’ll let it.
She needs to know limits
seeks equal resistance
to her effortless strength. Reparation
for a stinging fistful of Jane’s long braid
comes fast and free in the glossy black
form of a forearm held easily in reach.
She pushes to be pushed back, wrestles
to be enveloped in return, craves boundary’s
attentive embrace. Maurice is not surprised
in the least when his daughter
bites Rose on the hand.

Dodds says a lot with just a few words. He does not lead the reader by the hand. In the following poem the poet’s skill is evident, as words are used in ways that are visually striking:

“The Temerlins Entertain”

Adorable,
Just adorable— 
the chairman’s wife’s words
don’t match her eyes.
The seated creature’s
leathered palm floats
unreceived, unshaken
over straightened fork
and knife.
Lady guest and husband
cradle glasses like life-support
as their hosts push small-talk
uphill.
A whiskey sour touches
table for an instant—
time enough for swift theft
to occur. The thing
is thirsty
pours stolen cocktail
down open throat
maraschino
and all.
The dribble saved
and set back on
cork coaster
fails to impress.
It knows its place
seen it’s gone too far
leaps to the bar for fresh drinks
serves company before itself.

In the final pages of this absorbing book the reader is confronted with the failure of the experiment and the sad emotions that may have plagued Lucy. It’s very obvious that Lucy has emotions. One critical moment in the life of Lucy is when she is introduced to a male chimpanzee. Does Lucy think she is a human being?  Does seeing someone of her own species makes her realise that she is not human? The poet in the poem “One – Off” confronts the reader with thoughts and emotions:

She has never met
another Does not know
they can exist
is unaware
she’s one herself
expecting
a spark they bring it into her
space Male sexually mature
Outstretched hand puzzles
confuses appals Alert amber
eyes penetrate her own
uninvited Get it out Get It
Out she shrieks in sound
and signs Afraid
of mirror monsters she lays
it on extra thick Wild
enough for them to
abort the thing
completely.

I agree with the poet when he says in the Afterword that, after reading Airplane Baby Banana Blanket, readers may be inspired to read the book by Dr Maurice Temerlin Lucy: Growing Up Human. Although, like the author says: “Nobody will ever read Lucy’s autobiography.” We only can imagine her pleasures and her pain. 

Airplane Baby Banana Blanket is a book that you will want to read in one go. It has an intriguing story, cleverly written, moving from the tender to cruel.

About the Reviewer: Dr Beatriz Copello is a former member of NSW Writers Centre Management Committee, she writes poetry, reviews, fiction and plays. The author’s poetry books are: Women Souls and Shadows, Meditations At the Edge of a Dream, Flowering Roots, Under the Gums Long Shade, and Lo Irrevocable del Halcon (In Spanish).  Beatriz’s poetry has been published in literary journals such as Southerly and Australian Women’s Book Review and in many feminist publications.  She has read her poetry at events organised by the Sydney Writers Festival, the NSW Writers Centre, the Multicultural Arts Alliance, Refugee Week Committee, Humboldt University (USA), Ubud (Bali) Writers Festival.  

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