(Graywolf Press, 2016)
For a long time, we humans have tried to distinguish ourselves from monsters. The Wonders of the East, an Old English precursor to the medieval bestiary, is a catalogue of creatures thought to inhabit Africa and Asia. Inside, ants are as big as dogs, serpents have two heads, and people are “born of three colors.” The text survives as a record of how Anglo-Saxons coped with the slippage between human and nonhuman, self and other. They cooked up fictions.
Bestiary, Donika Kelly’s first book of poetry, upends the warrants of the tradition it’s named after. Here, the speaker’s journey is psychological in nature—and the monsters she meets are all her own. Between poems titled “Out West” and “Back East,” she comes face to face with griffons and whales, mermaids and werewolves. Hers is a trip of a lifetime, a quest to track down her truest self.
“Out West,” the first poem in the collection, tells us how it wants to be read. It begins with a series of directives: “Refuse the old means of measurement. / Rely instead on the thrumming / wilderness of the self. Listen.” The “you” implied here might be the reader or an alternate version of the speaker, but either way the message is the same: inherited maps and hierarchies are not to be trusted; we are to take stock of our own natures instead. When we do so, we discover a psychic “wilderness” that always existed. “Sheep and brown cows / / graze your heart pocket. Antelope and bison/ lap the great lake of your eye. And your ear / the black bear winters.” It turns out we are made up of all the beasts that we were taught to label “less-than” or “other.” So who are we to judge?
In the collection’s introduction, Nikky Finney writes, “Bestiary is a first book of poems by an all Black girl who teaches us nothing is all black, or all female, or all male, or all belonging to humans, or all tidy.” In these poems, hybridity—and our denial of it—is a working definition of human nature. We are always more complicated than representation suggests. In “Catalogue,” the speaker considers this conundrum. “All of America is inside you, a catalogue of lives and land / and burrowing things,” Kelly writes. But a “catalogue of lives and land / and burrowing things” is almost nonsense, a mixture that doesn’t mix. How, then, to identify? Naming “you” is reductive, violent: “You think / about the art of holding, / of being held. This hand can crush you.”
In Bestiary, Kelly does not “crush” or resolve her contradictions. Instead, she tracks down her constituent personas and puts them in conversation. Even her titles, like “Self-Portrait as a Block of Ice,” “Self-Portrait as a Door,” and “Self-Portrait as a Wooden Flower,” trouble the notion of a singular self. In “Self-Portrait as a Door,” the speaker digs into what identifying as a door means, exactly: “You are a sign / are a plank are a raft are a felled oak. / You are a handle are a turn are a bit of brass lovingly polished.” The speaker breaks the door into its constituent parts and puzzles over their relative importance. What makes a door a door? A woman a woman? This process would seem abstract if it weren’t so personal.
Kelly’s speaker imagines alternate personas partly to escape her own story. “Fourth Grade Autobiography,” for instance, adopts a child’s point of view: “We live in Lost Angeles, California. / We have a front yard and a backyard. / My favorite things are cartwheels, salted plums, and playing catch with my dad,” the poem begins. But the innocence of these lines feels canned, like a story a child tries to repeat into truth. In “How to be alone,” the collection’s longest poem, this innocence implodes, as the speaker recalls memories of sexual abuse. “The gusset of your panties / soaked with your father’s semen. Why he / deserves every arc of your boot. Why / the door is always locked.”
To survive this trauma, the speaker tries to understand it, to pinpoint its effects. How has it shaped her? Who would she have been otherwise? “Archaeology,” a poem with white space in the middle of line, gets at the mootness of these questions. The speaker struggles to weed out the imposter from her multitudes.
More and moreI find the image of my father
in my own facean emptiness behind the eyes
I am unable to movethe ore in my blood
slurried and slowthe sun bruising the sky
in its slow dragI am dragging his face
out of my own.
Again, Kelly turns to the imagery of a body that is split, divided. But here, multiplicity is not freedom—it’s occupation. There is no distinguishing the speaker and her abuser. To cut out “his face,” she risks butchering her own. Her father is only “more and more” a part of her.
As readers, we want the speaker to be okay; we want art to compensate for life. But Kelly doesn’t lie. Instead, she shares her experience. In “Love Poem: Chimera,” for instance, the reader seems to be part of the speaker’s body or derived from it. Here, use of the second person fast-tracks empathy and encourages introspection.
I thought myself lion and serpent. Thought
myself body enough for two, for we.
Found comfort in never being lonely.
What burst from my back, from my bones, what lived
Along the ridge from crown to crown, from mane
To forked tongue beneath the skin. What clamor
We made in the birthing. What hiss and rumble
At the splitting, at the horns and beard,
At the glottal bleat. What bridges our back.
What strong neck, what bright eye. What menagerie
are we. What we’ve made for ourselves.
Through the second person plural, the speaker implicates us in the process of violence and rebirth. Each of these triumphant exclamations (“What menagerie / are we. What we’ve made for ourselves) doubles as a question, a cue to begin our own research. Kelly implores us to unlock our inner-monsters, to let them romp about.
Bestiary is an emotionally intense debut by a poet whose ambition is to unmake our assumptions. We don’t know whom Kelly is writing to or about—but, in the limbo between pronouns, this doesn’t matter. Like a species in a bestiary, the boundaries between “you,” “me,” “him,” and “her” are just inventions. With Kelly’s poems, we evolve.
Gillie Collins lives in New York City and writes about books, movies, and visual art.