Review by Jordan Makant
Graywolf Press, 2016
In her startlingly honest debut collection, Donika Kelly opens by saying that we must “Refuse the old means of measurement. / Rely instead on the thrumming / wilderness of self. Listen.” And Kelly sticks true to this opening statement, refusing the old ways of knowing in favor of an even older way, a way so old it feels almost new. In between poems named after thrushes and chimeras, whales and centaurs, ostriches and satyrs, mermaids and werewolves, griffons and minotaurs, and even the poet herself, the reader finds that the poet has crafted a crystal clear image made obscure by the very words which start to reveal the image to the reader in the first place. There is a sense in which Kelly’s work here almost becomes too oblique for its own good; but when she gets it right, she really gets it right. Poems like Hermit Thrush, for example, walk the line of obliqueness without crossing over into the realm of the overly obscure: what begins as a beautiful, seemingly innocent poem about winter turns quickly into a confession that only in winter can the poet feel beautiful because “finally, the white girls, after a long, / long summer of bronze and muscle and shine, / cover their legs. Winter, where we can finally feel / beautiful, too. / We say we. / I mean I. / When they cover their legs, / I can feel beautiful, too.”
Later, after having established with the reader not only the reality of her childhood trauma and the lasting damage from her father sexually assaulting her, and after having also somehow convincing the reader that she can be trusted as a poet and guide, the reader comes to the poem How to be alone. Separated into sixteen stanzas of four to eight lines per stanza, with each stanza occupying an entire page, How to be alone is without a doubt in my mind the most profoundly affecting poem in the collection. The poem utilizes the white space the separation of the stanzas allows to create the idea of passing time; it also creates an incredibly surreal effect due to the subject matter of the poem: it begins cynically with a cry for a solitude while in the same breath beginning thankfully with a cry of love for the poet’s dog. From there the poem delves deeply into the poet’s psyche, exploring the inescapable cliché of heartache and self-hate (“This heartache like any cliché, sincere / and boring…”), exercising the demons of trauma (“Admit that, were you a different kind / of person, you would smash in your / father’s skull with your booted foot.”), and ultimately bemoaning the fact that no matter how hard you try, you can never entirely escape the hurt others have caused you; no matter how hard you try, you can do nothing but watch as that hurt seeps into other aspects of your life, leaving you (“…too young to be so sore”) with “Your sadness… full of sadness.”
Bestiary is not a happy collection. It is not easy. But in a world full of poems that convey emotions only on the surface and fall apart upon further inspection, this is a potent healing herb. The opening poem, Out West, refused the old means of measurement; the poems after are a journey, an exercise of the mind, the body, and the spirit. The closing poem, Back East, finds the will to return:
This road is a winding one.
We left the west flooded
with new loneliness.
Under a clear sky, your hand in mine. A hand full of sky…
Not song but description.
And this wind is a drying one.
It is not that the poem belies the poet’s secret desire to return east. Rather, the poet has journeyed far away in order to explore, in order to learn, in order to heal. Now, despite the inescapable nature of cliché, heartache, self-hate, and hurt, despite the winding road and the drying wind, the poet is ready to return. Perhaps not wholly better, but no longer wholly broken.