On Donika Kelly’s Bestiary

Growing up, my favorite part of going to the doctor was the Animalia panels circling each room. Sometimes, I would hide behind a marble pillar watching “Diabolical Dragons Devouring Dainty Delicacies,” smelling sulfur and sugar so deeply that when the doctor came in, I could not be more surprised. Those panels, thresholds between belief and imagination, tickled my sense of self. Donika Kelly’s debut collection Bestiary, chosen by Nikki Finney as the winner of the Cave Canem Poetry Prize, is just as effective as those panels. Bestiary will transport you—and return you to your world made quite new—making you question categories you give to language, creatures, even yourself.

“Refuse the old means of measurement,” Kelly commands in Bestiary’s opening line. As her book spirals out over 43 poems, all one page long save for the visceral 16-page sequence “How to be alone,” we are comforted and challenged by Bestiary’s multi-layered structure. On first level, Bestiary is a one-section collection with a prelude poem, 41 poems, and coda poem. In this larger pattern, Kelly includes 3 poems titled “Bower,” 3 self-portraits, and 10 titled with some variation on “Love Poem.”

Further, Kelly’s first poem, “Out West,” is in direct geographical opposition to her final poem, “Back East,” a collection-bracketing opposition echoed by her second poem, “Catalogue,” whose title (and evoked form) is quite dissimilar to her penultimate poem, “Love Poem.” These multiple collection-wide bracketings echo Eduardo Corral’s Slow Lightning, though while Corral frames through parallels and identical titles, Kelly frames through these tools as well as oppositions.

As befitting a collection working through complex subject matter, from race to incest to migration, Bestiary opens with an imperative and uses imperatives throughout to heighten personal relevance. In “Self-Portrait as a Door” (one of two poems originally published in Tupelo Quarterly), Kelly builds immediacy through the imperative and elimination of almost all non-end-stop punctuation, as in:

          [...] 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. [...]           There is a hand hard as you are hard

And after this poem’s first line, “All the birds die of blunt-force trauma—”, the reader, who finds their identity as all things “hard as you are hard,” becomes complicit in these bird-deaths.

But far from static complicity, Bestiary moves toward world-changing transformation only possible by reckoning with one’s own monsters, by working within and against polarities to find new meanings. After all, what is a meaning but a measurement, a finding of a mean to plot our world upon?

In Bestiary, Kelly speaks as chimera, centaur, satyr; as hermit thrush, ostrich, red bird; and more. She writes herself—ourselves—to where personal identity becomes a myth. Her first 8 Love Poems take a mythic persona (i.e. “Love Poem: Chimera”), the 9th is “Love Poem: Donika,” and the last is simply “Love Poem.” She takes us further, to where identity and myth dissolve in “Winter Poem”:

          [...] We are fire or
          the image of fire, the day, or
          the breaking of it. We disappear, chaff
          of myth, what held the story of a season’s end.

Kelly also works to dissolve the boundary between female and male. Our speaker is both sexes and neither at once, finding space for new measurings of self. In “Where she is opened. Where she is closed.”, woman transforms into woman-and-man, as “He hollows her like a gourd” and “climbs inside,” and she finds, “He is the heart now, / the lungs and stomach that she cannot live without.” In “How to be alone,” we embody this double-ness as we “Practice the lonely drag that makes you / no different from the men you resemble,” the linebreak highlighting what “makes you”—we usually assume, unique—dissolves individuality, to merge us into our opposite. A powerful lesson at any time, but more so as politicians strive to accentuate perceived differences.

At times, these transgressive measurements are harder to follow. As a member of the LGBT community, I rejoice when I read, “You have been cruel to the woman / you love,” the first direct statement of the speaker’s unforced sexual orientation, nearly 30 pages into the collection, in “How to be alone.” This statement is echoed as Bestiary progresses, alongside reclamation of the body now able to, in “Love Poem: Satyr”:

          [...] call to you with a breath
          of spring, a small wind warmed in my breast
          and shaped by the lips you loved.

Yet, near the collection’s end, the speaker actualizes her sexuality by watching gay porn. “What Gay Porn Has Done for Me” opens, “Only the boys for me now, hard,” and closes:

          I am learning to love
          the look of men. I am learning

          what to do with my face,
          and I come on anything I like.

While as a gay man, I can understand that sentiment, I become unsettled by a speaker—who has had to reclaim her body after repeated male violations—turning to male imagery to realize her sexuality, especially imagery that allows no space for female subjectivity and relies on force to achieve pleasure. This male-ness extends to the lover in Bestiary’s penultimate poem and final “Love Poem,” when:

          When I see you again, I am the strongest
          man in the world. I hurl tires and pull trucks
          with my breast for you.
          You are also the strongest man
          in the world. [...]

Does migration within and against sexes require casting-off one and fastening-on another? Must femaleness be submerged or erased to experience maleness? If so, is that violence or transcendence? Is a collection still feminist if the speaker invites male imagery to dominate as the collection closes?

I return to Bestiary’s opening: “Refuse the old means of measurement.” Perhaps, in this world, male and female need not be burdened by old sociocultural measures. Perhaps one can be both the strongest man and the strongest, or most delicate, woman. Perhaps it is enough to feel “the red bird inside my chest, // between my knees. This red bird calls / like it is spring,” for, as the line continues, it is logical “a brown hen will cock // her head and answer” (“Red Bird”), another evocative linebreak to suspend readers in a moment, a being, where both sexes exist simultaneously.

Indeed, Bestiary offers ways to measure a new world of radical empathy, where we experience both separation and integration, where we are both male and female, where we realize, as in “Whale”:

          how finally there was no whale
          or breath or sound or woman;

          how, finally, there was only the body,
          rising through the water toward the sun.

Are we not all, at last, bodies reaching toward light? And since the recent election, do we not long to find community among these new repressive walls? Donika Kelly’s debut collection, Bestiary, is building this community and inviting us to join in. Welcome to what America could be, with the help of poets like Kelly, help more needed and more welcome now than ever.
Lucien Darjeun Meadows was born in Virginia. His poetry has appeared in West Branch, Narrative, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Beloit Poetry Journal, and the American Journal of Nursing. An AWP Intro Journals Project winner, he has received nominations for the Pushcart Prize and recognition from the Academy of American Poets. Lucien lives in Fort Collins, Colorado.