Donika Kelly's fierce debut collection, longlisted for the 2016 National Book Award and winner of the 2015 Cave Canem Poetry Prize
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 of ourselves.
--from "Love Poem: Chimera"
Across this remarkable first book are encounters with animals, legendary beasts, and mythological monsters--half human and half something else. Donika Kelly's Bestiary is a catalogue of creatures--from the whale and ostrich to the pegasus and chimera to the centaur and griffin. Among them too are poems of love, self-discovery, and travel, from "Out West" to "Back East." Lurking in the middle of this powerful and multifaceted collection is a wrenching sequence that wonders just who or what is the real monster inside this life of survival and reflection. Selected and with an introduction by the National Book Award winner Nikky Finney, Bestiary questions what makes us human, what makes us whole.
In her astounding debut, Kelly, winner of the 2015 Cave Canem Prize, catalogs creatures familiar and mythical as she turns monsters into recognizable portraits of humankind. The poems employ language that sinks its teeth in at vulnerable moments, easily piercing the tenderest spots: "Freedom is a thread of light snaking/ the canyon like an ant through a conch." Despite the collection's eponymous grounding theme, Kelly doesn't strictly use mythology to teach a moral lesson. She sets the tone with "Catalogue," outlining with care the anxiety and excitement of growing up: "You grow. You are large./ You are a 19th century poem./ All of America is inside you." Poems such as "Fourth Grade Autobiography" explore childhood memories with precision and clarity. Kelly's speaker recalls flashes of neighborhood parties at a time when youthful innocence starts to crack. "My favorite things are cartwheels, salted plums,/ and playing catch with my dad," she writes. "I am afraid/ of riots and falling and the dark." The compact scenes of the poem "How to Be Alone" burn like a hot knife to an open wound; the speaker's loneliness becomes armor in the wake of her mother's death and father's violent transgressions. Kelly's creatures howl and whimper as she imparts emotional truths: "Love,/ I pound the Earth for you. I pound the Earth."