Review: Bestiary by Donika Kelly

by Donika Kelly
Graywolf Press, 2016

Review by Vivian Wagner

Donika Kelly’s Bestiary is a powerful collection of poems about trauma and recovery. The poems, as suggested by the collection’s title, focus on beasts, both real and mythical, physical and emotional. Many of these beasts are also hybrid creatures, embodying the feelings of speakers who are in some way always out-of-sync and out-of-place.

Hybridity is a way of thinking about brokenness, since hybrid creatures are not, almost by definition, whole. These poems are about damage, about people who are monstrous, and about the monsters we ourselves sometimes turn into.

Nikky Finney, who selected Bestiary as the winner of the Cave Canem Poetry Prize, says in her introduction that the poems in this collection are “made of red bricks and seashells, poem material so old you can still smell the salt in them–from before–when the city the poet is returning to was not a city at all.” She’s right that there’s something mysterious about these poems, something that ties them to the landscape and to history, even as they express an urgent sense of immediacy.

The first poem in the collection, “Out West,” begins as follows:

          Refuse the old means of measurement.
          Rely instead on the thrumming
          wilderness of the self. Listen.

This poem sends readers on a journey through a wilderness that’s being created even as it’s witnessed. In these poems, we’re explorers, accompanied by a guide who’s at once forthcoming and secretive, who shifts shapes continually.

This collection is, in some ways, a mystery. We know as readers that something has happened to fracture and fragment the speakers of these poems, forming many different animals and beasts, but we can’t be sure what that originary moment was. The shape-shifting begins in the collection’s second poem, “Catalogue,” which begins with an imagining of beings of various identity and size:

          You think about being small,
          a child. No. Smaller,
          a bird. Smaller still,
          a small bird.

Later in this poem, shapes shift again:

          You grow. You are large.
          You are a 19th century poem.
          All of America is inside you,
          a catalogue of lives and land
          and burrowing things.

The speaker eventually becomes a person, and then “of a piece” with a thrush, a dormouse, and a great black bear. The poem contains multitudes.

By the next poem, “Fourth Grade Autobiography,” we start to get a glimpse of what’s going on beneath the surface of these poems, the engine of abuse. We hear in this poem of a seemingly innocent childhood in Los Angeles, a childhood of cartwheels and grass and salted plums. The poem ends, though, with this menacing image:

          Sometimes Mama dances with the dog.
          Sometimes my dad dances with me. I am
          careful not to touch. He is careful
          to smile with his whole face.

The next poem, “Where she is opened. Where she is closed,” brings a sense of danger and completion to the narrative begun in “Fourth Grade Autobiography.” “Where she is opened. Where she is closed” begins with someone opening the chest of the speaker, separating the “flat skin / of one breast from the other” and climbing inside her. The violation is clear and startling, particularly when paired with the imminent sense of danger brought on by the smiling father figure in the previous poem. After crawling inside her, the invading abuser takes up residence in her body, and, we’re made to understand, her mind. In fact, together wit hers, his body creates a monstrous hybrid, and she cannot escape him and his presence:

          …he says, Carry me, and she carries him beneath her
          knitted ribs, her hard breasts. He is the heart now,
          the lungs and stomach that she cannot live without.

There’s something at once horrific and compassionate about this poem, recognizing as it does that the speaker is one and the same as her abuser, at once shaped by him and enfolding him in her own flesh. He has, literally, become her heart, and she cannot exist without him. Together they create a monstrosity that is the speaker herself.

It’s not possible to translate these poems into a narrative, and I wouldn’t want to. They use a dream language, and their imagery carries import that couldn’t be fully explained by a plot. These early poems do, however, set the stage for the parade of beasts to follow, and they provide a way of making sense of the collection’s bewildering, bestial arc.

Some of the poems in the collection play with multiple meanings. The poem “Swallow,” for instance, goes from one meaning of “swallow” to another. It begins with one meaning—“The first time you swallow”—and ends with another—“you need a flock to follow.” The “you” begins by swallowing, and ends by transforming into a bird.

Many of the poems, in fact, have birds as central images. Birds seem a fitting image for a poetic sensibility that’s at once delicate and strong. The tiny bones of birds can be deceptively flexible, and birds can survive extremes. They are, after all, the only surviving dinosaurs, so it makes sense that they wing through a collection that’s about survival.

Other poems deal with monsters, echoing an epigraph from Neil Gaiman offered early in the collection: “’Oh, monsters are scared… / That’s why they’re monsters.’” Some of these monsters are recognizable from myth, like the speaker in “Love Poem: centaur”: “I have never known a field as wild / as your heart.” Others repeat the trope of the father hiding inside another, as in the poem “Handsome is”: “In the dream, my father hides inside / another man’s body.”

The poems in Bestiary weave in and out of bodies and landscapes, with the earth becoming a way of grounding all the many various creatures birthed by these poems. Often, body and landscape becomes one, as in “Arkansas Love Song,” which begins with the following stanzas:

          Fences break a landscape
          the way a body makes
          a road–somewhere between

          Memphis and home,
          the shoulder collects masses
          of hide and blood and white,

          white tendon.

When pain and trauma become unspeakable and seemingly unsurvivable, invoking landscape becomes a way both to speak and to survive. The earth’s body provides sustenance and nourishment for all the bodies on it, no matter how damaged or damaging those bodies might be. The earth is, in this sense, if not a place of forgiveness, at least one of compassion.

The collection begins with a poem called “Out West” and ends with one called “Back East.” This final poem is a travelogue of sorts, following the landscape and animals–moose, elk, deer, and antelope–while traversing a northern route. This poem has a “we” in it, and the “you” is not hypothetical, but seemingly a real person, it seems, and one who embodies a sense of care and caretaking: “Under a clear sky, your hand in mine. A hand full of sky…

Bestiary is complicated and haunting collection of poems. I want to resist the urge to make sense of it, in the same way that I don’t like to assign specific meanings to dream images. The poems in this collection do, however, embody multiple strands of abuse and survival, and their images tell layered stories of monstrosity with a sense of grace and hope.


Donika Kelly is the author of Bestiary (Graywolf Press, 2016) and the winner of the Cave Canem Poetry Prize. She teaches at St. Bonaventure University.

Vivian Wagner lives in New Concord, Ohio, where she teaches English at Muskingum University. She’s the author of a memoir, Fiddle: One Woman, Four Strings, and 8,000 Miles of Music (Citadel-Kensington), a poetry collection, The Village (Kelsay Books), and a micro-chapbook, Making (Origami Poems Project).