Review of Donika Kelly's Bestiary (Graywolf, 2016)

 Bestiary by Donika Kelly

review & writing prompt by José Angel Araguz

One of the compelling aspects of Donika Kelly’s Bestiary (Graywolf Press) is the way the poems catalogue experiences that society in general refuses to name much less dwell upon. From child abuse to conflicted ideas of self rooted in race and oppression, Kelly’s book takes on its title’s premise of presenting a compendium of beasts and subverts it into a metaphor for documenting inner struggles and transformations. This work, however, is done indirectly through evocation and metaphor, making the arguments that much more engaging and engrossing.

There is a sequence of love poems, for example, that interpolate the language and lore around various mythological creatures and braids it with lyric meditations on the heart. In “Love Poem: Mermaid,” we encounter the lines:

Love, I am made

for calling: bare breast, smooth tail,
the perfect balance of scales.

I have claimed this rock,
which is also your heart,

which is also a shell I hold
to my ear to hear what is right

in front of me.

This mixing of the personal and mythological worlds moves beyond metaphor via direct address. Subverting the intimacy expected of love poems, the speaker evokes the distance and separation of mermaids and places it between herself and the addressed beloved. A sense of human helplessness is felt as the conceit is pushed to its conclusion:

                        I am a witness
to the sea and the sun, to your body

lashed to the mast. O that my voice
were a knife, that a knife could change

anything, that there was nothing
between us but salt and breath.

There is an emotional honesty in these lines that springs from both mermaid metaphor and human voice. The mermaid metaphor invites “the sea and the sun” and the “body / lashed to the mast” imagery into the poem. Yet, it is the human voice of the speaker that brings home the logic and hurt behind the last three lines. Wishing that “there was nothing / between us but salt and breath,” suggests, without naming, the worlds (mythological, emotional) between the speaker and the beloved.

This work of suggestion continues throughout the book’s other themes. In “Balloon,” we find a speaker contemplating:

What kind of bird is she? Foul.
What kind of woman is she?

In “Love Poem: Griffon,” another speaker:

kind of bird am I?

These moments are rendered in their respective poems in ways that allow the questions to suggest themselves. In “Balloon,” wordplay presents a moment of blurred insight; in the latter poem, a griffon is given voice only to question itself, a move that seems playful except when lingered upon. What is being given voice in a poem like this is both a griffon and a self; these questions, then, point to spaces where words are left unspoken.

The gesture is nuanced, yet essential. The poems of Bestiary surprise in their ability to acknowledge silences. This is most evident in “Love Poem: Donika,” in which the speaker interrogates that other mythological creature, the poet:

This is a spring of shambles.
Of meadows slow to flower,
of fire sooting the underbrush,
and, love, I am lonely as a bear.

After admitting that “I am no good at bearish things,” the speaker goes on to end the poem stating:

I am tired of mounting
this hill alone.
                        Love, how do I gain
what was lost in winter?

Here, we have a poem that moves from “a spring of shambles” to a looking back at “what was lost in winter.” Through the conceit of a bear emerging out of hibernation, this poem evokes a sense of being acutely aware of change and loss simultaneously. This particular change and loss, however, is less about any beloved and more about a state of being.

To push the conceit further: bears and poets survive, for all intents and purposes, through acts of necessary solitude. But what is there after survival? What is there beyond moving forward? The poems of Bestiary ask us to listen not just for the answers to these questions but for the questions themselves. In this space, silence is seen not as the absence of sound but a lessening of it, a lessening that implies a return.


Writing Prompt: Choose a creature (mythological or otherwise) and free-write a list of associations around it. Allow for things you know to mix with pure associations that occur in the moment. Then, think about a memory or time in your life where you conflicted with someone (a partner, a family member, yourself, etc.) and list phrases that you recall from that time. Then braid these two lists into a poem where one side influences the feel and logic of the other.


José Angel Araguz is a CantoMundo fellow and the author of seven chapbooks as well as the collections Everything We Think We Hear (Floricanto Press) and Small Fires (FutureCycle Press). His poems, prose, and reviews have appeared in Crab Creek Review, Prairie Schooner, The Windward Review, and The Bind. He runs the poetry blog The Friday Influence and teaches English and creative writing at Linfield College in McMinnville, Oregon.