A bestiary is a compendium of creatures – an illustrated book from the Middle Ages – with each animal symbolizing some abstract moral principle. They are there to show us foolish humans how to live by the divine code written by Nature/God.
In Donika Kelly’s debut poetry collection, there are beasts large and small – from a hermit thrush to a whale; everyday and mythical – from locusts to centaurs. But they don’t represent moral instruction; Kelly is far too wise to give us such a schematic framework without artistic disruptions. The result is a superb book cloaked in a mystery you can’t quite crack.
To begin with, when I realized what the author was doing, I thought it would come across like a concept album: something clever but perhaps unsustainable. I was wrong. The mythical animals here are creatures of transformation and hybridity: winged Pegasus, the Minotaur, centaurs, griffon, satyr and mermaid. They are unfixed, between worlds, and so always searching or craving.
The animal/mythical world is the world of these poems, but the collection is about being human. It’s particularly about two of the oldest themes of all: memory and desire. The beasts are all struggling for freedom or identity, or they are on a quest for love. Their voices cry out to an unspecified “you.” “Love Poem: Centaur” closes with:
Love,/I pound the earth for you. I pound the earth.
And “Love Poem: Satyr:”
you’ve closed the window to your heart./Closed, too, the door, and blacked the light./I put my ear to the glass, to the wood. I hear/your heart like the wind in the reeds,/meting out my name.
Unlike most young, Black and gifted poets, Kelly avoids the openly political. The poems don’t use the vernacular, and at first glance the pain isn’t sociological. But between the lines, there is trauma: pain born of the death of loved ones, of abuse, of unrequited passion, and of loneliness. The collection’s central metaphor – beasts – stands for the inner struggle to transform oneself, to rise like a phoenix.
Overall, this is one of the most dazzling debut collections I’ve read. It’s won several prizes, among them a Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, a Cave Canem Poetry Prize, and the Tufts Award, and I’m not in the least surprised. Kelly is a writer to watch. She has a million tricks up her sleeve as well as the sensibility and ear of her finest contemporaries: Terrance Hayes, Tracy K. Smith, Indigo Moor, Amanda Johnston. I can’t wait to see what comes next. No doubt it will roar and gallop and purr, like this collection.