Review: Donika Kelly’s Bestiary Confronts Monstrous Humanity


As soon as we enter Donika Kelly's Bestiary through its first poem, "Out West", we undergo a transformation.  Under Kelly's invitation to "rely… on the thrumming wilderness of self," we expand into sprawling landscapes, each of our senses developing into an ecosystem to house the beasts that Kelly will call into existence throughout the collection:

You have been lost for some time, taking comfort in being home to any wandering thing. Sheep and brown cows

graze your heart pocket. Antelope and bison lap the great lake of your eye. And in your ear the black bear winters.

The transformation that readers experience in "Out West" is one of many that occur in Bestiary.  Boundaries that provide a comfortable separation between what is human, what is animal, and what is monstrous are broken down by the collection's cast of shapeshifting creatures.  We see the futile pomp and tragic circumstance of our own romantic rituals mirrored in "Bower" as the bowerbird goes to great lengths to gussy up his nest for an unimpressed mate. Likewise, we see the human and animal blend in "Whale" as the whale and the woman it swallowed become one body, "rising through the water toward the sun."  Kelly enchants us with luminous natural imagery and a potent, enigmatic energy that courses through these tales of human-animal hybridity.  These poems create a kaleidoscope visage of their speaker's world- the figures that are shown to us defy preset archetypes and become shrouded in distortion.

The greatest feats of transfiguration displayed in Bestiary are the ones that Kelly performs on herself.  Scattered throughout Bestiary is a series of love poems that focus on a number of mythological creatures.  As we read through Kelly's rich descriptions and re-imaginings of these legendary beasts, it becomes clearer that these love poems allude to the various forms she has inhabited.  In the first mythological love poem of the collection, we find the speaker splitting into the pieces of the poly-headed Chimera:

I thought myself lion and serpent. Thought myself body enough for two, for we. Found comfort in never being lonely.

This love poem follows two of the several autobiographical poems that mention the sexual abuse Kelly suffered as a child.  Kelly's first metamorphosis into the Chimera not only reflects the dissociation triggered by trauma, but also the instinct to harden against the source of hurt for survival's sake.  The linguistic strength of Kelly's verses incites a visceral reaction from readers; we can feel the layers of protection and separation from reality take shape during the Chimera's birth:

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.

These love poems exquisitely diagram new and interconnected cycles of growth that are achieved through the speaker's hard emotional labor.  From each of the monsters, we receive a valuable piece of human experience.  While each piece emits its own unique glow, the Minotaur's poem completes this series of mythological metamorphosis with a brilliant shine:

I open my mouth to the wind. The wind opens my heart, my breast. I leave the bare

bones behind. I leave the soul, once another's, once my own, there in that maze of sand,

mortar, and bellows. A golden light hails me, pulls me like a worm from the earth.

Donika Kelly's Bestiary is a masterful and magical collection of poetry.  Brimming with vibrant mythological allusions, beautiful descriptions of the natural world, and language that flows with graceful purpose, these poems are a joy to read from a technical standpoint.  However, it is the narrative of steady survival and perseverance in the face of hopelessness and grief that gives Bestiary its extraordinary quality.  In a comment to the National Book Foundation, Kelly states,

I dedicated Bestiary to the women who helped save my life again and again: the five therapists I’ve seen since I was 18 years old. To put it bluntly, I would not have survived to write this book without them.  Bestiary extends to readers who have experienced depression and anxiety, sexual trauma, and/or familial loss an offering and, hopefully, a resonance.

Bestiary confronts the human capacity to be monstrous, but it also affirms that the monsters of our past can be conquered through courageous acts of self-acceptance and self-love.  At the end of this collection's journey, Kelly presents to us the hope of a "a clear sky, your hand in mine. A hand full of sky."

Bestiary is published by Graywolf Press and is the winner of the 2015 Cave Canem Poetry Prize.  Buy it here for $16.

Picture of the author
Ariel Clark-Semyck