Nature Poetry Part III: Donika Kelly’s ‘Bestiary’

In Featured, Verse by Ian Kennedy

by Ian Kennedy

So far this short series on Nature poetry has focused on books where nature as landscape, as force of growth, as human counterpart, has been a central theme. The third collection of poetry, Donika Kelly’s Bestiary, however, takes a very different view of the relationship between nature and person, a view that collapses that dichotomy. Our previous poets, Ross Gay and [. However, Kelly goes far beyond intertwining. While she mentions scores of animals, from the savannah dwelling secretary bird, to dogs at home, to imagined ones like minotaurs, the true beasts are always us: fathers handsome and strong who invade their daughter’s bedrooms, lovers who are spurned for their honesty, noticing that same father’s face in your own. These are the beasts that stand alongside the animals, illustrated with forceful poetics.

Focusing on the beast in the human means that Kelly spends lots of energy on thinking about what it means to be human, and what determines personhood. ‘Catalogue’ lists that which we are, though our constituents may lie far in space and time. Part of that is the becoming of human life, which happens at birth, but continues always. Kelly writes, “Soon you will be a person. Nothing/will change. Your body will be of a piece/with all other bodies: the thrush,/the dormouse, the great black bear.” Being/becoming a person, in this case, means realizing not an interdependence, but rather an undifferentiated seeping of bodies into other bodies. Such being intertwined with the natural world, however, is not instinctually realized.

This is most clear in the forceful ‘How to Be Alone,’ the, apparently autobiographical, narrator of which struggles to realize, truly, the first three words of the title. The poem’s subjects are two dogs and divers memories, most notably of parents, sister, and lover. Desires towards those memories and the reasons for them, revealed disjointedly not in the nice order we give our explanations, but with the surging insistence of our thoughts. I refrain from quoting from this poem only because each line becomes deceptively clear out of context, losing the intertwinings which obscure vision but also give meaning. Buy the collection and read the full text of this poem.

The focus on the meaning of being, human being, is most obvious in ‘How to Be Alone,’

but is no less at issue in verses with explicitly zoological titles. The sequence on bowerbirds, for instance, describes the behavior of birds, but also the dwelling of all beings. Another series of love poems (each titled ‘Love Poem:’ appended with a mythical beast: centaur, chimera, satyr, werewolf) focuses on how life eschews base homogeneity: we are never purebred, left to manage with apparently ill-fitting parts.

A final note, in keeping perhaps with natural observations, to Kelly’s incredible attention to details of human expression. In ‘Tender’ she pulls childhood memory from her sister’s pronunciation of the title word; in ‘Archeology’ she notices her father’s face in the lines of her own. Each of these poems walks boldly on the line between being poignant and prosaic. They find a balance which is emotional, graceful, and direct.


Buy Bestiary at your local bookstore. If they don’t have it, request it or order directly from the wonderful Graywolf Press here.