I thought myself lion and serpent. Thought myself body enough for two, for we.
Found comfort in never being lonely.
What burst from my back, from my bones, what lived along the ridge from crown to crown, from mane to forked tongue beneath the skin. 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.
from "Love Poem: Chimera"
Across this remarkable first book are encounters with animals, legendary beasts, and mythological monstershalf human and half something else. Donika Kelly's Bestiary is a catalogue of creaturesfrom the whale and ostrich to the pegasus and chimera to the centaur and griffin. Among them too are poems of love, self-discovery, and travel, from "Out West" to "Back East." Lurking in the middle of this powerful and multifaceted collection is a wrenching sequence that wonders just who or what is the real monster inside this life of survival and reflection. Selected and with an introduction by the National Book Award winner Nikky Finney, Bestiary questions what makes us human, what makes us whole.
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
By Donika Kelly
Graywolf PressCopyright © 2016 Donika Kelly
All rights reserved.
Refuse the old means of measurement.
Rely instead on the thrumming
wilderness of self. Listen.
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.
You name your dawn shadow
You name your dusk shadow
And the river that cuts you as it runs west,
you name it Persistence.
Look. If you could bear sobriety,
you'd be sober.
If you could bear
being a person, you would no longer be
an iron bluff.
Do not wander. We are all apportioned
a certain measure of stillness.
"Oh, monsters are scared ...
That's why they're monsters."
— NEIL GAIMAN
You think about being small,
a child. No. Smaller,
a bird. Smaller still,
a small bird. You think
about the art of holding,
of being held. This hand
can crush you.
Pulp and feather you.
Could release the air
from all your little bones.
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. You contain
your beloved: a field, a building
of softening wood. The birds.
Always. The birds.
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.
When you open your mouth,
there will be only air.
Tighten your throat. Sound,
inexplicably, like something lost.
Fourth Grade Autobiography
We live in Los Angeles, California.
We have a front yard and a backyard.
My favorite things are cartwheels, salted plums,
and playing catch with my dad. I squeeze the grass
and dirt between my fingers. Eat my tongue
white. He launches every ball into orbit.
Every ball drops like an anvil, heavy
and straight into my hands. I am afraid
of riots and falling and the dark.
The sunset of flames ringing our block,
groceries and Asian-owned storefronts. No one
to catch me. Midnight walks from his room to mine.
I believe in the devil.
I have a sister and a brother
and a strong headlock. We have a dog named
Spunky, fawn and black. We have an olive
tree. A black walnut tree. A fig tree.
We lie in the grass and wonder who writes
in the sky. I lie in the grass and imagine
my name, a cloud drifting. Saturday
dance parties. Everyone drunk on pink
panties, screw drivers, and Canadian Club.
Dominoes and spades. Al Green and Mack 10.
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.
Where she is opened. Where she is closed.
When he opens her chest, separates the flat skin
of one breast from the other, breaks the hinge of ribs,
and begins, slowly, to evacuate her organs, she is silent.
He hollows her like a gourd, places her heart
below her lungs, scrapes the ribs clean of fat
and gristle with his thick fingers. He says, Now you are ready,
and climbs inside. But she is not ready for the dry bulk
of his body curled inside her own. She is not ready to exhale
his breath, cannot bear both him and herself,
but 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.
Love Poem: Chimera
I thought myself lion and serpent. Thought
myself body enough for two, for we.
Found comfort in never being lonely.
What burst from my back, from my bones, what lived
along the ridge from crown to crown, from mane
to forked tongue beneath the skin. 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.
Consider the bowerbird and his obsession
of blue, and then the island light, the acacia,
the grounded beasts. Here, the iron smell of blood,
the sweet marrow, fields of grass and bone.
And there, the bowerbird.
Watch as he manicures his lawn, puts in all places
a bit of blue, a turning leaf. And then,
how the female finds him,
lacking. All that blue for nothing.
We never knew winter before this.
Winter where none of the trees lose
where ice creaks the limb,
and the hermit thrush forages for insects
on the forest floor. Winter where,
finally, the white girls, after a long,
long summer of bronze and muscle and shine,
cover their legs. Winter, where we can finally feel
We say we.
I mean I.
When they cover their legs,
I can feel beautiful, too.
The bowerbird finds
a bluer eye to line his nest,
his groomed ground,
his wooing place.
The bluer eye does break
and weep when the bowerbird
leaves or brings
leaves or branches or bits
of simple blue string.
The bluer eye does look and look
and flinch at the open beak,
the narrow maw,
the trauma of being dug
deeper into the arched
and closing bower.
The bowerbird had lost
his sense of blue, his sense
of eye, but the string tangles,
beautifully, on his dark, clean grounds.
Self-Portrait as a Block of Ice
What the tongue wants.
Supplication and the burn
of crystals expanding.
To be, always, a waxing,
a waning, and, in waxing
again, not ever the same.
Waste and deferral.
Accumulation and deferral.
You are flesh,
and you are water,
though of the flesh,
you are only muscle,
and of the water,
you are saltless and clean.
Be a caution, a reckoning,
be a thing that breaks
before it bends.
A small hat, the fedora,
gray-blue banded tweed,
sits atop an unkempt nest,
my unpicked hair, a bromeliad
in the canopy. This
is a failure,
this ill-fitted hat. These boy things.
These men things. This hurried
disrobing. My ashen body
and untrimmed nails. But who will listen
to the song of a nutbrown hen?
Self-Portrait as a Door
All the birds die of blunt-force trauma —
of barn of wire of YIELD or SLOW
CHILDREN AT PLAY. You are a sign
are a plank are a raft are a felled oak.
You are a handle are a turn are a bit
of brass lovingly polished.
What birds what bugs what soft
hand come knocking. What echo
what empty what room in need
of a picture a mirror a bit of paint
on the wall. There is a hooked rug
There is a hand hard as you are hard
pounding the door. There is the doormat
owl eye patched by a boot by a body
with a tree for a hand. What roosts
what burrows what scrambles
at the pound. There is a you
on the other side, cold and white
as the room, in need of a window
or an eye. There is your hand
on the door which is now the door
pretending to be a thing that opens.
The first time you swallow—
the light, lurid and cold—
you know you mean
to swallow—again and again—
a woman's voice crawling and heavy
in your body, trying to escape.
Stay calm. You cannot let go.
There isn't an abstraction
you believe in and you are sad for it.
You need a mission to return to,
you need a flock to follow.
Love Poem: Pegasus
Foaled, fully grown, from my mother's neck,
her severed head, the silenced snakes. Call this
freedom. My first cry, a beating of wings,
abandon. Call me orphan before I
even know what a mother is. I think
myself a rising, feather and hoof, neigh
and caw, and you, always, on my back.
You bear a sword and shield, remind me
of her labor, her stoning gaze. What beast
will your blade free next? What call will you loose
from another woman's throat?
In the dream, my father hides inside
another man's body.
I know him
by his hands. But how am I child?
And this wall against my back, how long
has it been a wall? My father follows
me. Handsome as a close friend,
a tree in bloom.
I build a room to hold him.
He picks all the locks. I scream.
I run. Stand still. I am a forest,
a field. I crumble and shift. I wake,
my breath deep inside the earth.
How to be alone
Not that you ever are. The small, rough
dogs lie at your feet or warm your belly.
Who make bearable all that you must
bear. What needs doing, regularly. You
fear your life without them; the hawk
perched on your roof, eyeing the
smaller. The larger, safe for now.
Practice the lonely drag that makes you
no different from the men you resemble.
Let this be a kind of safety. The
shamble in your walk. Become
invulnerable in holding, on every body,
your eye, roving, restless.
This heartache like any clichÃ(c), sincere
and boring. The small dogs your only
constant. You call the smallest to your
breast. The larger, belly exposed,
snoring. They rest.
Admit that, were you a different kind
of person, you would smash in your
father's skull with your booted foot.
This being a fantasy you can hear and
smell and all but feel. A father one
hates. No mother to speak of.
Admit also your mother's death.
Mention, often, her resurrection; the
load of the word. Remember how she
grieved, freshly, when she asked if her
mother was truly dead. How you
answered yes. How she forgot. How
you killed her mother, again and again.
Because she leaves.
And you are always your best.
And you are a fool.
Because you believe in reciprocity.
Because you are afraid of your own
hand. How could you have asked her to
The couch being, at this juncture and
many others, the best antidote to
loneliness. Narrow and brown. You know
the small dogs will wake you when the
neighbor leaves for work, crow and
shrill. You know you will yell at the
littlest and larger to return to the fetal S
of your body.
Crumple the fetal S of your body until
you resemble a ball of paper. The fold
of your limbs, the ache in your joints.
You are too young to be so sore. You
make no room for the rough dogs now.
Your boys. It is winter. You are miserly
You plan to get the larger one fixed.
You joke, there are no balls in my
house, but this is not a joke. Your
father, whose head you would make a
mess of, is oddly attached to the larger's
balls. You consider how the neutering
will affect him. The father. Weeping
over the end of his name.
The smaller has crawled between you
and your green hoodie. Your house is
cold. You have been cruel to the woman
you love because she has been honest
with you. You embarrass yourself.
What you crave: distance. What the
smaller gives you: warmth.
Home is where your dogs are. Home is
where your gods are. Your feet are quite
cold. Still the smallest trembles on your
belly. You continues to become her.
The misfiring keyboard. Operator. I
might be dying. Dead. Soon, like my
mother, who finally remembered my
Only the boys. The couch is best
tonight, though the wind pries sound
from all the loose parts of this house
and so pries the gruff and gutter of my
sweetest hearts. I would like to sleep.
That I might bear what needs it.
Admit also cutting. The attempted
suicides. Both. And the little
ways you brick up your heart. Admit
the sweet black of charcoal making a
river of your body. The blackest you've
The louvered windows. The peach
walls. The buckling ceiling that needs
repair. The gusset of your panties
soaked with your father's semen. Why
you no longer wear panties. Why he
deserves every arc of your boot. Why
the door is always locked.
She, a zombie. Undead. Specter of
herself. Mother. Mama. She does not
remember to think of me anymore. We
recognize each other only in echoes.
Your sadness is full of sadness. You
feel as a man feels: reluctantly. Your
feet are still cold. Oh, little and larger
ones who keep you warm. Oh, little and
larger ones who guard the little lock of
Know, first, that she does not remain
behind the baleen forever.
Know, too, that the whale is unaware
of the woman drowning on its tongue.
And knowing this, recall the keening,
the slow build of sound in the body;
that we were afraid and pressed our fear
low in our breast, held it alongside our breath;
that the tenor of our grief matched,
so nearly, the tenor of our hysteria;
how finally there was no whale
or breath or sound or woman;
how, finally, there was only the body,
rising through the water toward the sun.
Excerpted from Bestiary by Donika Kelly. Copyright © 2016 Donika Kelly. Excerpted by permission of Graywolf Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Introduction Nikky Finney ix
Out West 3
Fourth Grade Autobiography 8
Where she is opened Where she is closed 9
Love Poem: Chimera 10
Hermit Thrush 12
Self-Portrait as a Block of Ice 14
Self-Portrait as a Door 16
Love Poem: Pegasus 18
Handsome is 19
How to be alone 20
Ceremony at the end of a season 37
Arkansas Love Song 39
A man goes west and falls off his horse in the desert 40
Love Poem: Centaur 41
Love Poem: centaur 43
Love Poem: Satyr 44
Love Poem: Mermaid 46
Love letter 47
Love Poem: Werewolf 48
Little Box 49
Self-Portrait as a Wooden Flower 51
Love Poem: Griffon 53
Winter Poem 57
Love Poem: Donika 58
Red Bird 59
What Gay Porn Has Done for Me 60
Sonnet in which only one bird appears 61
Love Poem: Minotaur 62
Santa Rosa 63
Love Poem 64
Back East 67