by Donika Kelly


by Donika Kelly


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Donika Kelly's fierce debut collection, longlisted for the 2016 National Book Award and winner of the 2015 Cave Canem Poetry Prize

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 monsters—half human and half something else. Donika Kelly's Bestiary is a catalogue of creatures—from 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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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781555977580
Publisher: Graywolf Press
Publication date: 10/11/2016
Pages: 80
Sales rank: 287,932
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.30(d)

About the Author

Donika Kelly is a poet and a scholar, and is currently a lecturer in the Gender, Sexuality, and Women's Studies Program at the University of California, Davis. Her poems have appeared in Hayden's Ferry Review, Indiana Review, and West Branch.

Read an Excerpt



By Donika Kelly

Graywolf Press

Copyright © 2016 Donika Kelly
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-55597-953-9


    Out West

    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."



    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.

    Hermit Thrush

    We never knew winter before this.
    Winter where none of the trees lose

    their needles,
    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
    beautiful, too.

    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?

    Handsome is

    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.
    Don't 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
    with heat.

    You plan to get the larger one fixed.
    You joke, there are no balls in my
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
    ever been.

    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
    your peace.


    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

Catalogue 7

Fourth Grade Autobiography 8

Where she is opened Where she is closed 9

Love Poem: Chimera 10

Bower 11

Hermit Thrush 12

Bower 13

Self-Portrait as a Block of Ice 14

Bower 15

Self-Portrait as a Door 16

Swallow 17

Love Poem: Pegasus 18

Handsome is 19

How to be alone 20

Whale 36

Ceremony at the end of a season 37

Ostrich 38

Arkansas Love Song 39

A man goes west and falls off his horse in the desert 40

Love Poem: Centaur 41

Secretary 42

Love Poem: centaur 43

Love Poem: Satyr 44

Balloon 45

Love Poem: Mermaid 46

Love letter 47

Love Poem: Werewolf 48

Little Box 49

Self-Portrait as a Wooden Flower 51

Commandments 52

Love Poem: Griffon 53

Archaeology 55

Tender 56

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

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