This poet releases the beasts to discover her humanity

Werewolves, mermaids, griffons and minotaurs: Donika Kelly’s debut collection of poetry, “Bestiary,” is filled with mythological creatures. But unlike medieval bestiaries that used creatures to teach moral lessons to others, Kelly says she was more concerned with finding her own way.

“I’m interested in becoming the best version of myself, not teaching anyone else about morality. I want to explore, ‘what are the stakes here?’ The book is about me exploring how I can become a better person.”

Kelly’s poems also examine the behaviors of real animals. In three separate poems she describes the elaborate mating rituals of the bower bird; the male bower is obsessive about decorating his nest with blue colors to woo a female partner. Kelly, who is gay, says she’s interested in courtship rituals because she doesn’t think she’s very good at them herself.

“I’m not butch and I’m not fem. I’m not very gender conforming. So there was something very comforting to think about these birds who know so clearly what they are doing.”

Sexuality is an undercurrent throughout the book. Kelly says when she was writing the poems she was trying to explore both her identity and gender.

“People read me as more masculine. I’m not masculine, but the clothing I wear isn’t very feminine. So I wanted to figure out, what does it mean that I look one way but I’m not that thing?”

Many of her poems also deal with the sexual abuse she suffered at the hands of her father.

“In a way, I’m trying to figure out why he did what he did. What does it mean to be related to him? To be his child? What am I carrying in me, being his child?

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In the poem, “Self-portrait as a Door,” she says she was exploring the idea that in certain parts of her life, she hasn’t been treated as a person, but as an object. By turns, she is a sign, a plank, a felled tree, a door.

“It’s difficult to overcome sexual trauma as an adult. So in thinking about being a door, it’s something that stops. But it is also something that can open. The poem helps me think about how I can understand my human-ness, in terms of different kinds of objects.”

Kelly says there are so many elements of her identity that have been dehumanized, whether it’s being black, a woman, or a lesbian. Her poems help her sift through these questions.

“How do I see myself in the world when I’ve been told through these narratives that I don’t matter, that I’m not completely human?”

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.

Reprinted with permission from Graywolf Press.

Donika Kelly’s poems have appeared in Gulf Coast, Indiana Review and the Virginia Quarterly Review. Her debut collection, “Bestiary,” won the Cave Canem Poetry Prize, selected by Nikky Finney. Kelly is an assistant professor of English at St. Bonaventure University in New York.

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