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The final book I finished in 2016 was a debut collection by Donika Kelly called Bestiary. It was on the long list for the National Book Award and has received lots of buzz. Poetry getting buzz is always so exciting! I waited a long time to get the book from the library and the wait was worth it.

A bestiary, as you may know, is a book of beasts — animals, birds sometimes real sometimes fantastical. Bestiaries were big in the Medieval times and featured beautiful illuminated drawings of the beasts in question. There was text that described the creature and it often included a moral lesson of some kind.

Kelly’s Bestiary certainly includes a wide range of “beasts” from the real — whale, ostrich, swallow — to the mythical — centaur, mermaid, werewolf. The bestiary also includes humans — sister, lovers, Donika herself. There is, however, no moral lesson here. If anything Kelly leaves us with questions about what it means to be a beast (or not). A good many of the poems are love poems that exude loneliness, desire, an assertion of identity, even triumph of a sort.

I very much liked the love poems. They are twined throughout the collection and you know it is going to be a love poem because Kelly tells you in the title. Here, for instance, is “Love Poem: Centaur”

Nothing approaches a field like me. Hard
gallop, hard chest — hooves and mane flicking
tail. My love: I apprehend each flower,
each winged body, saturated in a light
that burnishes. I would make a burnishing
of you, by which I mean a field in flower,
by which I mean, a breaching — my hands
making an arrow of themselves, rooting
the loosened dirt. I would make for you
the barest sounds, wing against wing,
there, at the point of articulation. Love,
I pound the earth for you. I pound the earth.

That has got to be one of the sexiest, most erotic poems I have read in a long time. Gets me all a-flutter every time I read it.

“Love Poem: Minotaur” begins,

Freedom is a thread of light snaking
the canyon like an ant through a conch.

And “Love Poem: Mermaid:”

Do you ever look into a mirror,
which is also an ocean heavy with sun?

“Love Poem: Chimera” begins,

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

There is even a “Love Poem: Donika.” But one of my favorites is simply titled “Love Poem.” Each of the five stanzas is numbered and each one is a kind of transformation (because isn’t love transformative?) with the entire poem full of wordplay that is utterly delightful. Here is stanza two:

All day, away from you, I pine,
bark and needle. I break into the bank
of sky. Inside there is a thick ring. A season
of growth — of sun and water —

Isn’t that marvelous?

Even though I liked the many love poems best, the entire collection is enjoyable and it deserved making it to the long list for the National Book Award. Not sure why it didn’t make the short list, it really is that good. And even better, this being a debut collection, I expect Kelly will only get better. Oh, and did I mention this was published by local Graywolf Press? An independent, nonprofit publisher, they have really been making a name for themselves these last few years. So exciting!

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