Book Review: Bestiary

Bestiary: Poems

Written by Donika Kelly

Winner of the 2015 Cave Canem Poetry Prize and long listed for the 2016 National Book Award for Poetry, poet-scholar Donika Kelly’s debut collection binds the human and animal worlds inextricably together.

Leila Green

Leila Green


70 pages, Graywolf Press, $16.00

“A golden light hails me, pulls me like a worm from the earth.”

     Covering Donika Kelly’s debut poetry collection, Bestiary, is the mid-13th century artwork of an unknown painter titled: Adam Naming the Animals. In this painting, a chaotic assortment of watercolored animals inhabit the same, barren space. A leaping horse collides with a fox. A monkey squats atop a snail. A flamingo looks to be waltzing on top of an owl with its claws around a shriveled rat. This hodgepodge of animals reflects the same vivid assortment of animal life clawing its way out of Bestiary’s pages. 

     In Bestiary, Kelly—a current Assistant Professor at St. Bonaventure University—summons the wilderness of self. Both in her own reflection and in the rendering of other bodies and functions, she writes poems that unite the unmistakably similar human world and animal kingdom. Kelly's exquisite rendering of each realm makes them seem totally indistinguishable from one another. Her father is “a tree in bloom.” In “Bower,” she compares herself to a hen. Her first cry? “A beating of wings.” She thinks herself “lion and serpent,” demonstrating how supposedly "savage" tendencies can inhabit, question and even corrupt our own “civility.” Bestiary is basically a literary zoo. Animals from each corner of the kingdom make appearances. Kelly summons imaginary animals too, like a minotaur and a centaur. But perhaps the most powerful poem is the brave, multi-paged “How to be alone”— an off-kilter kind of requiem for her dogs, her parents and, simply put, death. 

     Kelly’s animal-centric poetry contains a rawness that can be described as feral. Yet, her terse lines and sense of restraint contradict this rawness, forging a literal tension that mirrors that of the separate, yet highly fluid human and animal realms. Despite the frantic desire to be civilized, the threat of savagery looms directly under the skin of each poem, wherein lies, “The iron smell of blood,/ the sweet marrow, fields of grass and bone.” Bestiary sits at the intersection of our civility and our primal instincts; at the strange junction of forgiveness and rage. It humbly and beautifully reminds us that we are the ones that inhabit the animal kingdom—and vice versa.

Bestiary: Poems is available from the Graywolf Press website for $16.00. Click here to order.