read and recommended: Kingdom Animalia by Aracelis Girmay

I’ve been trying to read more, which is to say making time to read more, because finding time to read more will never, in fact, happen. But also, if I’ve read something and loved it, it feels wrong not to share it. I often do that on Twitter, but that’s not like really digging into a work and pointing out why it’s loved. Here’s one. I intend more to follow.

Kingdom Animalia by Aracelis Girmay

First, a note on the press: I love BOA Editions. They make beautiful, interesting books that are written by artists I like a lot. They also run a few contests, so if you write, check them out.

So, this poetry collection. I discovered Girmay’s work through the Tuesday Poem blog because friend and BOA poet Sean Thomas Dougherty shared it on Facebook near the end of August.

The Tuesday Poem & work Sean posted was “For Patrick Rosal Who Wore a Green Dress & Said.”

And before I even looked at the poem I wanted to look at it because Patrick Rosal was mentioned. Rosal read at an AWP off-site reading I was at with Drunken Boat one year, and I teach his essay “Improvisations: Everything I Know About Pianos” every chance I get. (He also wrote an essay about kettlebells that I absolutely need to re-read, especially as we’re approaching a new Olympic year.)

And then I read Aracelis Girmay’s poem and I bought the book before the sun set on the thought because the poem is so vibrant, so much of everything I want to see everywhere: color and joy and snap.

That poem did not prepare me one whit for this collection. “For Patrick Rosal…” is, even, in my memory of the book (completed five days ago), an outlier. What remains with me from the collection as a whole is mortality. I don’t mean to suggest that the book is depressing, but there’s a feeling of the grave about it, exploratorily so, investigatively so. I’ve never read a poetry collection like it.

Girmay opens with earth, closing the first poem, the title poem, with this:

Whole years will be spent, underneath these impossible stars,
when dirt’s the only animal who will sleep with you
& touch you with
its mouth.

The feeling lingers, soft and tender but curiously (appropriately) cool; so many of the poems work as memento mori of one kind or another, but seldom do anything so expected as outright mourning (and where maybe the poems do mourn, like in “Abuelo, Mi Muerto,” they’re also celebratory; they’re finely detailed; they’re so sharp I can’t think of feeling sad). Instead, the focus is on “[t]he kingdom of touching; / the touches of the disappearing, things.”

That’s what Girmay does, over and over: she shows us the rich points of overlap, overlap of life and death, the skin of lovers, the place one is and the place one is going and the place one has been. History and representation. The image of the swan and its fading away.

There are a number of portrait poems in the collection, too, some proclaimed self-portraits, some identified as portraits of others, but they all approach their subject obliquely, or as though done from one fragment of a fractured mirror–they don’t seek the whole, but instead capture the particular with startling precision. “Portrait of the Woman as a Skein” does this by lines, each a new revelation of possibility. The poem’s address to the second person, always seemingly a new conception (not a new person, a new idea of the same person), is a constant re-engagement:

Sometimes, it is true, you are like Lake Sovetskaya.
Buried underneath an arctic ice sheet:
           ________________________________________
                                   (                    ).

Sometimes it is true. Sometimes it is not.

There are poems in this collection about large tragedies and small, and again, that constant feeling of grave dust on the pages (dry, honest dirt, dirt we have to admire and respect), but nothing in this collection hit me like “Praise Song for the Donkey.”

At first, I thought of Christopher Smart’s “Jubilate Agno” and his treatise on his cat, Jeoffry. And that’s a little odd–Smart’s poem is so mannered in its eighteenth century way–but it’s a list of things that charm me about an animal, written by someone who notices because he cherishes. But that’s what Girmay poem does: it notices because the poet cherishes:

Praise the Mohawk roof
of the donkey’s good and gray head, praise
its dangerous mane hollering out.

There is no way not to love this donkey with that mane. There is no way not to grieve this donkey because this donkey, like nearly everything else in Girmay’s collection, knows death. That the poem is written after a real event–a bombing in Gaza in 2009–gives it context, yes, but it’s the donkey that becomes real here at line one, all fresh, bristled words, and it’s because of the donkey my heart breaks because Aracelis Girmay makes the reader know the donkey. And how can I keep from grieving the donkey once I know her? 

How can I keep from celebrating these poems, now that I know them?

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