Donika Kelly’s ‘Bestiary’: A mental health journey recorded through poetry

This basilisk has a raptor's beak, a cockscomb, wings, a tail and claws. He is being attacked by a weasel.

We are ushered into the therapy room where Kelly addresses the terrifying nuts and bolts.

On the heels of Fathers’ Day, I revisit Donika Kelly’s Bestiary. What is a bestiary? They were illustrated texts, popular in the Middle Ages, that compiled a list of animals or beasts, usually accompanied with a moral lesson. Bestiary is a vast, gentle catalogue of the beasts the poet must confront, accept and embody in therapy if she is to heal from five years of childhood sexual abuse by her father. Kelly describes herself in an interview as her ‘own preservation project’. Over fourteen years of therapy, she is ‘…in the process of learning how not to hurt myself, and this process is predicated on my seeing myself and knowing myself.’

In a book about the healing of trauma, The Body Keeps The Score, psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk points out that ‘…many traumatised individuals are too hypervigilant to enjoy the ordinary pleasures that life has to offer, while others are too numb to absorb new experiences — or to be alert to signs of real danger.’ As an adult, trauma is not necessarily an event one leaves behind or has the choice to leave behind in the past tense of childhood.

Trauma can splinter a person in small, unknowable ways as well as in dramatic, debilitating ways. The poet echoes this when she says, ‘If you could bear/ being a person, you would no longer be/ an iron bluff’. Kelly assembles the troubling and the miraculous in the therapeutic process into a book that is a generous map for all trauma survivors.    

In the book’s first breath, when we inhale a girl addressed as ‘you’, she is a ‘small bird’ and when we exhale, she has grown ‘large’ and she is told, ‘You are a nineteenth century poem.’ When Kelly describes herself as a small bird whose ‘little bones’ can be crushed, she speaks to the lack of control and agency a small child has in an abusive home. When Kelly acknowledges that she has grown into an expansive poem, she speaks to the vastness we discover inside ourselves as we process and release trauma. In the space of that first poem aptly titled Catalogue we travel the shortest distance between the two poles of the therapeutic journey. We are given a glimpse into what a life beyond trauma can look like. But first we must look uncomfortably close at how trauma is unpacked.

In the introduction to the book, Nikki Finney, who chose the book for the Cave Canem Poetry Prize, says the book teaches us that nothing is ‘all tidy’. The poems in this book do not speak in a singular voice. It is a gathering of the different animals who each have their turn. In the epigraph of the book (a quote by Neil Gaiman) we get our first clue that this book will not allow us pure rage – it will demand a more nuanced, a more complex response from us.

Our emotional work as readers will mirror the work the poet has done. Neil Gaiman saying ‘Oh monsters are scared…/ That’s why they’re monsters’ will haunt our reading of the poems. If previous narratives of abuse have taught us the deep trauma they cause then this narrative shows us how therapy can achieve an understanding of predators beyond evil. In interviews about the book, Kelly has spoken of how therapy helped her explore her own potential to be predatory and how it unearthed the realisation that therapy had not been a resource available to her father.

If previous narratives of abuse have taught us the deep trauma they cause, then this narrative takes a turn further to achieve an understanding beyond evil.

In Fourth Grade Autobiography, we are informed heartbreakingly that her favourite activities at that age are ‘cartwheels, salted plums, / and playing catch with my dad.’ She confesses that she is afraid of ‘Midnight walks from his room to mine.’ These two lines of poetry make uncomfortable companions. Kelly is honest. She reconciles two contradictory parts of one family member because she wants us to know that people are a sum of their parts.

The cover of Donika Kelly's Bestiary, which shows a number of animals against a light yellow background.

Photo courtesy: Graywolf Press

What makes Kelly’s book a challenging, educational read is that I believed every line was a thought she had taken apart and vetted in her own healing process. Even the name of her book is a reference to one of her favourite memories as a child – watching wildlife documentaries with her father.  In Little Box, we learn she was sent to a therapist by a teacher and that she chose to protect her father.

For several nights after the first time I read her book, I dreamt of predators. I woke up to check if the door was locked. After those first nights, the fear gave way to questions. How do we put our burdens down? How do we return to them, turn them over and see them humanely? What about Kelly’s work unnerved me? Was it that her complex conclusions about abusers so closely resembled my own?

Kelly favours the narrative of therapy over the narrative of abuse in her book. The abuse frames the poems, but the recovery pins the words to the page. In the middle of the book, we are slammed with the words ‘Why/ you no longer wear panties. Why he/ deserves every arc of your boot. Why/ the door is always locked.’

This is the closest we come to understanding how she carries it. The book is a celebration of how she put it down. Kelly has written a quiet, thunderous catalogue of her journey into adulthood, self-reliance and an enjoyment of her sexuality.

The book is full of the pieces of advice we tack on ourselves when we are trying to ebb forward. In Self-Portrait as a Block of Ice, Kelly says ‘Be a caution, a reckoning, / be a thing that bends before it breaks.’ In How to Be Alone, she says ‘Admit that, were you a different kind/ of person, you would smash in your/ father’s skull with your booted foot.’

The ability to wield the steps of therapy into lines of poetry is one I have not seen before Kelly. She is deeply gentle with herself just as she is diligent in looking at all the parts of the whole. Kelly is not a poet who looks away even as she admits to herself, ‘You/ feel as a man feels: reluctantly.’ One of the most astonishing parts of the book is how it is continually addressed to herself. We are ushered into the therapy room where Kelly addresses the terrifying nuts and bolts. We are invited to stay, to open ourselves up to surprise and to heartbreak.

In What Gay Porn Has Done for Me, she says ‘Call it comfort, or truth, how they look, / not at the camera, as women do, / but at one another.’ Kelly lays bare for us what is true of so many of us – that the tiniest details comfort and free us. By the time we are deep inside the book and entering the second half, we are allowed to see the aftermath of therapy. She watches and learns from porn. She is in love. She is loved.

In Love Poem: Minotaur, she says ‘Freedom is a thread of light snaking/ the canyon like an ant through a conch.’ In Love Poem: Centaur she says ‘Love, / I pound the earth for you. I pound the earth.’ She has evolved from a kind of beast to another. And she has done it before our eyes. The book unclenches like a fist into an open palm. How can we doubt that love and desire are possible in the same lifetime as fear and abuse when Kelly has proven it true? Bestiary becomes a kind of mental health memoir that shows one possible way forward for trauma survivors.

Kelly has dedicated the book to her five therapists who she credits with saving her life time after time. The collection is bookended with poems called Out West and Back East. In the middle of the book is a sixteen-page poem called How to Be Alone which has a single short stanza of text on every page with wide borders of blank page.

The assembly of the book makes an orderly, compelling narrative out of complex, troubling experience. We are beckoned in, given prompts and pamphlets, beckoned closer, whispered to, and beckoned out. This is a poet who takes charge of her story and who puts it out to others with such grace that it would surprise me if anyone at all could read this book without walking away with something.    

What does the book mean for a reader who has undergone trauma and (or) is in therapy? In a school where I once worked, we had a poster that showed two drawings of the route to success. The first represented the idea of success we are all taught to believe in – a straight line from Point A to B. No room for stumble, knee scrape or brushing yourself off. The second was the actual route that success takes – a zig-zag line that crosses the same point many times.

In some way, I have always known people think I have failed in some way because I was (and sometimes still am) in therapy. Kelly’s book was the first one of poetry I read that celebrated therapy and the rewarding magic of putting enough hours (over fourteen years) into healing oneself.

Featured image: A basilisk from Folio 66r of the Aberdeen Bestiary. Source: Wikimedia Commons.