“The process of writing poems always teaches me about the world, myself, relationships between things,” wrote Aracelis Girmay on the Poetry Society of America’s website. Her newest book, Kingdom Animalia (BOA editions), explores what it means to constantly experience the bridging and widening of the chasms between us:
…All above us is the touching
of strangers & parrots,
some of them human,
some of them not human.
Listen to me. I am telling you
a true thing. This is the only kingdom.
The kingdom of touching;
the touches of the disappearing, things.
Throughout the book Girmay writes of ways we can be brought together, and ways the world separates us. In the world of these poems disappearances are common, but no connection is completely obliterated. This is a world in which the relationship between the seen and unseen is strong.
Consider some of the ways that chasms between us could be widened: illness, shame, mobility, the passing of seasons, or death. Girmay’s poems meditate on all of these and more. But none of them are large enough breaches to void connection. There are poems for a sick brother, a deceased grandfather, ” the body/ of the grandmother who is dead,” Minnie Riperton, and Lucille Clifton, to name a few. In each, Girmay employs the poet’s ancient tool of identifying the sacred in the mundane:
…Trust the mud is you,
& the soft, silver afro of the dandelion.
Trust the grass-whistle might be
your speech, high as the whistle
of the whale. Trust
we’ll know your shape, whatever species
in you answers when we put our faces
to the dirt & call you by
your old & human name.
(“Dear Minnie, Dear Ms.”)
The poem is seeped through with her desire to recognize, in everything, women she has loved. Here and elsewhere Girmay blends the human with the rest of creation, drawing our eye to less frequently apprehended relationships between lives, species, elements, even sounds. (Listen to that line: “and the soft, silver afro of the dandelion.” That’s great music! Girmay knows song can make a space where poetry and the other powers of creation can reside.)
The work in this book is both personal and communal. I feel, as I wander through its pages, an intense intimacy with the people to and of whom Girmay is speaking. I learn about their lovers, their habits, the location of their hat stores, the cactus in the cemetery where their bodies rest. It is nearly voyeuristic at times, but then whatever window I am peaking through is always, at a critical moment, opened, and I am invited inside. If our classification systems encourage stratifications that assign us to individual divisions, classes, orders, families, Girmay reminds us that her kingdom is also our own.
One thing I admire about this book is this expansive and inclusive voice and vision. Girmay enfolds the living and the dead, animal, plant, mineral. She writes in English and Spanish, not bothering to translate directly in the way that bilingual writers are often asked to do. The poems themselves do a sort of translation for us. Consider her poem “La Boda Del Mar Y Arena,” which never directly translates the title, but which ends thus:
…the sea & beach move into each other’s mouths
particle by particle; each one wanders
the big rooms of the other.
O, god, let us love
like they love.
Whether or not you know what the individual words of the title portend, by the end of this poem you understand something crucial and beautiful about togetherness, about the way that the sea and the beach can serve as examples of the potential for human connection.
This seems one of the super powers of poetry. Poetry can translate foreign thoughts, the thoughts that happen in other people’s minds, into language we understand. Poetry can render previously indecipherable scrawl, like the glimmering trail left by a simple snail, into articulate treatises on the power of poetry itself (“Ars Poetica”). Girmay’s poems, sometimes ecstatic, and always incantatory, take as their project the disciplined practice of building connections. Language is the tool through which these connections are built.
Despite the constant work of bridge building these poems undertake, we are frequently reminded of the utter dearth of interconnected compassion rampant throughout our many kingdoms. We read this loud and clear in poems with titles like “Little Blues for the Little Death,” “Explaining the Landmine to the Small Child” and “Night, For Henry Dumas”:
Henry Dumas, 1934-1968
did not die by a spaceship
or flying saucer or outer space at all
but was shot down, at 33,
by a New York City Transit policeman…
What can we make of her oscillations between praise songs and dirges? Some of Girmay’s main tools, contradiction and juxtaposition, work overtime to remind us that what we see is what we get but, also, not the entire story. Her poems broaden the stories, widening our perspectives.
The fifth section of the six-section book is particularly interesting in the manner in which it strays from the structure of the rest. Where as the majority of the poems in Kingdom Animalia are presented in fairly standard, lineated verse forms, “On the Shape of the Sentence,” which Girmay identifies as “a fable,” ranges across the page, alternating between poetry and prose, right justification and left, erasure and inclusion. Even the visual aspects of the poem contribute to our experience of the poem. And Girmay, whose poems are often deeply saturated with images, is aware of the power of the visual. “What does the shapeshifting of the line tell us about the girl in question?” she asks in the poem. As the poem unfolds, in its very unfolding, it begins to answer its own question.
So it is with the book as well. As it progresses, Kingdom Animalia maps the world in which we live, classifying us, grouping us, reminding us of what sets us apart, and what ties us together.