Each August, readers of poetry engage in the Sealey Challenge–started by poet Nicole Sealey in 2017, the aim is to read a book of poetry each day of the month. I’ve attempted the challenge a few times, only succeeding once, but I look forward to it despite this. The truth is, I always have a pretty big backlog of titles to read–I am a compulsive book-buyer, blacking out in bookstores and coming out with a heavy bag, ordering what seems interesting on impulse lest I forget, and the myriad of ARCs I commit myself to before thinking through the reality of what else is on my plate. August, then, is a relief: I am collecting chapbooks all year for this, I am finding old award-winners in used bookstores for this, I am impulsive for this. As someone who writes about books, works with books, loves books, there’s a comfort in always having access to a title to reference, just in case. What if, one day, I have a revelation about two texts? I will need to write about them before the urge dissipates. What if, one day, I am devastated, and only a certain poem can assuage me? This, another layer of justification.
I see the Sealey Challenge as much about community as it is about actually reading; sharing books has always been a cornerstone of my experience. My only successful completion of the challenge, in 2020, was half-made up of someone else’s books. In 2021, a friend brought over a stack that I didn’t touch until the month was over, but I remember each book vividly: reading two at a time every other night, trying to create ritual for myself (this act would be the inciting incident for what would become this column).
This is all to say, this August, I am without my books. I brought Sealey’s Ordinary Beast on my trip, as I knew I wanted to write about it–the practice of the Sealey challenge is ingrained into the DNA of this column, and I reread this book almost every year. My first engagement was a borrowed copy, but I quickly knew I would need it–and I love when that desire is justified, no matter how many years down the line.
Ordinary Beast is a beautiful collection; Sealey’s voice is warm and inviting, often leading us to a cutting last line. There’s a careful anxiety and curiosity towards death that recurs throughout the collection that satiates my own preoccupations, often toying with the part of me that reads to sooth more severe depressive thoughts. On this visit, what I found most striking was how self-referential the text was–both within the collection and textually in the poems themselves.
“Medical History” is one of my favorite types of opening poems–vulnerable off the bat, with a strong sense of “I” introduced to the reader; “I’ve been pregnant. I’ve had sex with a man / who’s had sex with men. I can’t sleep.” Captivating, without prior knowledge of the poet nor the thrust of the collection itself. I read, and I want to know more about this speaker, see what else it is they have to share.
The layout of Ordinary Beast contributes, too, to the melody of Sealey’s writing–the kerning on the titles give each a little more space, complementing the generally uniform lines that are gently spaced apart; a simplicity tenderly, intentionally crafted. This design emphasizes the slowness that guide us down the page, towards the nearly constant killer last moments–
Cousin Lilly died
from an aneurysm. Aunt Hilda, a heart attack.
Uncle Ken, wise as he was, was hit
by a car as if to disprove whatever theory
toward which I write. And, I understand,
the stars in the sky are already dead.
I’ve written a lot on poetry that is aware of the act of writing–ars poetica, in a way, but perhaps less craft-inclined than that, more work with its head out of the water. This speaker has a self-conscious approach, one that is about the interpersonal reception of poetry rather than a structural one; if our poems make an argument, which readers can destabilize what we write, perhaps through omitted details? This voice that questions back recurs throughout the collection–it is not insecure, though, not in the slightest. Instead, seeking–a continuous engagement with the act of discovery. With writing family narratives, there is always a specific vulnerability attached–who is capable of disproving our imaginations? This opening poem sets this awareness at the top, giving room for the collection to write towards something new. Sealey recreates her own work through self-erasure, in “clue” and “c ue”, and so, so interestingly in “in defense of ‘candelabra with heads’”, echoing the earlier “candelabra with heads”.
If you’ve read the ‘Candelabra with Heads’
that appears in this collection and the one
in The Animal, thank you. The original,
the one included here, is an example, I’m told,
of a poem that can speak for itself, but loses
faith in its ability to do so by ending with a thesis
This opening stanza is why I emphasize Sealey’s voice is not insecure in its questions–this looking back, this awareness of reader, and this hope of a reader later who is beyond the context (“May that lucky someone be black / and so far removed from the verb lynch that she be / dumfounded by its meaning)–it is about legacy, lasting, memory. Why shouldn’t a speaker imagine a multitude of readers– the family member, the critical gaze, the mentor, a stranger throughout time? The voice does not waver when the possibilities are imagined. The collection is bracketed with these awarenesses, just as it is bracketed by its predilection with death. I wonder about the relationship of interrupted narratives and death, then–if poetry is a personal record, what obstructs its ability to last?
I came to this month’s pairing through the recommendation of a dear friend, Lee Baird; they read my copy of Ordinary Beast and left it with a stack of three of their own books on my nightstand, a sheet of notes lovingly offered. I imagined, if we were participating in the Sealey challenge this month, it might go like this, too. They highlighted the familial narratives present in the collection, and how beautifully they would complement the cataloging done in Aracelis Girmay’s Kingdom Animalia, suggestions for poems to read together. I was grateful, of course, and felt like the onus of my project was understood and seen by a reader I trusted.
In the first installment of this column, I mentioned R E D and we’ve all seen helena were titles on my evergreen recommendation list; at the top of that list is Aracelis Girmay’s Kingdom Animalia. The first time I heard her work was from a mentor, performing a poem after the line “This is the only kingdom. / This kingdom of touching;” from “Elegy”; then, another mentor reading “On Kindness” at a loved one’s birthday party; when I finally got my own copy of Kingdom Animalia, I read it three times through. I would read it while I mourned; I would send copies of it to people I adore; whenever I went on trips, I would take it with me, just in case–except, not this month. How serendipitous it was, to be without the book I almost always was with, in a month I did, in fact, “need” it? But, first and foremost, it is a book tied to my community, my friends–here, the opportunity to read its pages anew, lovingly annotated by another. So, of course–I had to pair my ritualistic reading of Ordinary Beast with another integral text.
But, it is not just these personal ties that make these collections complementary: there is that occupation with death that I am always so drawn to, a vibrant translation of people to page, and a warmth in the voice that encourages the re-read, to spend time with these speakers. The shape of each book, too, work so well together. I love to read those last lines of “Medical History” alongside the last lines of the eponymous “Kingdom Animalia”, an opening lament–
Oh, body, be held now by whom you love.
Whole years will be spent, underneath these impossible stars,
when dirt’s the only animal who will sleep with you
& touch you with
I love the sort of inverse imagery in these two opening poems and the way they orient each collection’s attitudes towards death–Ordinary Beast, a processing of the possibility, with Kingdom Animalia a cataloging of the aftermath. I think, more than any other two poets, really, Sealey and Girmay have my favorite end-stanzas; they are memorable, effective, and difficult to decontextualize.
I like to re-read Sealey’s “happy birthday to me” on my own birthday–a poem built by ellipses, long and continuous down the page until finally the speaker chimes in–”What was I saying?–”, questions that lead to the end lines “Had you asked, I could’ve / told you I’m not doing / especially well at being alive.” Sad, yes, but funny in that self-deprecating way the passively suicidal are, too–in the way that Twitter memes are filled with “girls on their birthday” captions attached to some sort of distorted sobbing, I feel connected to it in the grimmest way; I love the pensive silence this poem supplies, the deep interior the reader doesn’t have access to before such an outward address. It is especially fun to read alongside Girmay’s “Running Home, I Saw the Planets”; where Sealey’s poem starkly shifts from silence to speech, Girmay’s “birthday” poem is far more interior. One of Girmay’s strengths is the way she renders people in her work, their aliveness so palpable and tender–this poem is one of my favorite examples of this. The lines, “There / was the laughing of the beautiful girls, / shrieking gulls, five or six of them (depending / on whether I count myself)” are such a joyful explosion, effortlessly moving into a quieter register that does not sacrifice any energy.
Still, it touches
my ear, this sound. I touch
my heart. I can’t stop touching
my heart & saying, Today is my birthday,
This tender repetition transforms the glee of observation into internal affirmation. It is a breath of fresh air; together, these poems feel like dual thought-processes, the multitude of ways in which to work through that heavy feeling when faced with ones’ own aliveness.
Ordinary Beast closes with my second favorite love poem of all time (my first favorite is also in the collection, “cento for the night I said I love you); the self-aware voice returns:
Though we’re not so self-
important as to think everything
has led to this, everything has led to this.
There’s a name for the animal
love makes of us–named, I think,
like rain, for the sound it makes.
You are the animal after whom other animals
I love the oscillation of drama and mundanity in these lines–to sit in bed with a lover is both the most momentous and ordinary possibly thing, and this poem captures that so astutely. The last lines, “O, how we entertain the angels / with our brief animation. O, // how I’ll miss you when we’re dead.”–I am a broken record when I emphasize how stunning they are, how they live in the body after you close the book. This record of longing, even after death. I offer it alongside the closing poem of Kingdom Animalia, a short “ars poetica” that begins, “May the poems be / the little snail’s trail.” Again, Girmay’s work closes in affirmation:
I lived once.
It was here.
Another record, past death. I love how deeply unpretentious this ars poetica is; I am reminded of walking around my neighborhood after a recent rainfall (rare in Southern California) and my extraordinary glee at witnessing so, so many snails. They are small, simple, maybe a little gross depending on who you ask–but they, too, produce a record, and I am grateful to be around to witness it. Here is the twinned hope in the closing of each collection, to answer my question posed earlier on: there is lasting, even after something has passed–whether it be a person or relationship or rain–when paired with love, when paired with gratitude.
Order Ordinary Beast here.
Order Kingdom Animalia here.