Donika Kelly

“Kelly’s first book offers glassy, sculpted surfaces beneath which thoroughly black water churns. . . . A testament to poetry’s ability to capture and refine emotion.”The New York Times Book Review

Longlisted for the 2016 National Book Award for Poetry
One of The New York Times Book Review's Best Poetry Collections of 2016
A BuzzFeed Best Poetry Book of 2016

One of The Root's Best Books of 2016 by Black Authors
One of The Undefeated's Freshest Books of 2016

A Quivering Pen Best Poetry Collection of 2016
A Malaprop's Bookstore & Cafe Best Book of 2016


About the Book

Donika Kelly’s fierce debut collection, winner of the 2015 Cave Canem Poetry Prize

I thought myself lion and serpent. Thought
myself body enough for two, for we.
Found comfort in never being lonely.
What burst from my back, from my bones, what lived
along the ridge from crown to crown, from mane?
to forked tongue beneath the skin. What clamor
we made in the birthing. What hiss and rumble
at the splitting, at the horns and beard,?
at the glottal bleat. What bridges our back.
What strong neck, what bright eye. What menagerie
are we. What we’ve made of ourselves.
—from “Love Poem: Chimera”
Across this remarkable first book are encounters with animals, legendary beasts, and mythological monsters—half human and half something else. Donika Kelly’s Bestiary is a catalog of creatures—from the whale and ostrich to the pegasus and chimera to the centaur and griffin. Among them too are poems of love, self-discovery, and travel from “Out West” to “Back East.” Lurking in the middle of this powerful and multifaceted collection is a wrenching sequence that wonders just who or what is the real monster inside this life of survival and reflection. Selected and with an introduction by the National Book Award Winner Nikki Finney, Bestiary questions what it is that makes us human, that makes us whole.

Additional Reviews

“Survival is an act of love in this magical poetry debut. . . . Poems about an abusive father yield to those about creatures of legend—mermaid, centaur, and griffon—and the human act of reclaiming your life by telling your story.”O, The Oprah Magazine

“Striking. . . . Kelly is a descendant of Sylvia Plath by way of the wintry Louise Glück — her poems are animated by roiling, mostly dark emotion, but they’re spare, composed and often quite short. . . . The fantastical creatures in ‘Bestiary’ are almost all hybrids — mermaids, minotaurs, griffins — as opposed to mere monsters, and their in-betweenness calls attention equally to the danger of dissolution and the possibility of unity. Kelly is drawn to both outcomes, and her uncertainty gives her writing its peculiar magnetism.”The New York Times Book Review

“Stunning. . . . ‘Bestiary’ asserts the will to survive and the power of reinvention.”San Francisco Chronicle

“It’s a rare animal for a book of poems to be as clear, beautiful, dangerous, and open as the poems in Donika Kelly’s Bestiary. This startling first collection illuminates our own nature through the natural world. Since I picked it up off the shelf I have not let it out of my sight.”—Matthew Dickman, MPR

“[A] wonderful and important first collection. . . . Donika Kelly invites us to look not only at the stories in the poems but to inevitably shine a light on our own stories. . . . These poems are artful and joyous and tragic, interested in the importance of seeing and naming the effects of how hard lives can be, and the beauty they can create with their existence. . . . Kelly’s humor and language are the collection’s argument and song.”Orion Magazine

“Donika Kelly’s poetry is rhythmic, bold, and declarative, often exploring the gendered experiences of the world.”—Bustle

“[An] astounding debut. . . . The poems employ language that sinks its teeth in at vulnerable moments. . . . Kelly’s creatures howl and whimper as she imparts emotional truths.”Publishers Weekly, starred review

“Spend only a minute or two in Donika Kelly’s poetry, and you’ll almost begin to feel your body moving along with the rhythm of her writing. Her lines pound, and declare, and expose and challenge — and often explore the gendered experiences of our world.”Bustle

“These poems are gut-punches, heart-shredders, eaters-of-soul-stuff. Love, abuse, loneliness, dogs: it’s all here, everything that matters.”BookRiot

“This Bestiary swelling with swallows, centaurs, and satyrs proffers only truth. . . . Unflinching, fierce, and true.”Booklist

“When a poem works – when it slows your breath or shakes you with the force of its special logic – it has given something far greater than the sum of its parts. Kelly achieves this essential quality again and again in this striking debut collection. . . . In tautly rendered lines, Kelly creates a world that is deeply felt and darkly complex.”Library Journal, starred review

“An emotionally intense debut. . . . With Kelly’s poems, we evolve.”The Brooklyn Rail

Bestiary is a masterful and magical collection of poetry. Brimming with vibrant mythological allusions, beautiful descriptions of the natural world, and language that flows with graceful purpose, these poems are a joy to read. . . . It is the narrative of steady survival and perseverance in the face of hopelessness and grief that gives Bestiary its extraordinary quality.”Third Coast Review

“The poems in Kelly’s Bestiary are incredibly precise, tight without feeling constrained, with a looseness that almost defies such a density and precision.”—Rob McLennan’s Blog

“Rhythmic, fine-tuned poetry. . . . Kelly connects everything back to the earth and natural elements which helps to ground the darker corners of the mind, but also allows for flight.”The Colorado Review

“Magic possesses this book, the kind that transforms objects and ideas and the knowledge we thought we knew, so thoroughly that Kelly seems to speak a new language.”Ploughshares

“Kelly’s rich, devastating, interior landscapes map the reader across a persona’s mutation through emotional stages. . . . In Bestiary memory has legs, wings and fins, and cannot be drowned.”The Wilds

“What a gorgeous book of poems. The love poems, in particular, are striking with unexpected ideas and imagery coalescing into poetry about this thing called love. . . . This one, I savored.”—Roxane Gay, Goodreads

Bestiary is an act of transformation. And it is a true act, according to which Donika Kelly recognizes and strives through the human capability to imitate the non-human, which exceeds that of any non-human animal, and yet so often fails, unlike, say, the camouflage of the octopus, to preserve the life of the imitator. But it is a true act, also, because it acknowledges that a human will hide to be seen, and look back. These poems—among the best being written by any young poet in America—look back.”—Shane McCrae

Bestiary is a first book of poems by an all Black girl who teaches us nothing is all black, or all female, or all male, or all belonging to humans, or all tidy. Bestiaries come out of an old tradition, but the beasts that push us to write our modern migration stories are found everywhere we dare deeply look. . . . Donika Kelly whistles and crows her book into a psalm of pure resolve. And in the end, no mythology remains. Everything is singed and true. . . . A new song has been measured out from the ancient rubble of Los Angeles and the poet’s own four-chambered muscle. Bestiary’s lesson is complicated and also simple. Love can be hunted down.”—Nikky Finney, from her introduction