Book Review “Ordinary Beast”

Poet, writer, teacher and Executive Director at Cave Canem Foundation Nicole Sealey, in her first book, lends clarity to such inscrutable topics as death, memory, love and loss. Constructing voices of drag queens (as in her “Legendary” poems), maintaining a fluid persona through ever-changing perspectives and often borrowing words and forms from other poets, she shows her ability to speak about these themes from many angles. The sestina, the sonnet, the erasure poem and the poet’s own invented form – the Obverse – are all present in the pages of “Ordinary Beast,” as well as one extraordinary cento – a 100-line poem comprised entirely of lines by other poets. Ordinary Beast as a whole reads like this as well; it is a collection of many parts brought together through Sealey’s mastery of lyricism and technique.

In an interview with Hope Wabuke for Shondaland.com, Sealey describes one of her favorite aspects of poetry: “I love that poetry is drawn from the collective but colored by the individual. I love that poets access a literary tradition greater than ourselves. I may write in seclusion, but my poems are in fellowship with the millennia behind and beyond me.” Not only are Sealey’s feelings evident in her technique of uniting miscellaneous parts to create something cohesive, but also in the book’s focus on history as a unifying force. “Ordinary Beast” opens with “Medical History,” a poem which describes exactly that: “My mother has, my mother’s mother had, / asthma. My father had a stroke. […] Cousin Lilly died / from an aneurysm. Aunt Hilda, a heart attack.” History, in this poem, becomes destiny; the speaker is intimately, inescapably tied to her family’s history through her body. The history and legacy of racism are also inescapable in this manuscript, with reminders present throughout in poems like “Candelabra with Heads” (“Can you see them hanging? […] Who can see this and not see lynchings?”) and “It’s not Fitness, it’s a Lifestyle” (“I’m waiting for a white woman / in this overpriced Equinox / to mistake me for someone other / than a paying member”). Even the ways in which Sealey reworks traditional poetic forms can be seen as a way of commenting on poetry’s past.

Sealey concludes her interview with Wabuke by saying, “I am a black woman poet, which situates me in a tradition that includes Gwendolyn Brooks and Rita Dove and June Jordan and Tracy K. Smith and Phillis Wheatley […] This is my inheritance.” “Ordinary Beast” certainly reflects this; Sealey’s careful appropriation of other poets’ work and of history ultimately provides us with something completely new: a culmination where multiple angles combine to give a real sense of clarity about some of life’s loftiest concerns.

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