Ordinary Beasts by Nicole Sealey
“Every thing aspires to one \ degradation or another. I want \ to learn how to make something \ holy, then walk away,” echoes the poem “in igboland,” leaving the reader speculating if the poet will yield to the relentless fatigue she faces. This is mid-way through the collection, and by the end the poet has us thanking our lucky stars that she doesn’t.
“Ordinary Beasts,” the debut compilation penned by Caribbean-born poet Nicole Sealey, is a wise and daunting collection of both the nuisance of common existence and the abuses akin to all orders of beasts: gods, animals, and white women in Equinoxes. Imbedded in each snaking turn in this compelling dissection of normalcy exist mythology, race and gender matters, sexuality, superficiality, status, and the natural world (among other things)—all weaved in a salient intersectionality for the purpose of communicating to readers that the quintessence of the “ordinary” is entropy and torment.
“I’ve been pregnant. I’ve had sex with a man \ who’s had sex with men. I can’t sleep,” the premier lines of the leading poem “medical history” launch the collection into a witty and forthright laundry list of familial maladies that don’t know timelines, as evidenced by the lack of consistency regarding tense throughout the poem. Even in the very first lines, motherhood, sexuality, and restlessness jerk the reader into the poet’s ever-present battle with the veiled burden of things that are outwardly commonplace. The last line of the poem, “And, I understand, \ the stars in the sky are already dead,” cleverly carries the new life presented in the first line to its inevitable end—as if the speaker had given birth to the stars only to reckon that they had already died long before. The problem of existence, right from the start, matures into one of the numerous ordinary beasts that lurk under the passages between poems.
Along with the prowling beasts, there is a geography of rooms traversing this collection that ranges from the aisles of suburban supermarkets and vacant custom-built houses to the fantastical: ceilings with petrifying candelabras and live-action games of Clue. Walking through the pages of the book is like traipsing through an ever-changing black box theater, yet wherever (and whomever) we are in the poems, the violence of living hangs like wallpaper.
In “legendary,” set after a biting epigraph that reads, “I’d like to be a spoiled rich white girl,” the speaker expresses, “I want to be married in church. In white. \ Nothing borrowed or blue. I want a white \ house in Peekskill, far from the city—white\ picket fences.” Here, the geography is remarkably conventional, but the essence of the beast lies in the spoiled rich white girl, a phantom staring down at the speaker contemptuously from the pews, chaise lounges, and white picket fences that furnish the poem. Each line ends in the word “white,” dousing the poem and thereby leaving the reader blinded and overwhelmed. Again, in “it’s not fitness, it’s a lifestyle,” the speaker is “waiting for a white woman \ in this overpriced Equinox \ to mistake me for some other than a paying member…as I leave the steam room \…she’ll ask whether I’ve finished \ cleaning it.” Otherwise ordinary rooms that litter the poem’s landscape become spaces in which blackness in America becomes exquisitely and somberly defined.
Perhaps the most striking poem in Sealey’s collection is “cento for the night i said, “i love you,” a collage of borrowed lines that tell of the universal yet highly individual experience of love. By tying centuries together with these rented lines, Sealey demonstrates that love has been constructed before and will be constructed again. Great skill is exhibited in the sonic integrity of this piece, which is much more a partnership than a fracture. Lines like, “After all’s said and all’s done \ and all arrogance dismissed, \ the distance rumbles in \ sparing only stars,” propel the poem and it’s persistent cosmic imagery as it tumbles into a melancholy conclusion, “I close my eyes \ and this is my life now.”
Grace Gilbert is currently studying Creative Writing at SUNY Geneseo. She is excited about fancy cheese, poems about bodies of water, and Elton John. Her poems and a work of creative nonfiction have recently been featured in Gandy Dancer, Glass Mountain Magazine, and the Metonym Journal. She plans (hopes) to pursue an MFA in Poetry. Her Twitter handle is @geg2us.
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