Poems Worth a “Damn!”: Aracelis Girmay’s Kingdom Animalia

For lovers of poetry, there is the thrilling (because rare) moment when you find a poet whose poems you’ve been waiting your whole life to read. That poet becomes the object of your affection for days, weeks, sometimes months, during which time you devour every word they’ve ever written. Because the best way to devote yourself to the poet is to devote yourself to the poems.

And when you find poems you want to devote yourself to, you want to say them out loud—give them breath and sound and spit. To be sure, a good poem makes you work up spit. You coat your pallet in saliva; draw the words into your mouth with the reverence of a prayer, or in July, with the anticipation of the first peach pie. With the poems, you walk from room to room in the apartment you live in alone, except for your dog, who follows you with the worried eyes of dogs that feel your energy but can’t make any sense of it.

By now, my dog probably knows several of Terrance Hayes’ poems by heart. Frank O’Hara too. Charles Wright, June Jordan, Billy Collins, Robert Hass, Lucille Clifton. These are some of the poets of my past devotions. And today, I want to share with you my new love.

If you aren’t already familiar with Aracelis Girmay, you’re in for a treat. Her first collection, Teeth, was remarkable, but her most recent, Kingdom Animalia, is a revelation. Girmay may be young but her poems pulse with wisdom. They are at once innovative and old-soul-poems—perceptive and resonate, and yet eminently playful with image and sound. Humble titles bloom into masterfully crafted meditations on ancestor, place, and name. In “Ode to the little ‘r’” for example, Girmay compares the oft rolled “r” to a “little propeller/ working between/ the two fields of my a’s,/ making my name/ a small boat/ that leaves the port/ of old San Juan or Ponce, with my grandfather,/ Miguel, on a boat,/ or in an airplane,/ with a hundred or so/ others, leaving the island/ for work, cities,/ in winters that would break/ their bones, make old,/ old men out of all of them…”

Girmay also finds new ways to write about love, family, and loss. In Kingdom Animalia, you’ll find a poet who’s thankful to be among the living, but who never pities the dead. Instead, Girmay celebrates departed loved ones in praise songs like “Starlight Multiplication,” in which she writes, “it is good to praise god in the body/ of the grandmother who is dead. Holy love/ of bread and lovers who held your hand/as they kissed the soft meat between your legs, yes/ Grandmother, I am singing this song to you, /though the lyrics make you cover your face…”

I am always looking for a poem to make me sigh, close my eyes, and whisper, “damn!” Kingdom Animalia earned 48 “damns!” for 48 poems; 53 if you count the five I said after I finished the collection.

Because “damn, damn, damndamndamn!” is all there is to say when you find a poet whose poems you’ve been waiting your whole life to read.

Jessie Cohen is a Master’s candidate in the English Department at Virginia Tech and a poetry editor for the minnesota review.

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