Review by Anni Liu
In Ordinary Beast, Nicole Sealey’s first full-length collection of poetry, she questions how to make something that will last. While it would be easy to say that with these impeccably crafted poems Sealey has answered the question, I believe this poet is less interested in the act of simple preservation than in dancing within the limits of our “brief animation.” One thing that makes this book of myriad forms and ideas feel fresh is its ambivalence about the questions most central to it. Sealey writes:
The West in me wants the mansion
to last. The African knows it cannot.
Everything aspires to one
degradation or another. I want
to learn how to make something
holy, then walk way.
There are so many things to admire about this book, but its formal innovation and poise come to mind first. In this collection, Sealey uses a variety of forms, from the sonnet to a form of the poet’s own invention called the obverse. Elsewhere, reviewers have tended to read her “playful riffs on pop culture” and “images of racism and violence” as two separate tendencies, but I see these two elements as inseparable from each other. By using sonnets to write from the voices of drag performers, for example, the poet plays with/in the traditional form and acknowledges the constructive and constricting forces history can have on the imagination.
Relatedly, the investigation of what it means to perceive and create works of art drives her stunning pair of poems triggered by a sculpture made with mannequins by Thomas Hirschhorn called “Candelabra with Heads.” In the first poem, which shares its title with the sculpture, the speaker regards the wrapped up mannequins on their wooden frame: “Had I not brought with me my mind / as it has been made, this thing, / … might be eight infants swaddled and sleeping.” This poem is the invented form called the obverse, which is almost identical to a palindrome poem, which repeats the first half in reverse order for the second half of the poem. The difference is that here, instead of ending with the opening lines, Sealey punctuates the end with a thesis question: “Who can see this and not see lynchings?” Seeing is interpreting, Sealey reminds us, and the imagination is wedded to our awareness of history. The poem is a powerful enactment of this process.
Later in the book is the poem “in defense of ‘candelabra with heads,'” which relates how the editors of Sealey’s chapbook had advised her to omit the final thesis question from “candelabra.” But now in the full-length collection, the poet decides to add the question back into the poem. She writes: “I ask because the imagination / would have us believe, much like faith, faith / the original “Candelabra” lacks, in things unseen.” Perhaps the real question is why Hirschhorn, the editors, and perhaps the readers don’t see the lynchings, and don’t want to. At the end of this poem, Sealey imagines a reader “a hundred years from now” who will come across the obverse and its thesis question:
May that lucky someone be black
and so far removed from the verb lynch that she be
dumbfounded by its meaning. May she then
call up Hirschhorn’s Candelabra with Heads.
May her imagination, not her memory, run wild.
The tenderness of this imagining strikes me deeply. I think these final lines are also offering up this poet’s ethos of what poetry might be: a testimony of what it is to be alive, and how our lives are shaped–bounded, framed, if only partially so–by our marked identities and their histories. As Sealey herself quotes in “cento for the night I said ‘I love you'”: “How free we are; how bound. Put here in love’s name.”
Playful, tender, and razor-sharp, Ordinary Beast will be a book I return to again and again.