I found that I needed to read the poems in Kelly Gray’s collection, Instructions for an Animal Body, slowly, carefully, more than once. In many ways, it was a challenging book for me to read; and challenging books are often my favorites. Each poem conjured a vivid image; each image got stuck somewhere in my psyche; each movement felt fraught and unfamiliar. These are persona poems of a rare nature—the speaker embodies them. They animate creatures and objects as if they are wild things. They speak as bears, whales, mushrooms, the moon, knives, salmon, redwood and cypress trees. Where I tend to live safely indoors and look at the world through the shelter of windows, these poems exist outside of any protective glass barrier. They make me feel ashamed of the comforts I claim.
In the first poem, “Introduction: Keeping Apparitions,” Gray introduces the reader to ghosts, which “take the form of wild beasts, of her parents, of a long hallway, a warmth pressing between her legs.” Apparitions are juxtaposed with a specific place: “an unincorporated town with a busted-up post office housed in a trailer. […] There is a mountain lion that wanders the dark trail behind my house.” I believe in that mountain lion—I’ve witnessed shy cougars where I live—but I also believed that every creature encountered in these pages would be a ghost, a symbol, a shroud, a metaphor. From this preface, I entered the book somewhat prepared for a transcendent portrayal of the poet’s past and present experiences. Depictions of the rawest possible constituents—often beyond my apprehension—of her being.
There are inklings of a backstory—or perhaps I just want there to be. In “Spread Horaltic // My Marking of the Hours //,” she says, “A friend sends me a poem, written about her life as a vulture, eating out the eyes of those who don’t believe survivors of sexual assault.” And in “Mascot Masquerade Ball,” she says, “They took my body into the bowels of the football team, / raised me like a flag from the outhouse / to a party where my knees buckled.” Or, in “Her Name Was Amy,” we learn, “I had a babysitter who threw kittens into the pool from the balcony.”
These seemingly temporal narratives are the exception, however; all of these poems are full of ambiguity and transcendence—rising above violence, claiming ownership of the speaker’s body and impulses. In an interview with Shelly Pinkham, Gray explains how she relates to her readers in her work:
“As a survivor of violence and institutionalization, I want to explore my own complicity and violence that perpetuates harm, while using the discomfort of the exploration as a place to grow. But as a poet who is cultivating a relationship with my reader, I don’t want to be overt about it.”
Most of the poems here are story-less, at least in terms of conventional narrative; they convey mood, nuance, possibilities, reconstructed and transformed memories. In “The Hush of a Switchblade,” the lush language moves us past story altogether:
Those lips, fields of dirt that I drag my knees across,
the space of your mouth an ocean of squid and whale.
Your knuckle-scarred hands weather,
myth and death in the slung mud of your downpour.
Me, with too many eyes and a sword for a tongue,
each of us kneeling for no one, you were only ever a child,
undoing prayers like behemoths feasting on gods,
our bellies full, the quiet of the poem devoured.
The phrase, “you were only ever a child,” stops me, its placement in the poem fills me with empathy; it’s absolution, conspiracy, sacrament.
Noticing and tracking animals is how Gray is able to visualize and show us her most naked self, stripped of clothing and artifice. In “Trace Tracking,” she describes how it’s done: “With repetition you see patterns. Then it’s a softening and a scanning. You can feel it in your palms and the weight of your heel. Pause. Your peripheral vision is your third eye, it pulsates, but does not blink. Lower. She drops into her animal body.” Shifting pronouns is a way of inducing the reader into the experience.
As Gray’s reader, I found the most moving poems in this book are what I will call her “mother” poems—poems where she explores herself as mother. She offers the voice of a mother’s torn emotions in this lament in “The Season of Motherhood,”
She is walking forward,
away from my stillness,
my lungs punctuated with sad poems and a pile of unclaimed bones
as I am always, always
watching for moments of myself to guard her against.
In “When the Shooter Comes: Instructions for My Daughter,” Gray admits, “we don’t have time for your human needs.” Her instructions are all bluff, spoken with the helplessness we feel about keeping our children safe:
Sit still as the broom
and steady your breath.
Think of the opossum,
your favorite animal,
emitting the smell of decay to trick the predators
In “Fog Bank,” Gray boldly announces a nursing mother’s secret, one that I relate to deeply in my own experience, but have never heard expressed so honestly:
“I could have nursed him from a thousand breasts I have grown for these very moments. This is also true, undress me and you will see. Rows and rows of breasts, a monster of give and gaze. If you have ever nursed someone you know, you understand it is not sexual but it blurs lines so deeply that the next time you let someone touch you, you confuse mothering for fucking.”
And in “Keep You Here,” a mother’s desire to hold on to the earliest days of her child’s life are etched in metaphor, “I want to put you in a glass jar / with your pink cheeks and spider leg lashes.”
There are memorable lines in so many of these poems, I can only share a few here:
And I look to you for the first time, thinking
as trees do,
that I have never been loved. (“The Cypress and the Harrier”)
There was once a whale that said
I will not go back to land.
I will not go back. (“On Becoming a Whale”)
I want the animal of us in den, digging hole, as we dream back the fox, the bobcat, the love of vulture pretty. (25 Things I Want During a Pandemic: A List, Also a Love Poem”)
Instructions for an Animal Body is a collection of poems full of intuitive wisdom; somehow ancient and timely at once. They remind us that time has extinguished neither violence nor kindheartedness. They track the small acts of brutality that lead to endless hatred, war, rape, and captivity, while murmuring a more compassionate approach—one that requires listening to softer voices. Gray shows us a restorative pathway for healing from violence, a consciousness-laden vision of reparation and reconstruction that requires a new language. In these poems, she delivers a story in which healing the child heals the mother; healing the mother heals the lover; healing the lover heals the trespasser; healing the trespasser heals the violator. There is hope in this new language that does not rely on capitulation to wrongdoing. Healing the violator might even heal the earth.