Aracelis Girmay’s Transformative Poetry

By Kaitlin Dyer

In her second book of poetry, Kingdom Animalia, Aracelis Girmay continues her exploration into deep emotional issues. While her first collection of poetry, Teeth, also used a slightly fragmented style to delve into such topics as love, death, and family discord, Kingdom Animalia seems to master this technique and exploit it for all its potential.

Kingdom Animalia is a book that unravels on itself like a Russian nesting doll. The structure of the book is broken into several “books” such as “a book of dirt” or “a book of beautiful monsters.” By doing this, Girmay refocuses the reader on viewing the world, and its inhabitants, in a new perspective. Uniquely, she seems to make even the mundane parts of humanity or life appear strange by shifting the readers perspective. One example of this may be in the poem “St. Elizabeth” when Girmay explains meeting a group of goats along a road, “I fall in love. How they wear / their strange and double-eyes.” Naturally, it is not unusual that goats or any other creature would have two eyes, but Girmay is able to construct a perspective in which this occurrence feels strange. This only seems to add to the poem’s integrity, because the poem wants us to feel the appreciation and wonder about this specific road and individual experience. It is through the creation of this perspective that we, as readers, are able to relate to Girmay’s individual experience.

Another unique quality to the kind of fragmentation in Kingdom Animalia would be the kind of transformations that occur throughout the book. The speakers in Girmay’s poetry hardly ever remain simply as one entity. They are often objectified or transformed into other beings or objects. For instance, in the section, “a book of graves & birds,” she includes a series of self-portraits as other beings: “Self-Portrait as the Snail,” Self-Portrait as the Snake,” “Self-Portrait as the Airplane,” “Self-Portrait as the Pirate’s Gold,” and “Self-Portrait as the Snake’s Skin.” These poems do not simply present the self as these creatures, though. They also work to expand and transform the creatures presented into other creatures as well. In “Self-Portrait as the Snail,” Girmay begins by exclaiming “I am the snail / trailing my thought behind me,” but continues to characterize herself as “Resourceful Gretel who, in eating all the bread home, / lets her blood down to mark the way back home!” She is able to fold complicated metaphors on the self over and over again. Not only are her thoughts like a slow-moving snail, but she has become resourceful enough to find her way.

A similar strategy is taken when she objectifies body parts throughout Kingdom Animalia. In the title poem, “Kingdom Animalia,” Girmay speaks directly to the body:

“Oh, body, be held now by whom you love.
Whole years will be spent, underneath these impossible stars,
when dirt’s the only animal who will sleep with you
& touch you with
its mouth.”

Girmay is able to objectify her entire body in these lines and fragment the body from the self. She further moves to fragment the body later in the collection. In “Portrait of the Woman as a Skein,” the body becomes an expression of parts: “Tell me what, on earth, / would make you leave your hands / or want to, at the wash-sink?” The hands no longer have a literal connection to the rest of the body, but can be separated at will. In this way the body is continually fragmented from the whole, which transforms the objectified body parts.

In this way, the book becomes a book of transformations as Girmay is able to continually reinvent her objects through the use of perspective and fragmentation. This is a book that requires time and attention. We must give Girmay’s poems time to digest and unravel in our own minds—to reread and make connections or to reread this book over and over again. Girmay’s work is careful and deliberate and should be carefully read again and again.

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