[A Review by Dante Di Stefano]
Nickole Brown’s new chapbook, The Donkey Elegies: An Essay in Poems, continues the project she initiated in her chapbook To Those Who Were Our First Gods (Rattle, 2018); this project, as the poet herself articulates it, proposes to build an antipastoral bestiary comprised of poems spoken in “a queer Southern-trash-talking kind of way about nature: beautiful, damaged, dangerous and in desperate need of saving.” As did To Those Who Were Our First Gods, The Donkey Elegies explores the profound links between human beings and our animal kin. Brown draws on her experiences working with donkeys in several animal sanctuaries and overlays those experiences with a complex array of personal, cultural, historical, and linguistic associations connected to this humble and hearty mammal. The Donkey Elegies does what any good essay does: it assays (it tests and examines, but it also attempts), it suggests (rather than expounds), it spirals outward while tethering the attention to one unparaphrasable idea; the essay, as form or genre, is, after all, the donkey of literature: sinewy, indefatigable, often overlooked. Like her central subject in this book, Brown’s poetry hauls steadily onward, tender and tough, lit with the knowledge that holiness dwells in the common, the low-life, the baseborn.
Throughout the collection, the lowly donkey becomes a metonym for the oppressed “who carried us from that squat existence of flint strike to entire cities,” and “who blistered and tore, who blew their knees and threw their vertebrae hauling the stone and laying the tracks, plowing one field and then the next.” Here, Brown not only alludes to slavery from the ancient world to the antebellum South, but also surveys the exploitation of laborers like her “illiterate, hammer-swinging grandfather,” and the coal miners and tenant farmers of her native Kentucky. Those laborers are the same as all the ones who are continually “made draft, made compulsory, forced into conscription, like all those boys in my mama’s class that won that twisted lottery and came home from Vietnam unable to tell the slam of a screen door from a land mine.” The unassuming and eminently tractable donkey rehearses, in its very plodding, the survival strategies of those whose extrinsic worth has been bound to their work, and whose ongoing struggle has been to resist the erasures that their worth-bearing work necessarily entailed.
For Nickole Brown, however, the donkey’s symbolic resonances remain deeply personal, tied as she is to generations of laborers and survivors. These personal connections begin with the idioms of Brown’s Kentucky childhood. Brown notes these idiomatic roots in the fourteenth section: “the church ladies would say they hadn’t seen me in a donkey’s years even if I had missed only a few Sundays, and all us kids knew to avoid Uncle Leon because the man could talk the hind legs off a donkey and that telling grandfather what to do was about as good as putting a steering wheel on a mule.” These folksy benign figures of speech contrast with the misogynistic donkey jokes examined elsewhere in the chapbook. The toxic masculinity attached to the word “donkey” (as slang for “vagina,” and therefore, as troubling synecdoche for “female”) provides Brown with a space to consider misogyny in American culture, and how that misogyny has informed her own story, intersected as it is with class issues and regional inequities, “a birthright, that would’ve never let me see a day in school past tenth grade, and by the time I’d even think about going back for my diploma, I’d be trapped with too many babies and a shit husband to boot.” All the way through The Donkey Elegies, Brown evokes, with gut-punching clarity, the prevalence and preponderance of sexual harassment, sexual assault, and gender-based discrimination that contextualize American life. Like the donkey, and like many women in America, Brown notes that she survived by moving forward “regardless, in spite of everything.”
Reading about moving forward, not merely surviving, but assaying-into-song, feels especially poignant during the COVID-19 pandemic. In the second to last section of The Donkey Elegies, Brown writes:
And here we are, on the brink again, testing the promise of rainbows with who-knows-how-many continents’ worth
of glacial melt and less and less forest to save. There is no beauty
in nature I see anymore
that I recognize
as simply beautiful
without adding a prayer
of please, don’t die.
Nickole Brown’s poetry does what all truly great poetry does: it reminds us that we are always on the brink and that there is so much to save as we skitter on the edge of an incremental apocalypse. The Donkey Elegies reaffirms a truth we know in every molecule of our animal-selves: to live like the donkey is to live in a Dickinsonian Forever composed of Nows. Buy this book, send a copy to a friend; it is a balm in uncertain times, a book of great, enduring, lyric power and imagination.
To read an insightful and formally inventive review of this chapbook, in which Julie Marie Wade compares The Donkey Elegies to Rilke’s The Duino Elegies, go to Lambda Literary here.
To read an Oxford American interview with Nickole Brown, go here.
To find out more about Nickole Brown’s poetry, visit her website here.