Donkey Elegies by Nickole Brown
Author: Julie Marie Wade
February 17, 2020
Two sights that make my hybrid-loving heart thump all the more ardently in my chest:
The title page of Nickole Brown’s newest literary wonder, The Donkey Elegies (immediately reminiscent of Rilke’s The Duino Elegies, and for good reason), beneath which appears the intriguing sub-title, “an essay in poems.”
The back cover of this extraordinary sequence, its 25 numbered poems as free-standing and linked as beads on a chain, where the word NONFICTION rests atop the word POETRY like the clasps of a necklace.
If this project portends the literary future—two (or more) genres working together for good—then what can I do but look forward?
- A poet leads with the ear. A poet listens for the music of our spoken language and draws out the songs inside words. Fittingly, this book begins attuned to the ears of its stated subject, the donkey: “Ears like sugar scoops. Ears like hands cupped to cradle a cool drink from the creek,” ears that, like the poet’s own heart and mind, must remain “always soft, always open.” I read the first poem as ars poetica.
- The speaker cleans a donkey’s foot. What greater gesture of compassion, of humility, than to “bend on knee as if to propose” and tend to that most vulnerable place “under the stoic surefootedness for which [the donkey is] known”? I read the second poem as call to action, as reminder of the small things we can do for our fellow sentient beings. Ours is a hard time, but not in fact a hopeless time.
- Here is the ear again, the poet’s super-power. Our speaker “work[s] to be near//[the donkey’s] otherworldly greeting.” How to describe what she hears, and how to help us, her readers, replace the “fake brays of Eeyore [and] Hee Haw” with the “real sound”? The poet describes the real sound as “the world’s largest door swung wide, an open throat of rust and hinge.” I read the third poem as ode to “the shameless, insistent language of donkeys.”
- Did you ever play pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey at a party when you were a child? Did you ever wonder why a donkey? Did you ever wonder how Pooh’s friend Eeyore came by his name? After this poem, you will know more, and you will also wonder more. Knowing and wondering are the twin gifts a poem like this—and a book like this—can give.
- Poem in the imperative: “Scroll down” and “Click on.” Poem that mirrors our zeitgeist of digital encounters. Poem that recalls the first time our speaker “actually saw a donkey.” Poem about the power of firsts. Poem about the power of retrospects: “Twenty years later, and here is this feed of little clips streaming by.” Poem that reminds us we can always look back and see anew.
- Did you ever think of the donkey as a “fierce matriarch”? Now you will.
- Have you ever confused a donkey with a mule? Now you won’t.
- Who have donkeys carried? “Greeks, Italians, Ethiopians, Arabs, Appalachians […] drunk cowboys, drunk tourists, birthday girls […]” What have donkeys carried? “roped-together televisions, computers, pallets of bricks, bushels of firewood […]” I read this poem as profound apology to the beasts of burden who have borne our human burdens for so long.
- A sequel-poem, a partner-poem. I love when poems speak directly to each other: “On your back:/ Christ, five days before,// into Jerusalem.” How the poet makes us re-see a Bible story we may already think we know: “What being better fit for the job, to burden this passive, locust-eating man on/ the way to//his slaughter?” I read this poem as prayer.
- Donkeys in World War I: “In those trenches are 80,000 other donkeys and mules recruited alongside horses and dogs and camels, fitted with gas masks for photos in that funny-not-funny kind of souvenir trauma makes.” Did you know about this? (I didn’t.) Did you know “for battle, all vocal cords are cut within the throats of donkeys.” The poet as historian.
- Donkeys in World War II (another sequel/partner poem): “donkeys are airlifted, shoved out hatches with parachutes/strapped to their backs.” Their legs break upon landing, these flying donkeys. This poem is one of the heart poems for me, a quintessential elegy. How we have failed the donkeys seems endemic of how we have failed each other, which seems endemic of war—the ultimate human failure.
- “Who can say if Adam understood the consequence of his task, but each word we give to name an animal is a sentence […]?” The power of names. The many names for one creature. The difference between donkey and jack ass, for instance: what do we say, and what do we hear? The poet as giver of names. The poet as Adam. I read the twelfth poem as ars poetica, too.
- Fulcrum-poem. Memoir-poem. Remember the piñatas of your childhood? Have you ever struck a “cheap papier-mâché donkey”? Our speaker has. Have you ever worn a blindfold? Our speaker has. Are you wearing one now? (Literally? Metaphorically? Both.) It turns out I am wearing so many. The poet is not pulling bright-colored handkerchiefs from her sleeves. The poet is not a magician. (Tricks are too easy, and these poems are hard.) Instead, the poet is doing the slow, difficult work of loosening blindfolds, one knot at a time. After each poem, another thick band of fabric slips from the eyes, falls to the floor. I am seeing more clearly now. As promised by the motto of Sibling Rivalry Press: I am at once—consistently, progressively, unrelentingly—disturbed and enraptured by these poems.
- All the donkeys hidden in our language. Can you find them? Are you listening closely enough? So often “our etymologies/ remember//what we’d rather forget.” All those donkeys conjured by our words juxtaposed with a single real donkey in the field—the creature himself and not the myth—“perfectly still as if he’s always been here and never left, as if he’s always been this way and always will.” I read this poem as homage.
- All this time our speaker has been caring for donkeys, tending them, scooping and hauling away their excrement. This is the narrative that ribbons its way through this text. A heart-passage: “all those years behind the desk have unstitched me/ from my body […] this grunt work is my repair of the soul.”
- Have you thought much about Mary and donkeys? Now you will, because our poet has.
- This poem is not about historical donkeys, etymological donkeys, or even the actual donkeys the poet tends. This poem instantiates a volta, the speaker’s own turn inward. The self as donkey. “It took me decades/ to step into the barn and ask these questions/ of a donkey who learned to survive/as I did, who placidly moved forward,/regardless.” I read this poem as micro-essay, an essay-bead on an essay-chain.
- Sequel-poem. Partner-poem. Another micro-essay, this one with a meta-turn: “Really, Nick? Really? After all those years in college, you’re writing about donkeys?” Thankfully, the answer is yes.
- Donkey jokes. Do you know any? Have you told any? I read this poem as alert, as reminder.
- Poem with surreal memoir in it. Poem that waltzes the subjunctive: “somewhere is another me studying the schedule at the bus stop, clutching her pocketbook to her lap, eying the steady river of traffic passing her with just one person in nearly every car.” Where is your other you now? Where is mine?
- Poem that begins with “pule” and ends with “the kindness of donkeys.” Poem with Napoleon and Nero in it. Historical poem. Heart-breaking. Hopeful poem. Poem that latches and suckles.
- Poem as essay. Poem as meditation. Poem that brings all the threads of the book together. Synthesis poem with this climactic moment inside: “What have any of us done to answer? And what have I to say for myself?” This essay-qua-poem is not just about donkeys. But then: no poem in this book is just about donkeys.
- Hardest poem. Poem that confronts the history of slavery. Poem that demands “let’s have out with it” and replies: “Two kinds of backs/ broken to make civilization,/ both considered animals,/ one human, one not.” Poem of culpability, of longing, of failure. Poem that refuses the blindfold the present reaches for when desperate to redact the past.
- Have you thought much about Noah and donkeys? Now you will, because our poet has.
- The last poem touches back to the first. The last poem bids us: “Listen.” The last poem asks us: “Can you hear it too?” You’re listening differently now, aren’t you? (I am.) This book is so capacious and at once so spare. Every word carries so much weight, our heavy human history, like a donkey.
And now that you’ve heard the music of these finely wrought beads on this tautly pulled chain, you may be wondering what you can do. Have you been paralyzed by the grief and rage of Now? Have these poems reminded you of the way Now only became Now because of the cumulative effects of Then? And does this fact sadden you, anger you even more? (It saddens and angers me, too.)
Can we take all the blindfolds at our feet and stitch them into something new: a sail, a pulley, a garment to wear or to give away? (Why not? Why can’t we?)
This is a small book of remarkable potency. We are likewise.
Sometimes my students ask me if making art actually “counts” as doing something, giving something back. Does art actually help anyone, they want to know. (Yes! I insist.) Can art be a form of activism? (Yes! I assure.) And sometimes art can help specific people/creatures in explicit, tangible ways. For instance, this note at the bottom of Nickole Brown’s Acknowledgments page: “All proceeds from this book will go to the animal rehabs and sanctuaries mentioned here.” You have already contributed something, just by buying this book.
In 1923, Rainer Maria Rilke wrote: “already the knowing animals are aware/ that we are not really at home in our interpreted world.” I read Rilke’s The Duino Elegies as a companion volume to this one. And I read Brown’s The Donkey Elegies as primer for a new kind of interpretation and home-making in this tremulous Now.
The Donkey Elegies
By Nickole Brown
Sibling Rivalry Press
Paperback, 9781943977710, 38 pp.