With so many books unknown and unread, who am I to determine what the best book of any year was, but I am certain that at least one of 2011’s great gifts to humanity was Kingdom Animalia by Aracelis Girmay. I remember reading it for the first time a few years ago. It was an afternoon spent levitating on the living room couch while my hand thrust itself into my chest cavity, dug through my guts, then emerged dripping and bloody for the birds outside to chirp at alarmingly. Such afternoons are rare and treasured, the books that bestow them become anointed on the shelf. Regardless of where I last placed it, my eyes can always latch onto the slim spine of Kingdom Animalia like a compass tracking North.
As the title suggests, this is a book about the family of animals, the family of man, and the family of family. Girmay takes her opening epigraphs from Darwin: ‘from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved,’ concludes the first; ‘The framework of bones being the same in the hand of a man, wing of a bat’ begins the second. The passages establish wonder and connectivity as a worldview, and the work that follows asserts all life and living as the basis of creed. There is not a poem among them that I do not find astonishing and wholly unique, yet as integral to the whole as a vital organ. From its first page to its last, the book is full of lungs and beating hearts. It is, in other words, full of animals: cats, pigeons, goats, oxen, crows, horses, donkeys, snakes, bees, wolves, dragonflies, sharks, lions, geese, dogs, brothers, mothers, grandfathers, cousins, great-aunts. Because alongside and inside the animals – and animals themselves – lie human bodies. We go searching for ‘the eye & brain/we had when we were pelicans’ because every living thing bleeds into every other living thing:
Weren’t you my sister once?
I might say to the sad, brown dog who follows me down
the street. Or to the small boy
or the old woman or horse eye
or to the tree.
The flip side of life and love is loss, which often comes from the fact of bodies breaking down. That happens here, too. A hand in the muck of guts, in fact, is perhaps an apt image for a collection of poetry so full of bodies and those bodies’ sundry parts. In these pages, hearts fall like sad, fat persimmons; lungs dispatch breaths to go looking for homeless dogs; and everywhere, the hands of man that are the same as wings of bats are getting lost, being severed, going missing, running away, or wishing they could.
Last night, the dream of you standing
in the doorway like a lighthouse
calling for your hands to come back
home, & from a great distance, them
running towards you
&, girl, where would they go if they could run away from you?
What are your hands most hungry for?
Tell us, what caused this severance?
Did the rest of you mistrust the hands?
Or did the hands mistrust the bigger body,
the bully head?
Re-reading Kingdom Animalia this time to the soundtrack of the latest climate-related extinction news, I find myself thinking, too, about the final line of Robert Lowell’s poem named for an animal not found in Girmay’s collection – ‘Dolphin’: ‘my eyes have seen what my hand did.’ These hands of ours, they do things: they braid beloveds’ hair and hold other hands. They also grasp at – and alter – the physical worlds they inhabit. That, indeed, is exactly what they have evolved to do over millennia. Oh, but what have we done?
This book, like many books, is about life and death, love and loss. But the reason this book is a best book in my book is the way it so completely embraces the world and is so grateful for the full spectrum this world gives and has given us. Each page is a reminder I too often need – a plea, even – not to take one moment or molecule for granted, not my loved ones, not their bodies nor my own, not any of the living things around us that make us what and who we are. Kingdom Animalia ends with:
I lived once.
It was here.
What are humans without animals? Which is to say, what are humans without each and every other? Without the kingdom that blessed us into being? Whatever we are, we are because of it. Whatever we will be, will be lesser for the absences, those already upon us or those looming in the distance. If poetry alone could save or salvage, Girmay’s book could be a Bible.
Photography © lostinfog