Aracelis Girmay’s Kingdom Animalia is an elegiac and self-reflective collection of poems that allows one to see how humanity is part of the spiritual world, that is nature, and through this connection, it is realized that we are never truly departed from our loved ones who have passed on to this other world (returning to nature through death by giving the body back to the earth) for they can be found all around us. Girmay weaves together the interconnection of mortality, beauty, and the environment. One way to honor the dead is to connect with nature because nature is the embodiment of sacredness and otherness, and in order to celebrate the sacredness one must see the beauty in nature.
The poems have a sense of yearning, yearning to speak to her departed loved ones, and yearning for them to come back, and sometimes they return as manifestations in nature. In the poem “I Am Not Ready to Die Yet,” she says, “See now, there go some eyes you knew once riding the legs of another animal.” And in “St. Elizabeth, she says, “& the goat mouths bleating as they greet me on the road. I fall in love. How they wear their strange & double-eyes. How they do not blink or laugh at me or say a thing I understand when I ask them in my English, because they circle around my feet, as if they always knew me, Were you my children once? Did I know your names?” On the contrary, she also seems to be haunted as the universe is also trying to communicate with her. She uses animal metaphors and symbolism as a language to describe her communication with nature. Even things that aren’t part of the animal kingdom are personified, she mentions “soprano airplanes” and “grass-whistle.”
Apart from the mournful tone, Girmay has instances where she emphasizes the celebration of the beauty of life. She reflects to an experience about feeling deaf and referenced her uncle Nino who wore a hearing aide in “Self-portrait as The Airplane (Ode to the Noise in the Ear),” she says, “The ear is not a jukebox, it opens its mouth & swallows jackhammers, coyotes, & the tambourines, god, give me the good & common sense to keep the tongue from cursing at this news.” She becomes aware to not take for granted these sounds around her speaking to her ears, for others have lost the ability to hear, even noise. The poem “For Patrick Rosal Who Wore a Dress and Said,” speaks about a man who wanted to wear a dress one day and didn’t care about how he would be judged. This poem highlights the importance of living and celebrating one’s life the way one wishes because it won’t last forever. It says, “Bless this holy, holy chance to move above the ground like this.” In another poem, “Running Home, I saw The planets,” she says “Hoofing it home, the click & clop of their patent leather hooves—Still, it touches my ear, this sound. I touch my heart. I can’t stop touching my heart & saying, Today is my birthday.” She realizes that she only has so many moments in life to celebrate herself, because the time will inevitably arrive when there would be no more birthdays to celebrate anymore.
My favorite poem is “La Boda del Mar y Arena,” which means the wedding between/of land and sea. I always found places regarded as thresholds so enchanting. Beaches, the mouth of a cave, the edge of a cliff, a trail that leads into the forest, are places that symbolize endings and beginnings, and being between the worlds. In a way, Girmay is trying to play mediator between the world of the living and the unknown and transcendent world of spirit represented by nature. In this poem she says, “the sea & beach move into each other’s mouths particle by particle; each one wanders the big rooms of the other. O, god, let us love like they love.” My favorite quote is from the poem “Praise Song for the Donkey,” and this very sad poem is about an innocent donkey that was killed by a missile, and she says, “Praise the small, black luggage of the donkey’s eye in a field, flung far, filling the ants & birds with what it saw.” From the syntax, to the imagery, the idea was cleverly expressed. Another quote I really like is “Trust we’ll know your shape, whatever species in you answers when we put our faces to the dirt & call you by your old & human name” (Dear Minnie, Dear Ms.). This quote is reaffirming that death is just a transformation, the passing on into a different form.
There’s one phrase that Girmay repeats once in “Elegy” and again in “On Living,” she asks, What to do with this knowledge that our living is not guaranteed?” And I think the intended answer is to celebrate every waking moment because life is indeed not guaranteed (we’re not immortal beings) only a temporary one is. And lastly, there’s only one thing she claims is true in “Elegy,” a very insightful quote, she reveals, “Listen to me. I am telling you a true thing. This is the only kingdom. The kingdom of touching; the touches of the disappearing, things.”
I enjoyed reading this set of poems, especially because of the imaginative, animal, and morbid elements found in each one. Initially, I was attracted to the title and book cover. The book cover reminds me of the god Pan, the god of nature who’s a satyre and is attributed to enchantments, the animal kingdom, and being the horned god, rules over death and rebirth. Overall, the collection of poems is beautiful; a well constructed work of art.