by Essy Stone | Contributing Writer
And they said, is death that which gives meaning to life? And I said no, life is that which gives meaning to life.
from “The School,” Donald Barthelme
Nicole Sealey’s stunning debut collection, Ordinary Beast, is a masterful work of lyrical tension, syntactical precision, and poetic grace. The poems range over a few central themes—race and identity in the African diaspora, femme identity and performance, memory, history, family, and death—but all share an air of holiness about them, careful reverence for their subjects, generous refusal to pathologize or shame. These poems dig toward existential truth while praising our futile gestures towards permanence, the labors of love that give meaning to our little lives.
I do not mean to claim that this is a metaphysical project. Sealey’s characteristically frank language grounds her reverence firmly in the real. These are not poems of the heavens, caught up in some sunny vision of the afterlife, but of the earth, with its moments of beauty and inconvenience. What is it all for? these poems ask. Death, and our inability to avoid or understand it, comes up again and again. “Who can look at this and not see lynchings?” asks Sealey in the final line of “candelabra with heads.” That mortal tension, between the shortness of our lives and all that we hope to achieve, between violence and the beauty that exists in spite of it, fills the poems with a pulsing, driving energy. In “medical history,” the first poem of the collection, Sealey begins:
I’ve been pregnant. I’ve had sex with a man
who’s had sex with men. I can’t sleep.
It’s a helluva opening couplet, a daring confession, a deceptively simple statement of fact. The plain language is invigorating in its honesty, confrontational without aggression or false bravado—no flowery elision or sentimentality here. It’s bright and tense and guttural, an incantation so concrete it feels less like a thought than a state of being. This incantatory power pairs well with Sealey’s gift for writing a devastating list, as the rest of “medical history” shows. The poem ends on these eight lines:
I drink. I don’t smoke. Xanax for flying.
Propranolol for anxiety. My eyes are bad.
I’m spooked by wind. Cousin Lilly died
from an aneurysm. Aunt Hilda, a heart attack.
Uncle Ken, wise as he was, was hit
by a car as if to disprove whatever theory
toward which I write. And, I understand,
the stars in the sky are already dead.
The turn in the penultimate sentence, “toward which I write” transforms this poem into an ars poetica of sorts, seeking an answer to a persistent question—one which “medical history” frames as a meta-investigation into the project of poetry: what are we doing with our short time on earth? The stars function as a ticking clock, an ever-present reminder of our impending deaths. In every poem, I hear it. What is it for? What is it for?
Sealey finds answers to this question in the moments of everyday beauty and joy she carefully chronicles, in the objects and faces she chooses to preserve. “in igboland” is a masterful poem on colonization and diaspora, capitalist “progress” and tradition. Sealey’s language sparkles in tight, churning lines.“in igboland” describes the building of an mbari—“a building erected in response to a major catastrophe and dedicated to one or several local deities” (from Sealey’s notes). The first stanza ends
statues of tailors on their knees
hemming the pant legs of gods;
statues of diviners reading
sun-dried entrails cast onto cloths
made of cowhide; statues of babies
breaching, their mothers’ legs spread
wide toward the sky, as if in praise.
There’s such tenderness in these lines, and such scope—the statues providing a Whitmanesque survey of an entire society, frozen in clay but incredibly alive. Pant legs and entrails give the scene visceral realism, while the gods and diviners and the mothers giving birth (here a holy act) elevate the tableau into an altar at which the reader must worship. The poem presents a whole world rendered in seven lines, plus an ending too good to spoil here.
Clever can sometimes be a dirty word in poetry, conveying a sort of cuteness or off-putting self-consciousness, but Sealey is clever without being arch, witty without being whimsical. See, for instance, her brilliant sonnet “underperforming sonnet overperforming” which interrogates the sonnet form until it’s pulverized and reconstituted into an entirely new element. Similarly, “in defense of ‘candelabra with heads’” is a burning, triumphant argument for the necessity of the poem in question, a gripping exegesis of the author’s own process, and a gorgeous poem in its own terms.
Sealey’s playfulness manifests in her agility with a variety of forms. A good sestina is rare enough to feel like a real treat when I find one, and Sealey’s “clue” (which is in fact two sestinas! two!) is delightful, as fun as winning at the titular board game yourself. “cue,” the next poem in the collection, is an erasure of “clue,” stripping away the buoyancy of the earlier poem into something more sinister, a dark mirror version of the same world. In addition to “underperforming sonnet overperforming” there are two sonnets called “legendary”—both haunting explorations of different kinds of femme identity and the violence inherent in its performance. “happy birthday to me” begins with fifteen lines consisting solely of periods, hinting at an erasure, a self-deprecating commentary on the loneliness of aging.
The real formal star in Ordinary Beast is Sealey’s “cento for the night i said, ‘i love you,’” an expansive meditation on what it means to love another person, to tether yourself to them:
Dying is simple—
the body relaxes inside
as someone drafts an elegy
in a body too much alive.
Love is like this;
not a heartbeat, but a moan.
Death and elegy, pain and love—there’s so much joy to be found in these poems, in their technical prowess and shining imagery. As a means of exploring these themes, Sealey often places the natural world in the same realm of the holy. Miracles and testaments appear alongside moonlight, orchids, “caterpillars gorged on milkweed,” and the following lines from “imagine sisyphus happy”:
We fit somewhere between god
and mineral, angel and animal,
believing a thing as sacred as the sun rises
and falls like an ordinary beast.
Yet Sealey is equally transfixed with the ephemera of human labor, the building materials, furniture, the airports and doctors’ waiting rooms. Like the body itself, these are locations in which to encounter the divine. The physical world is a window to a spiritual one, a fleeting chance to meet with god.
At just 64 pages, Ordinary Beast is a short, intensely focused collection with a defined thematic arc, from questioning to closure and acceptance. The ticking clock is not to be fought, but embraced. Our mortality is what makes our decision to love each other beautiful, what sanctifies and elevates us. The last lines of “object permanence,” the final, gripping love poem of the collection, are as follows:
O, how we entertain the angels
with our brief animation. O,
how I’ll miss you when you’re dead.
I love this book. It’s good and kind and true, a brave reminder of what matters in a world that feels increasingly like a cosmic joke. Sealey’s talent as a writer and her lively intellectual spirit gleam off the pages. Ordinary Beast is a fabulous debut, a stylistic triumph, and a necessary counterpoint to the cynicism of the age. It’s just what I needed to read.
Essy Stone is a PHD candidate in poetry at the University of Southern California. She holds an MFA from the University of Miami, and recently completed a Wallace Stegner Fellowship at Stanford University. Her work has been published in the New Yorker, 32 Poems, and Prairie Schooner. Her first book, What It Done to Us, was awarded the Idaho Prize in Poetry and was published by Lost Horse Press in 2017.