The Donkey Elegies by Nickole Brown
Review by Suzanne Simmons
Nickole Brown’s The Donkey Elegies (Sibling Rivalry Press 2020), is a beautifully written and instructive sequence of numbered poems about donkeys, and by extension other overlooked and under-appreciated beasts of burden.
The book begins intimately, as the poet describes a particular donkey, its ears “like single petals of Dahlias at full bloom, curled, firmly upright, but always soft, always open.” It’s an apt image for a book that asks us to listen deeply as Brown lays out the history of these creatures who have served humans for thousands of years.
In the second poem, the poet is on her knees, carefully cleaning the underside of the donkey’s hoof in her role as a volunteer at an animal shelter, and in this position of humility and service, she invites us to join her. She gives us the vocabulary for a donkey’s body: “fetlock, withers, eel stripes, heel, hoof wall, sole, toe, frog,” as opposed to the language used in later poems—stereotypes and jokes about asses, because,
behind their jokes
is not the animal
itself but the animal
they see, not the animal they know
but the animal they think.
She endures the scorn of a fellow worker at the shelter:
the community service punk clocked for speeding with a rattle of beer cans on his floorboards can’t get over the fact I clean the barn for free because I want to.
She notices the “subtle flinch of visitors, their pity seeing a grown woman shovel shit.'” But, she writes, “this grunt work is the repair of my soul.”
The middle section of the book catalogues the dismal assortment of grunt work that has been assigned to donkeys over centuries. This is a fascinating and appalling history, and a reminder that seeing any living being as inherently less than and disposable dehumanizes the perpetrator. Many of the of poems in this sequence begin with the phrase: “On your back,” and so begins a long list of people and things donkeys have carried, including the laboring Mary, later her son Jesus, untold numbers of soldiers, and burdens ranging from dead deer to pallets of bricks until, finally:
your back, it sways, it bends in the middle as does a shelf
that’s been asked to hold more than it possibly can, before it eventually splits
exposing spine. Overloaded, the cart
tips back, suspends in the air
the limp donkey.
The use of donkeys in our World Wars, something I was completely ignorant about, is particularly heartbreaking. As many as 80,000 donkeys were in the trenches during World War I, with their vocal cords cut to silence them, and in World War II donkeys outfitted with parachutes were dropped from planes only to shatter their limbs upon landing and be shot. Brown weaves scenes of her own upbringing throughout the unfolding of the the donkey’s tale so as to describe how she could,
sense the life I was born into, the one I was meant to have. . .
I’d be trapped with too many babies and a shit husband to boot. . .
But what they couldn’t imagine is though I escaped all that, all those years behind the desk have unstitched me from my body in another way . . .
She shows us the girl she once was, who smiled and apologized to men behaving badly, concluding that:
Fawning is one way to dodge what’s coming when you’ve no other way to fight.
Tractable is one way a domestic avoids extinction.
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, in spite of everything,
just like me.
The language throughout the book links the poet and the donkeys to hardscrabble working worlds: “The truth of my family was buried in their talk.” In one poem Brown describes Mary as “tupped by the Almighty,” in another she refers to Pooh’s donkey friend Eeyore as a “stitched-back-together low note of Prozac.” In tone, these rich phrases are the offspring of the country sayings she grew up with, such as one she quotes in poem #14: “about as good as putting a steering wheel on a mule.” My own father, a Western Pennsylvania farm kid whose education ended when he dropped out of high school to work in a steel mill, peppered his own speech with similar talk. As cliched as it may sound, rural language is indeed wise, often poetic and has an earthy humor you can practically smell. Brown’s book is infused with this language, and coupled with her intellect and keen observations she spins plenty of her own wisdom: “Do we dismiss sturdy, useful beings / because we despise what we’re afraid we’ll become?”
The last poem is a blessing that calls to these lines from Galway Kinnell’s “Saint Francis and the Sow”:
sometimes it is necessary
to reteach a thing its loveliness,
as Saint Francis
put his hand on the creased forehead
of the sow, and told her in words and in touch
blessings of earth on the sow
Brown ends her well-researched and deeply moving book with a similar blessing:
Blessed be. You know how it goes.
a plain song of persistence, of hunger
met with plenty of time to chew.
Can you hear it, too?
In his dutiful mouth, the pulp and resignation,
the grit and patience of every
thing grown by the sun surrendered
but saved, brought back
by the common, low-life, baseborn, absolute
holiness that is
I highly recommend this book. The language is often bracing and always delightful, the donkeys are as real as rain—purely themselves, intensely seen, and yet also metaphors for the suffering that happens all around us that we manage not to see.
Nickole Brown received her MFA from the Vermont College, studied literature at Oxford University, and was the editorial assistant for the late Hunter S. Thompson. She worked at Sarabande Books for ten years. Her first collection, Sister, a novel-in-poems, was first published in 2007 by Red Hen Press and a new edition was reissued by Sibling Rivalry Press in 2018. Her second book, a biography-in-poems called Fanny Says, came out from BOA Editions in 2015, and the audio book of that collection became available in 2017. She was an Assistant Professor at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock for four years until she gave up her beloved time in the classroom in hope of writing full time. Currently, she is the Editor for the Marie Alexander Poetry Series and teaches periodically at a number of places, including the Sewanee School of Letters MFA Program, the Great Smokies Writing Program at UNCA, and the Hindman Settlement School. She lives with her wife, poet Jessica Jacobs, in Asheville, NC, where she volunteers at a three different animal sanctuaries. Currently, she’s at work on a bestiary of sorts about these animals, but it won’t consist of the kind of pastorals that always made her (and most of the working-class folks she knows) feel shut out of nature and the writing about it—these poems speak in a queer, Southern-trash-talking kind of way about nature beautiful, but damaged and dangerous. The first of these new poems, To Those Who Were Our First Gods won Rattle‘s Chapbook Contest in 2018. The second chapbook from this project, an essay-in-poems called The Donkey Elegies, was published by Sibling Rivalry Press in January 2020.
Suzanne Simmons’ poems, essays and photographs have been published in the NYTimes, Fifth Wednesday, Rattle, Smartish Pace, The Baltimore Review and numerous other journals. Her chapbook In September They Draw Down the Lake was released by Alexandria Quarterly Press in 2020. She volunteers for Monarch Watch, The Center for Wildlife in Cape Neddick, and lives in Eliot, ME. Visit her at http://www.suzannesimmons.net
Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe Online.