Ordinary Beast

reviewed by Stephanie Burt

Nicole Sealey’s debut feels like a debut, in the best sense: a clever poet with a lot to say will try everything once, or more than once, in order to see what works, from centos, to poems that critique her own earlier poems (“In Defense of ‘Candelabra with Heads’”), to a sestina in which all six end-words are some form of “pit”—“Pity,” “pulpit,” “Eliot Spitzer”) to straightforward first-person reactions, as in one poem set in Nigeria: “The West in me wants the mansion / to last. The African knows it cannot.” Sealey’s repertoire of devices might link her to Paul Muldoon, or to Kathleen Ossip, whose tricky relation to memoir and to public trauma she also shares. Yet nobody will read Sealey for long without seeing her “thoughts turn to black people—/ the hysterical strength we must / possess to survive our very existence.” Some of Sealey’s subjects are black America, gender in performance (a few poems pay homage to drag queens from the documentary Paris Is Burning), love lost, and—in the final poem, an aubade—love kept and found.

This review originally appeared in American Poets, Fall-Winter 2017.