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Book Review: ‘The Renunciations’ by Donika Kelly


Donika Kelly’s The Renunciations (Graywolf Press) sees its greatest impact when panned out to see the full picture. Zooming out adds nuance. On the whole, Kelly is, as the title suggests, rejecting the contents inside. They are framed within units of time that repeat: NOW, THEN, AFTER. The renunciations, then, are Kelly’s reckoning. This elegiac collection on divorce and trauma, when seen from a distance, is a rebellion.

I restarted the book just a few pages in to give myself a better understanding of the big picture, and because I had some shallow misgivings: The poems collected here, especially early on, have the accessible, short-phrase-deep-sentiment vibe of Instagram poets — and I heard the chain bookstore couldn’t keep the collection in stock.

While reading, I realized I am a giant hypocrite. Language is made to be understood. I lectured a (poor, sweet) friend who works in the sciences about poetry. I told her that most people who don’t like poetry haven’t read poetry on their own. I told her poetry isn’t supposed to be hard to understand. I told her good poetry isn’t esoteric: It’s accessible. And Kelly blurs the line that snobs like me think separates accessible from artful. After some content warnings, I’d give The Renunciations to folks hoping to start reading poetry who believe they don’t “get it.”

Those content warnings are important. Our narrator recounts assaults, incest, often encased in delicate metaphor (such as in the poem “Mounting Dead Butterflies Is Not Hard”), but without pulling her punches. A beautiful, clever, tool Kelly employs in these cases is her use of blank space. No dialogue in The Renunciations and no words specific to assault are ever printed. Instead, between every pair of quotation marks is blank space. Kelly reminds us that poetry on paper is a visual medium, implores us: Notice what is missing.

I want to reiterate that The Renunciations is an approachable example of the great variety of shapes and techniques that poetry can assume. I’d accuse Kelly of showing off if the collection weren’t so deeply vulnerable. An example of her dalliance with The Renunciations as Master Class is this moment from one of many untitled poems framed as epistolary:

“I am an overreaction: a boil
of skin and itch and breath hitched like a child

realizing it is lost.”

Each section but the final one begins with an erasure poem, just a snapshot, serving maybe as an epigraph for each section. Each is addressed like a letter, like a censor got to it, leaving me hoping to read the missing text in the following poem, which also starts, “Dear-.” But we aren’t given that. I suspect this letdown is intentional. Kelly is flexing, giving us a taste of wanting.

In an early poem about her divorce, our narrator recounts taking her wife’s last name, her wife celebrating this, and offers what may be my favorite line of the year: “I know I am a palimpsest,” suggesting she herself is the word on paper, introducing the theme of dominion subtly, lovingly. Kelly passes through conversational, poignant, confessional and, through the collection, moves from the moments of acute pain to the moment when healing begins.

This article was originally published in Little Village issue 296.


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