Donika Kelly reads “A Dead Thing That, in Dying, Feeds the Living”
Don Share: This is the Poetry magazine podcast for the week of September 10th, 2018. I’m Don Share, editor of Poetry magazine.
Christina Pugh: I’m Christina Pugh, consulting editor for the magazine.
Lindsay Garbutt: And I’m Lindsay Garbutt, associate editor for the magazine. On the Poetry magazine podcast, we listen to a poem or two in the current issue.
Don Share: Donika Kelly teaches Creative Writing at Baruch College in New York. She’s the author of “Bestiary,” a collection of poems about real and mythical creatures.
Lindsay Garbutt: In the September issue, we have her poem “A Dead Thing That, in Dying, Feeds the Living.” Kelly said it’s a reflection on a relationship after it’s over.
Donika Kelly: Like right at the end of a relationship, at least, like, in my experience, I haven’t wanted it to end, I’ve wanted to hold on to it. And then, after it’s over, I can think to myself, well, it makes sense that it’s over.
Don Share: Kelly told us that the poem investigates the world of religion and how faith can provide a recipe for reparation when things are broken. It got her thinking about her own life.
Donika Kelly: If I don’t have religion, if I don’t have this larger sort of ordering structure, then how do I make sense of the world? Like, what are the things that I pull in? And so, a lot of times, it’s the natural world.
Lindsay Garbutt: Here is the poem.
Donika Kelly: A Dead Thing That, in Dying, Feeds the Living
I’ve been thinking about the anatomy
of the egg, about the two interior membranes,
the yolk held in place by the chalazae, gases
moving through the semipermeable shell.
A curious phrase, the anatomy of the egg,
as if an egg were a body, which it is,
as if the egg could be broken then mended,
which, depending on your faith, broken yes,
but mended? Well. Best to start
again, with a new body, voided
from a warmer one, brooded and turned.
Better to begin as if some small-handed
animal hadn’t knocked you against a rock,
licked clean the rich yolk and left
the albumen to dry in the sun — as if a hinged
jaw hadn’t swallowed you whole.
What I wanted: a practice that reassured
that what was cracked could be mended
or, at least, suspended so that it could not spread.
But now I wonder: better to be the egg or scaled
mandible? The small hand or the flies, bottle black
and green, spilling their bile onto whatever’s left,
sweeping the interior, drinking it clean?
I think, something might have grown there, though
I know it was always meant to be eaten,
it was always meant to spoil.
Christina Pugh: This poem is so inductive in the way that it moves. The anatomy of the egg becoming this emblem that we’re taken through with the speaker’s thoughts, about, you know— what does it mean to possibly mend an egg. What does it mean to be the animal that eats the yolk, cracks the egg and leaves it to be rotting and devoured by ants. And in terms of what this poet calls “practice,” I really took it to be a kind of self-referential statement in a sense, an ars poetica, or a poem talking about poetry. You know, what does it mean to make a commitment to, um, mending things through the work, versus devouring what should have been in some sense left alone? It seems like the poem comes to the conclusion that it’s better to devour.
Donika Kelly: I know it was always meant to be eaten, / it was always meant to spoil.
Christina Pugh: Starting from this discrete moment of the egg it just really blossoms into a whole contemplation about, for me at least, you know, writing. And as Kelly, the poet, said, relationships as well.
Don Share: Well, and in an even more sort of cosmic and fundamental sense, there is this question of how things begin. The cosmology of it is …
Donika Kelly: Best to start / again, with a new body, voided / from a warmer one, brooded and turned.
Don Share: And I like the word “brooded” because it’s really from Genesis or … a sort of brooding over the waters. The prelude to something vast and alive. And the other thing about that is that, I think, this poet has such a keen eye for the minute particulars that you can read this whole poem and think about an egg without ever having that silly question about which came first. (LAUGHING)
Christina Pugh: (LAUGHING)
Don Share: It’s like … it sort of squares the circle, this poem. Because the particulars sort of … are so absorbing and so interesting that you set aside questions. I think the reassurance of a poet is a striking thing any time when real questions that we have around us all the time actually get to be set aside. It’s the kind of heavy lifting a good poet can do.
Lindsay Garbutt: Yeah. I feel like I was taken with this poem from the very beginning with the title. It’s just such a beautiful phrasing, “A Dead Thing That, in Dying, Feeds the Living.” And, you know, there are pat phrases about eggs all the time, like “you can’t make an omelette without cracking a few eggs,” you know. And I think this poem describes the sort of ambiguity of that, in a much more nuanced way. That, you know, there is a sadness to breaking an egg but that ... you know, some eggs were never going to grow a chick or a live animal. They were not fertilized. And so it was going to spoil or crack regardless. And so, to think about certain things such as writing or relationships as needing to break in order to feed something else is such an important understanding to come to, and something this poem comes by very originally and also seemingly naturally. It has a very conversational tone to it.
Don Share: Well, and there’s an intimate sense of trust in nature, which is kind of hard to come by, especially in our time, it seems to me, where, in a sense, however things have been designed to work out—and that’s the foundation of our experience of things—there is sort of a philosophical tone, that conversational tone. It’s sort of calming and reassuring. Even when the flies turn up …
Christina Pugh: (LAUGHING)
Don Share: ... that’s a surprising thing, you know, it’s not a clean image of an egg or a romanticizing of it. The flies come, but they are sort of the flies in Dickinson a little bit….
Lindsay Garbutt: (LAUGHING)
Don Share: ... I mean, they’re not entirely gruesome. They’re doing their natural work.
Donika Kelly: Bottle black / and green, spilling their bile onto whatever’s left, / sweeping the interior, drinking it clean?
Don Share: They’re meant to be here. All the things in this poem are meant to be here and then it allows you to think, well, then we’re sort of meant to be here too, and we can sort of fit in and get by in the way we have to. You can make a kind of peace with that arrangement. It’s an uneasy peace, but you can sort of go with it.
You can read “A Dead Thing That, in Dying, Feeds the Living” by Donika Kelly in the September 2018 issue of Poetry magazine or online at poetrymagazine.org.
Lindsay Garbutt: We’ll have another episode for you next week, or you can get all September episodes all at once in the full-length podcast on Soundcloud.
Christina Pugh: Let us know what you thought of this program. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org, and please link to the podcast on social media.
Don Share: The Poetry magazine podcast is recorded by Ed Herrmann and produced by Curtis Fox and Catherine Fenollosa.
Lindsay Garbutt: The theme music for this program comes from The Claudia Quintet. I’m Lindsay Garbutt.
Christina Pugh: I’m Christina Pugh.
Don Share: And I’m Don Share. Thanks for listening.