Donika Kelly: I’m Donika Kelly, and this is PoetryNow. When I was in the sixth grade, we took a class field trip to a sea lion rescue. There was just something about that I found really compelling. This idea of like rescuing something that had been harmed, trying to rehabilitate something. At the time that I wrote this poem, I was struggling a little bit with how to order my life after realizing that I didn’t believe in God, and I didn’t have access to that script anymore. If there isn’t something larger that gives us dominion over everything else, if there isn’t a narrative that says we are at the top then I don’t know, I think that sort of changes the question of salvation.
The tide pool crumples like a woman
into the smallest version of herself,
bleeding onto whatever touches her.
The ocean, I mean, not a woman, filled<
with plastic lace, and closer to the vanishing
point, something brown breaks the surface—human,
maybe, a hand or foot or an island
of trash—but no, it’s just a garden of kelp.
A wild life.
This is a prayer like the sea
urchin is a prayer, like the sea
star is a prayer, like the otter and cucumber—
as if I know what prayer means.
I call this the difficulty of the non-believer,
or, put another way, waking, every morning, without a god.
How to understand, then, what deserves rescue
and what deserves to suffer.
Or should I say, what must
be sheltered and what abandoned.
I might ask you to imagine a young girl,
no older than ten but also no younger,
on a field trip to a rescue. Can you
see her? She is lead to the gates that separate
the wounded sea lions from their home and the class.
How the girl wishes this measure of salvation for herself:
to claim her own barking voice, to revel
in her own scent and sleek brown body, her fingers
woven into the cyclone fence.
In a lot of the Abrahamic religions, men are positioned at the top. And then it’s everyone else.
(QUOTING FROM POEM)
… How to understand, then, what deserves rescue / and what deserves to suffer. // Who. // Or should I say, what must / be sheltered and what abandoned. // Who.
The girl at the end who is like me, but like with much more sophisticated thinking, imagining salvation. Like, I don’t think when I went to the sea lion rescue I was like, “I would like to be saved like the sea lions are saved” (LAUGHING). But there was something really resonant in that image.
(QUOTING FROM POEM)
… How the girl wishes this measure of salvation for herself: / to claim her own barking voice, to revel / in her own scent and sleek brown body,
And there’s something about being a girl, being a woman, being black, to be so far from the center of what we understand in terms of who deserves protection, who deserves to be rescued. There isn’t often outrage on behalf of little black girls—it almost never happens.
Katie Klocksin: That was Donika Kelly and her poem “Sanctuary.” I’m Katie Klocksin, and this is PoetryNow, a production of The Poetry Foundation. For more about this series go to poetryfoundation.org/poetrynow.