Criticism & Features

Year 2021: 30 Books

The Renunciations by Donika Kelly: 2021 Poetry Finalist

By Keetje Kuipers

The Renunciations by Donika Kelly (Graywolf)

Though Donika Kelly’s second collection, The Renunciations, contains poems as taut and carefully controlled by the poet as any composed by the talented peers in her generation of artists, the book stands out for the way it balances that disciplined power with a willful aliveness, one which must be read as the fervent, fevered desire to reclaim the self: “Tonight, my love, we are free / of men, of gods, and I am a river // against you, drawn to current and eddy, / ready to make, to be unmade.”

This reclamation happens in flesh and blood, and in spirit, too, but nowhere more than in dialogue. As these poems traverse generational trauma, rather than succumbing to the confessional—unless we are considering the ways in which one confesses to one’s self—they build conversation with their stories and the figures who populate them. Likewise, the traumas referenced on the page resist simple characterization of family demons, and the poems remain questioning and startlingly curious for a book built around a legacy of childhood abuse. Even in poems addressed to “the oracle” or invoking “the father,” rather than trying to pin down the past and make it into a single discrete object for the author to transcend, we are made instead to understand the elusive, shape-shifting nature of “the hot mouth of shame… swallowing whatever longing I wanted to voice.”

But it is in Kelly’s future-facing poems addressed to the beloved—sometimes erasures and sometimes full-throated love songs—that we begin to see the path forward: “Let this be a moment of remembering, // my love, as I stand at the edge of myself, / cliff and sea grass and the screaming gull above, / sighting your breadth to the horizon.” In sections variously titled and retitled ‘Now,’ ‘Then,’ and ‘After,’ the poet moves back and forth, retracing her steps with patience and tremendous compassion—to the self, the lover, and even at times the perpetrator of some of the cruelest crimes that can be committed against a child. In this generous and vital follow-up to Kelly’s Cave Canem Award-winning debut, we are privileged to watch an artist wield the tool of lyric constraint in pursuit of each “sweet anchor”: forgiveness, love, a woman’s self-dominion.

Keetje Kuipers’ third collection, All Its Charms, contains poems honored by publication in the Pushcart Prize and Best American Poetry anthologies. A former Stegner Fellow, Keetje is Visiting Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Montana, Editor of Poetry Northwest, and a Board Member at the National Book Critics Circle.

Buy this book at Bookshop.