The Sealey Challenge: Ordinary Beast

Nicole Sealey's ORDINARY BEAST, in front of the little purple punks known as mistflowers, and green foliage dappled in setting sun.
Ordinary Beast

Nicole Sealey is the Sealey Challenge’s namesake and creator, and today I read her work: Ordinary Beast, which might describe us ordinary human beasts, but is no ordinary book.

Ordinary Beast is longer than Sealey’s chapbook, The Animal After Whom Other Animals are Named, incorporating some of the same poems. Much like The Animal, Ordinary Beast covers difficult ground, from rage and racism (including lynchings and medical racism) to gender and health—though, of course, each of those intersects with the others. It is poetry of life, and life is hard and ugly and sometimes stunningly beautiful, and that hard, ugly, beautiful thing tumbles across every one of Ordinary Beast‘s pages.

Sealey’s poetry moves from humor—sometimes unexpected, but there all the same—to horror and well beyond. She builds poetry around art (I’ll never be able to see Thomas Hirschhorn’s Candelabra with Heads as anything but a lynching, ever again, although honestly I’m not sure I would have seen anything else anyway), and even around the board game (and cult movie) Clue. (In case you’re wondering: Clue is hilarious, and then segues into a jittery, intense erasure poem, C ue.)

I described Animal as “Lovely, fierce, lonely in the way of the body,” and though Ordinary Beast is a very different book, it yet carries that strange, intensely human loneliness and fierceness and loveliness. Structural racism rears its ugly head in strange and hidden ways, showing up again and again: privilege, safety, the ways in which the U.S.’s foundational myths (and even our license plate taglines) glorify white supremacy and obscure our unsavory racist past and present. “Virginia is For Lovers” is a great example of that, though far from the only one—Virginia may be for lovers now, after all, but it was also the Lovings’ home state.

Ordinary Beast deserves so many more words than I have to offer, tonight. It is sharp and fierce and pulsingly, vibrantly, insistently alive. It dares to hope, as Sealey writes, in “In Defense of ‘Candelabra with Heads,’” that she hopes a Black woman in a hundred years will read the poem and not even know what “lynching” is, because it will no longer exist. (We are in another red summer, here in the U.S., and I cried. Hope gets me every time, I guess.)

“Object Permanence” is the final poem in the collection, one which aches with the grief to come, one grappling with the loneliness of the future, the dangers, the promises, the unknowns. It is a strong close to Ordinary Beast, a reminder of our brief days upon this rock turning round the sun. And, like all the poems in this collection, it is sharp and aching and, always, fiercely, intensely alive.

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