Two Roads: A Review-in-Dialogue of Donika Kelly’s “The Renunciations”

June 10, 2021   •   By Victoria Chang, Dean Rader

The Renunciations

Donika Kelly

VICTORIA CHANG: There are so many things we can talk about related to The Renunciations (Graywolf, 2021) by Donika Kelly. The first thing I want to acknowledge is how brave the book is in terms of its subject matter. We can talk more about this later, but I wanted to say that up front. This book discloses private trauma related to the speaker’s sexual assault by her father. I imagine that these poems were difficult to write both from an emotional and a technical standpoint.


I really enjoyed Kelly’s first collection of poems, Bestiary (Graywolf, 2016). Bestiary was populated with animals and mythic beasts. The father was also a prominent figure in that collection, but the father is more prominent in this one and in a more direct way. Bestiary felt as if the metaphor’s vehicle was searching for its tenor. In contrast, The Renunciations no longer seems interested in metaphors as masks.


Perhaps a place to start is to talk about how this collection is organized, its shape. A long time period is explored with numerous subjects such as the sexual abuse of the speaker as a child and the breakdown of a marriage in present times.


I’m intrigued by the patterning and structure of the book, which is organized in seven sections with a frontispiece poem. The sections are titled, “Now,” “Then,” “Now,” “Now — Then,” “Now,” and “After.” The number of poems in each section alternate in a 9-8-9-8-9 pattern. The frontispiece poem starts with birth: “I was born into a house of air, / my dad born to bear, to share, his burden. / I was his dominion, a bit of land / turned to use.” Then the collection turns to the present, the ending of a marriage. The next section shifts to the past with the father figure and abuse. The neat structure implies an impulse to organize that which may be impossible to organize. The orderly sections, and the recurrence of the “Now” have the effect of emitting grief, as if showing the work of reckoning.


This collection must have been challenging to write from an actual timeline and practical basis, too. The poet had to figure out what to include and in what order, while working through difficult subject matter. The book’s structure allows the reader to see the stitching in the poems’ clothing. I felt brought along the process of the speaker’s reckoning, along a nonlinear and painful but also revelatory path. I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on the structure and organization of this collection.


DEAN RADER: I love how your mind works! You notice and call out so many interesting things.


I, too, was intrigued by the now/then organization, just as I was intrigued by the various places the poems are set — Compton in the 1990s, Arkansas in the 2000s, Northern California more recently. The poems in this book travel from past to present and from the South to the West Coast. But they also travel the hard road of trauma — from sexual abuse to divorce and the horrid places in between. This is a raw, fraught book by someone who has felt broken but has nevertheless found, in language, in poetry, the ability to reconstitute the self. It is sort of remarkable.


Throughout the book, I was very curious about the speaker and if there is any distance between speaker and author. I’m also wondering if you have thoughts on audience (whom the poems are addressing — there are many poems that begin “Dear—”).


VICTORIA: I think your travel metaphor is quite apt. Great question about the distance between the speaker and the author. The speaker seems to rely on a subject, meaning there are several instances where the speaker is writing to or addressing a subject — epistolary erasures, epistolaries, and an oracle. These instances serve as a kind of sounding board for the speaker to query, to admit, to explore, and to blame. The direct address is a form of reclamation of agency and of voice, while also helping the speaker think through her feelings and thoughts in real time. In this way, these subjects can feel like a confidante or a trusted therapist.


The “Dear—” poems are really interesting. They sometimes feel like diary entries to the self. Other times they feel like letters to a younger self or a different self (meaning a different voice or perspective). They can feel like that inner voice in the head working through questions back and forth. I like how flexible they are in their use of pronouns. Sometimes these are in first person singular, other times first person plural, other times second person (to a different self), sometimes to a different person.


To answer your question then, I would say that the speaker is large, she contains multitudes, to quote Whitman. There are multiple selves and they are all at different distances to the present-day speaker (who also contains multitudes), but these other speakers (whether young or old or just different) all seem to be working together to make a self, perhaps a new self.


I think the oracle is the communication thread to the past, and specifically to the speaker’s father. An oracle, by definition, is a priest or priestess who provides wisdom and predictions. Its roots lie in Greece where an oracle was the way to know the will of God. It’s interesting that the oracle is summoned in these poems, and not a God. If god is summoned at all, god is in lowercase and through disappointment as in “Dear—” where the speaker asks: “Dear god, when / will you find a time for me?” Or in “Bedtime Story for the Bruised-Hearted”: “The trees were all women once, / fleeing a god whetted with lust / until their fathers changed them, bound / their bodies in bark, and still the god took…” If god is anything to the speaker, god is something to be free of, like men. Summoning the oracle instead of a god implies distance between speaker and god.


The oracle first appears in the second section of the book related to the father. In the poem “Oracle,” Kelly writes:


The god in my brain

is no god, only a homunculus

I recognize as myself.


The god in my heart,

the same. The god of my liver,

the same. The god …


We immediately see that “god” is not capitalized and in fact the god here is “no god.” Later in this poem:


Who placed the god in me?

or

What do I mean, when I say god?


The reply to both

being, Your father.

Stupid oracle, I think …


God is both the father and the one who places himself inside the speaker (both figuratively and literally). In the next poem, “Donika Questions the Oracle,” the oracle is once again a subject to query and to accuse:


Who hid my dad in the mountain,

impoverished, where he would remain,

invisible and rationed, not on milk and honey,

but on bologna and saltines, until he grew

strong enough to kill the father?


Which father? …


The author’s name in the poem’s title feels powerful, reclamatory. The speaker refers to the oracle several times in this poem: “Surely not his daddy, oracle, surely not,” and “Did he ever delight, oracle, in anything / a child might?” The tone of the speaker toward the oracle isn’t one of friendship or love, but one of questioning, ambivalence, and even accusation.


The oracle appears in several other poems in the penultimate section of the book, “Now — Then.” Here, the oracle feels pseudo-human and serves as a proxy of the speaker, experiencing life along with the child. In “The Oracle Remembers the Future Cannot Be Avoided,” the oracle “wakens as the daughter does, / at the phone ringing, the landline, next to the bed…” The oracle is helpless to support the speaker and her mother: “The oracle thinks, hide, but where?”


Later in another poem of the same name, “Even / an oracle cannot choose what or how / to remember.” The oracle not only predicts the future but knows the future. The oracle serves as a future speaker in hindsight — one with full knowledge of what happened, but one with the inability to help the child or change the past. Hence, the oracle in these poems is a mirror of the child’s helplessness. Interestingly, the oracle disappears in the final section of the book titled “Now,” as if to say that the oracle is no longer necessary.


I’d love to hear your thoughts on the oracle and also your thoughts on Cronos and Greek mythology.


DEAN: “Stupid oracle” is one of the best moments in the book! I love that wry retort, that stepping out of “poem speak.” It makes the poem for me.


A cool and perhaps overlooked subtext of The Renunciations is its mythological intertext. The Renunciations contains many poems about the oracle, but it also has many poems that turn on the bizarre story of Cronos. The oracle, as you mention, is a priestess in the temple of Delphi who was basically a fortune-teller. Many Greek heroes consult the oracle, and, of course, it is the inspiration for the oracle in The Matrix trilogy.


But Kelly is equally interested in Cronos. Cronos was the son of Uranus (sky) and Gaia (earth). Ultimately, Cronos castrates his father and “marries” (or at least has children with) his sister Rhea. Uranus warns Cronos that he will be overthrown by one of his kids, so Cronos eats all of his children — just opens up really wide and swallows them! Since they are immortal, they can’t die, but living in their father’s stomach sounds awful.


As you might imagine, this angers his wife. She wants to see her children, to be a mom, but all of her kids are trapped in her husband’s belly. That is an impediment of the first order. Finally, after giving birth to Zeus, Rhea tricks Cronos by wrapping a stone in swaddling clothes, which he swallows. She secrets the baby Zeus away to be raised at Mount Ida on the island of Crete. Ironically, or not, one day, when Zeus is older, and bolstered by his mother, Zeus does in fact overthrow his father, who winds up vomiting up all of the original Greek gods — Poseidon, Hestia, Demeter, Hera, and Hades. It is a weird story of how the Greek pantheon comes into being.


As far as I know, there is no direct connection between the oracle and Cronos. I don’t think Cronos ever visited the oracle. Nor do I know of any real sexual misdeeds connected to Cronos, but Greek mythology is rampant with rape, incest, and various repulsive acts of sexual violence. Cronos is himself the product of incest. All of these themes coalesce in “Donika Questions the Oracle.” Kelly’s final stanza asks the reader to see her father through the macro lens of Greek sexual dysfunction but also through the micro lens of Cronos himself:


And when he rose like an improbable stone

from the father’s gut — whichever father

I mean here, whichever father makes sense —

the siblings, the pigeons, his daddy in exile,

his name in the sky — when he rose, with the stone

of himself in his hand, covered in bile and mucus,

free now of someone more powerful

than the child he surely once was,

did he know the terrible thing we would become?


And later, in “From The Catalogue of Cruelty,” Kelly makes another beguiling connection between her father and Cronos:


What is your name? He tried to put us through

the walls of the house the police entered,


which was his body. What is your name?

Compromised: the integrity of a body


Contracting. What is your name, sir? He answered:

Cronos. He answered. I’m hungry. He answered:


A god long dead. He threw up all his children

right there on the carpet.


This overlap is confusing. Does she want us to see her father as Cronos? Does she want the reader to remember that sexual violence, rape, and incest, were normalized in founding ontological narratives? Does she want us to see that in the earliest stories, the relationships between fathers and children were just colossally messed up? I confess I don’t know what, exactly, she is asking the reader to do here. But, I feel like I get it. It has something to do with the father taking her into his body, swallowing her up, devouring her. It is repulsive, and abhorrent, and unforgivable. And old. It is so old. And deep. And beyond complicated.


VICTORIA: Very astute reading. I originally missed the Cronos piece, as my knowledge of Greek mythology is spotty, but I see it now. I’ve always been haunted by that Goya painting Saturn Devouring His Son, which depicts the story you mention. And I’m reminded of Kelly’s first book where the Griffon appeared in a love poem.


What you say at the end here — that some or much of Greek mythology is “repulsive, and abhorrent, and unforgivable” is why I think Greek mythology is a useful trope, lens, or frame in which to work within or through the speaker’s trauma. And I want to be careful here because I am not a professional, so I hope the language I’m using doesn’t cause any harm.


The part you quote in the poem “From The Catalogue of Cruelty” is a little complex because of all the metaphors and various things colliding. There are stars collapsing, the police, the walls of a house, bodies, and also a modern-day setting, but I think you are right — one thing that’s clear is that the father is fallen but unaware, and that the father has figuratively devoured his children. All the repetition evokes a feeling of utter disgust. What an intense moment in that poem.


What do you think of the title of the book? Why is the title plural? What is the speaker rejecting or what is being rejected? The plural form evokes the rejection of everything — the father, the mother, the past, the past self, the ex-partner, the self when with the ex-partner, and even the oracle. The word renunciation is also a noun, not a verb, as if to say that the rejecting is finished, or this book is the act itself. 


DEAN: Wait, that’s not fair. I wanted to ask you about the title. What is the poet renouncing? 


VICTORIA: Ha! I guess that’s my response. Everything! In the last poem in the book, the first line is: “The home I’ve been making inside myself started / with a razing, a brush clearing…” and I think the word “razing” may answer your question, although the metaphor of land is used and the thing about land is that it’s still there, however fallow, when winter thaws.


I also noticed that the diction in these poems seems intentionally clear and direct, which I contend, actually renders the pain of the abuse and the failed relationship even more powerful. In a very poignant poem, “Self-Portrait with Father,” the speaker calls a meeting with the father to confront him. The diction is matter-of-fact, the syntax is conventional, and the description is simple and stripped down. Even the form is in steely couplets:


We sit on opposite sides of a picnic bench,

behind him, the black walnut tree, its fruit


rich with maggots. Behind me, a wall of ivy

we prune every other season. I’ve called


this Saturday morning meeting,

the sun already hard, the air dry.


And the imagery and metaphors are clean and simple, conventional, lacking in all pyrotechnics. The next part of this poem is so bare-boned that it’s heartbreaking:


… His head hangs

like a limb at the truth, his hands sweeping


down his mustache, his lips before he nods,

says, I don’t know why I keep [                    ].


I am all hope, the choice in that moment

so simple a child could figure it, and I say,


You can stop.


You can stop” is chilling in its own line. The rest of the poem is understated and therefore perhaps more moving, asking a series of unanswered questions before ending with a damning couplet: “I only know he fails, holds me / to every wall in the house again and again.”


DEAN: I like that reading. Super smart. I agree: that line is wholly chilling. I found several poems in this collection utterly wrenching. “Self-Portrait with Door” is one of the most heartbreaking poems I’ve ever read.


Do you know Lucille Clifton’s “shapeshifter poems”? I was trying to think about other poets who write so bluntly, so openly, so bravely (to use your term) about sexual violence, especially rape from a father. And I was reminded of Lucille Clifton, who feels like one of the first poets to make poetry a vehicle worthy of taking on this topic. In “shapeshifter poems,” Clifton queries, “who is there to protect her / from the hands of the father / not the windows which see and / say nothing.”


To me, Kelly writes in the tradition of Clifton (not necessarily because she is an African American woman) because, like Clifton, she is also writing in the tradition of poets like Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton. To me, her work enters into conversation with the Confessionalists but is less theatrical. More mournful. Differently rendered. Her trauma is not the primary subject; her healing is. Well, I should clarify — the painful, circuitous process of her healing. 


VICTORIA: Oh yes, “Self-Portrait with Door” was hard to read. On Clifton’s shapeshifter poems, I like the part you quote. The “shapeshifters” that Clifton writes about and how the moon changes


some men into themselves

and changes them there

the season is short

but dreadful shapeshifters

they wear strange hands

they walk through the houses

at night their daughters

do not know them


remind me of Kelly’s Cronos.


I might be reading too far into these poems, but both Clifton’s and Kelly’s poems ascribe the fathers to figures, implying an almost werewolf type of change. I can’t say how the speakers feel, but the implication of this morphing may indicate a modicum of empathy for these fathers — that they are not always bad people, that they turn into bad people, and may slingshot back to better people, and back again.


I like that — that Kelly’s work “enters into conversation with the Confessionalists but is less theatrical.” It feels like Kelly’s work is multidimensional — not to say that Confessional poetry isn’t, but to build on what you are saying in terms of theatrics, I think for Kelly she isn’t interested in performing her trauma. She is sincerely trying to work through it, around it, under it (and sometimes she gets crushed by the trauma), and this feels like really hard work. I respect this poet and person for this hard work.


The Renunciations is a unique book of poems. It reminds me of poets such as Sharon Olds (in Stag’s Leap), Plath, and as you mentioned, Clifton, Lowell. Sometimes these poems remind me of Bishop’s “In the Waiting Room” and the ways Kelly is navigating the inner world through narrative and lyric, and telegraphing personal narrative into the outer world, to be expanded into some greater understanding.


The collection feels like a work of process, a memoir in verse, as I mentioned earlier. The subject matter in these poems is very clear and palpable. I can see these poems resonating with so many readers. Maybe a question for you is: What do you think the role of the reader is? Or do you think there is a role?


DEAN: You write about the book as a process. I think above I use the same word. She is working through things here. But, it is also pedagogical. She is teaching readers a way to enter the maelstrom and not be swallowed up by the god, the father. The Cronos of abuse, the Cronos of violence, the Cronos of self-loathing, the Cronos of abnegation.


Speaking of the Greeks, I think my favorite moment in The Renunciations takes place in “Oracle,” which you quote above. I love those questions about god and the body. God/father/inside/outside/guts/skin/genes. Is Kelly’s god the same as her father’s? Does Kelly want the god that was in her father to also be in her? Can she vomit up, Cronos-like, the stone of her father? Is that vomiting, this book? I mean that of course in the getting-it-out-of-me-and-out-in-the-world way. I mean it in the Rhea way — as a way to save future generations. Zeus, the god, the father, was a rapist, but Athena was not, and yet, she was still powerful. You can have agency, power, authority, identity, strength, and not be violent. Violence does not have to beget violence. Similarly, just because your relationship with your father was dysfunctional, it does not mean your future relationships need to be as well. You can renounce violence. You can renounce victimhood.


VICTORIA: Yes, to all. I could say so much here, but you’ve said it so well and I think you’ve answered your own question about the title. Renunciations is also a renunciation of violence and of victimhood.


Related to what you are saying, I was very moved by The Renunciations and long after I finished it the ghost of the speaker stayed with me, the ghost of the speaker’s struggles, and ultimately, the speaker’s bravery. I suppose in this way, I am answering my own question about the role of the reader and the effect of this book on a reader. This collection expanded my feelings and sense of empathy, much like an accordion which opens widely but never overextends. And I can, again, imagine this book really helping a lot of readers.


Maybe this is where this poet’s gifts lie — in that liminal space between the interior and the exterior, the joint connecting pain and empathy. This is a book of endings, yet it feels very much like a book of hopeful possibilities, as the speaker says in the final poem: “About time / to get a hammer, I thought. About time to get a nail and saw.” The implication is that it’s time to garner some tools and to try to build something new out of the wreckage.


¤


Victoria Chang is the author of five books of poetry, including OBIT, which received the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, the PEN Voelcker Award, and the Anisfield-Wolf Book Prize, as well as was longlisted for the National Book Award, and shortlisted for the Griffin International Poetry Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award. She lives in Los Angeles and is the program chair of Antioch’s Low-Residency MFA Program.


Dean Rader has written, edited, or co-edited 11 books, including Works & Days, winner of the 2010 T. S. Eliot Prize and Self-Portrait as Wikipedia Entry, a finalist for the Oklahoma Book Award and the Northern California Book Award. He is a 2019 Guggenheim Fellow in Poetry and was just named a finalist for the Nona Balakian Award for excellence in reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle.  He is a professor at the University of San Francisco.