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Constance Alexander: Nickole Brown’s The Donkey Elegies offers praise to the unsung beasts of burden

The other morning at 6:15, I finally plucked The Donkey Elegies from my bedside table. I’d waited to indulge my passion for poetry until I could no longer tolerate “social distancing.” Fluffing up the pillows and yearning to be transported to a world away from COVID-19, I sank back in the covers to read Nickole Brown’s amazing chapbook.

From page 1, the poet’s metaphors made the beasts come to life. Their ears alone were likened to “sugar scoops,” “single petals of dahlias,” and “sweet apricots.”

Poem #2 chronicled everyday tasks associated with grooming a donkey. “With a brush, I shoofly your twitching withers, scrub the mud from your hindquarters to mink your coat up again.”

There is tenderness in each detail, but the patient ministrations of the groomer are tempered by a dash of reality as the narrator admits to being “careful, so careful, afraid as I am of a swift kick that could break my neck.”

Armed with a full set of colored sticky notes in the shape of cupid arrows, I read on, marking pages and passages that take my breath away. By the time I had my first cup of coffee, the book was aflutter in notes, way too many to quote in a seven-hundred-word column.

So let me breeze through some highlights.

Constance Alexander is a columnist, award-winning poet and playwright, and President of INTEXCommunications in Murray. She can be reached at constancealexander@twc.com. Or visit www.constancealexander.com.

Poem #5 scrolls through a series of donkey motifs, like a YouTube hodegepodge. There is a “billygoat prancing on the back of a jenny;” “a baby donkey sleep-twitching in a hammock;” another donkey monkeys “the latch with her lips to sneak herself and four others out of their corral.”

Remembering the first time she actually saw a donkey, the poet was “traipsing abroad” in Mexico, trying out her poor Spanish. The donkey, supposedly named Pedro, had a trick: “to lip up a bottle and throw his head back to gulp beer, fraternity-style.”

Twenty years later, she is not sure how she reacted then. She asks herself, “…did I actually see that emaciated swayback crusted with fleas and guzzling beer, a chorus of skeletel dogs exhausted in the dirt road?”

A sense of wonder propels readers through The Donkey Elegies. One poem after another evokes donkeys, at once odd and familiar. There is the donkey Christ rode into Jerusalem amidst “a confetti of blossoms and grain…” and “A crush of fans frantic to be saved.”

Noah makes an appearance in one of the donkey poems, and there is mention of Balaam, and also of Mary, mother of Jesus:

“Slumped in the swaying saddle, broken water wetting her blue robe black, her
pains divine, she clutched the dusty tufts, yanked the hair from the root, took
for her suffering the steady, uncomplaining mane of a donkey.”

Also worthy of mention are the 80,000 donkeys and mules that went to World War I. They were “fitted with gas masks for photos in that funny-no-funny kind of souvenir trauma makes, just desperate to have a good time.”

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Kentucky makes an appearance in #13, alluding to donkeys that used to work in the coal mines. They were “the color of cave fish” who “ghosted deep underground so long they would emerge decades later/ completely blind.”

Ms. Brown connects those donkeys to her childhood memories of the spinning and blindfold associated with “Pin the Tail on the Donkey.” She called the game “our own trashy sort of morality play” that emerged from beating a “cheap paper mache donkey” until it spilled its sweet guts.

The Donkey Elegies is second in a chapbook series that Nickole Brown, a Kentucky native, describes as “a bestiary of sorts.”

The first book in the series, To Those Who Were Our First Gods, demonstrates the poet’s deep appreciation and awe for all creatures, great and small. Her goal for every installment of the collection is to portray nature as, “beautiful, damaged, dangerous, and in desperate need of saving,” without lapsing into the “kind of pastorals that always made her (and most of the working-class folks she knows) feel shut out of nature and the writing about it.”

The Donkey Elegies is available through independent booksellers, online, and through the publisher, Sibling Rivalry Press. For more information contact info@siblingrivalrypress.com or log on to the poet’s website, www.nickolebrown.com.

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