Re-Naming Experience: Danielle Sellers on Five Kingdoms by Kelle Groom


Five Kingdoms, Kelle Groom, Anhinga Press, 2010

In her third collection, Five Kingdoms, Kelle Groom’s speaker is writing from the perspective of a woman who has lived intensely, lost intensely, one who has ended up in a place familiar, yet she is unfamiliar to herself. She wants to start over, but knows one can never go back. Instead, perhaps one can begin an alternative path in an abandoned place.

In her attempt to impose order on a chaotic life, she summons the five kingdoms, which refers to the five kingdoms used to categorize every living thing. From this idea she’ll try to name experience, or rather, re-name it. What we soon find is experience is messy and does not like to be neatly ordered, which is perhaps why there are three sections to the book and not five.

The first poem, which acts as a prelude to the book, “Bone Built for Eternity” is based on a Guillermo Kuitca painting. In it, the speaker imagines the fate of the subject, a small skeleton:

A storm drowned her,
and we chinked her out
of rock that grew around,
just her face peeking out from a blanket
of sand, telling us not to worry,
that even if you are buried
for three million years,
your body nearly hidden in stone
we will come looking
for you, and hold your skull in the palm
of a hand, admire your empty
thimble eyes, teeth like tiny kernels
of corn, look inside your ears for balance,
the sea the same, though the moon
was so much closer then to earth—

The speaker goes on to wonder, “What was it/ like to wake up in this place/ before countries?” The question is striking because it seems as though a place without countries would be one of disorder, a country being a way to classify one’s self and others, but a country is also one of restriction. Countries keep their inhabitants in, others out. The question could also be, what was it like to be utterly free? This is a question the speaker of Five Kingdoms will ask again and again in not so many words.

From what, one might ask, does she want to run, to what does she want to return? Death of a son, for one, the loss of friends, a sense of failure, the anger and confusion of war, of not knowing what the plan is for herself. The speaker in these poems lacks self-pity. Instead, she wants to believe in reincarnation, in the idea that if a road is not taken in this life, she’ll get the chance in another. That the loved lost to her are not lost forever.

In the poem “This Life,” the speaker’s van driver discusses his previous existence, remembering it very clearly. She tells him of her wish to regress, but he says that’s only for people who have problems in their current lives, which causes the speaker to daydream. She says:

…But I do have a problem—

the fear that I will make the wrong
decision, and someone will die, suffer.

Though that was born in this life
when I gave away my son to good

parents, people I loved, and he died.
Maybe his time between lives

will be short too, maybe he’s
already here.

And in “Songs From Far Away,” the speaker imagines the reunion with her son:

In my life. It was as if the force field
That separates the living from the dead,

Lifted long enough for me to hear
His voice, so that I could know he loved me…

And later, the dead swing from trees:

Smiling, saying live, live, live & on this side
We hear birds from far away.

Poetry should come out of experience, and the subjects of Groom’s poems are the stuff of experience. The boiled-down, condensed essence. It’s like that commercial for fiber pills, one minute you have a plethora of vegetables in the palm of a hand, the palm closes, opens, and the vegetables have been squeezed into two hard-powder tabs of fiber. The poems in Five Kingdoms are sustenance for the malnourished reader. They are sustained by a hard-wrought life lived, by a speaker who’s “walked on boards broken by the hurricane/ into a shack with the windows blown out,/ slept in the limbs of the house.” The voice Groom renders is at times resigned, angry, nostalgic, but always luminous, and in that, there’s much to admire.

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Danielle Sellers is originally from Key West, FL. She has an MA from The Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University and an MFA from the University of Mississippi where she held the Grisham Poetry Fellowship. Her poems have appeared in River Styx, Subtropics, Smartish Pace, The Cimarron Review, Poet Lore, Cold Mountain Review, and elsewhere. Her first book, Bone Key Elegies, was published in 2009 by Main Street Rag. She’s editor of The Country Dog Review and teaches at the University of Mississippi. She lives in Oxford, Mississippi with her daughter Olivia.

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