Karen Poppy’s our own beautiful brutality

Of Antelope and Expansionists in Karen Poppy's our own beautiful brutality: A Review by Isabel Beckham

In her latest chapbook, our own beautiful brutality from Finishing Line Press, Karen Poppy deals with the plight of endangered antelopes on a recurring basis. The poet contrasts the figure of these animals of antelopes by using pronouns of “I” and “we” and contrasting against a “them,” which has the effect of conjuring feelings of worry (in readers like myself) both for myself and the expansionists. There was an underlying feeling of unease throughout our own beautiful brutality; the book is a compelling portrait of the destruction that humans leave in their wake without a care for the helpless creatures they leave to suffer alone.  

In addition to our own beautiful brutality, Poppy has published two other chapbooks: Crack Open/Emergency (Finishing Line Press, 2020) and Every Possible Thing (Homestead Lighthouse Press, 2020). Her first full-length collection will appear in 2023 from Beltway Editions. Poppy’s poem, “The Aisle Not Taken,” was chosen by the 22nd Poet Laureate of the United States, Tracy K. Smith, to read on her national radio show and podcast, The Slowdown. To read Poppy’s work in Issue 18 of Miracle Monocle click here

The patterns of repetition in our own beautiful brutality extend beyond the theme of endangered animals; most of the poems in the collection also feature repetition within. In my experience, repetition is often a hint that something needs attention and is important to the overall story. In the poem, "The How-to Guide of Giant Sable Antelope," for example, Poppy draws the reader’s attention to the sense of embattlement between an “us” and a “them”:

They will work to save us 

They will work to hunt us 

Humans, they do both and 

Call it worship, call it love

Further in the poem: 

Hunted us. Hunted each other, 

In and after civil war. 

Angola, our home, and 

For many humans, theirs

Devastation dried up our rivers. 

In this way, Poppy infuses the poem with the sense that there’s a right side to this war. The pattern of repetition shows the importance of taking political stances and making a strong defense for our beliefs. 

A highlight from the chapbook was the beautiful language employed throughout. Poppy’s constant use of unusual phrases and lines drew me in as a reader:  From "Diving at the Lip of the Water," “A power. You misread her, / By mistake or by design.” From "Cautionary Figure of a Species in Decline," “Will this be enough to warn? / Body from spirit, a couplet torn.” And from "Treehouse on Mars," “When we’re born, and old enough,” “of memory and loss.”

Poppy doesn’t always conform to expectations when it comes to the form of her poems, instead playing with space in an inventive way: Look to "By the Bridge, by the River," "Upper Antelope Canyon," "Diving at the Lip of the Water," and "Hineni" for experiments in form. Long, narrative poems are juxtaposed against short image-oriented poems; in this way, the poet offers readers a sense of variety despite the presence of a consistent theme. 

Throughout the book, a sense of urgency emanates from the speakers of the poems, begging to be heard and helped. A hidden theme is that nature is brutal; the antelope are rough with each other, but outside others are also rough to them: crocodiles, lions, and humans. The humans in this chapbook don’t always hunt for food, but rather for the fun of it. They might revere the animals for their beauty, but they also kill them because of it. 

One thing that gave me pause was that there seemed to be no neutral in this book; in this storyworld, it’s an either/or situation and the feeling is distinctly that “if you are not for us, you are against us.” This was, however, not an unpleasant feeling; rather, I felt called-to-action. After reading our own beautiful brutality, I found myself questioning my own role in the global situation. I reflected upon the continually growing list of endangered species and the lack of resources to help. If this was Poppy’s aim, she delivered.

Get your copy of our own beautiful brutality from Finishing Line Press today.  

ISABEL BECKHAM is a verse editor of Miracle Monocle.