A Prayer to Talk to Animals

Nickole Brown

Lord, I ain’t asking to be the Beastmaster
gym-ripped in a jungle loincloth
or a Doctor Dolittle or even the expensive vet
down the street, that stethoscoped redhead,
her diamond ring big as a Cracker Jack toy.
All I want is for you to help me flip
off this lightbox and its scroll of dread, to rip
a tiny tear between this world and that, a slit
in the veil, Lord, one of those old-fashioned peeping
keyholes through which I can press my dumb
lips and speak. If you will, Lord, make me the teeth
hot in the mouth of a raccoon scraping
the junk I scraped from last night’s plates,
make me the blue eye of that young crow cocked to
me—too selfish to even look up from the flash
of my damn phone. Oh, forgive me, Lord,
how human I’ve become, busy clicking
what I like, busy pushing
my cuticles back and back to expose
all ten pale, useless moons. Would you let me
tell your creatures how sorry
I am, let them know exactly
what we’ve done? Am I not an animal
too? If so, Lord, make me one again.
Give me back my dirty claws and blood-warm
horns, braid back those long-
frayed strands of every nerve tingling
with all I thought I had to do today.
Fork my tongue, Lord. There is a sorrow on the air
I taste but cannot name. I want to open
my mouth and know the exact
flavor of what’s to come, I want to open
my mouth and sound a language
that calls all language home.

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Nickole Brown

Nickole Brown received her MFA from the Vermont College, studied literature at Oxford University, and was the editorial assistant for the late Hunter S. Thompson. She worked at Sarabande Books for ten years. Her first collection, Sister, a novel-in-poems, was first published in 2007 by Ren Hen Press and reissued by Sibling Rivalry Press in 2018. Her second book, a biography-in-poems called Fanny Says (BOA Editions), won the Weatherford Award for Appalachian Poetry. She lives with her wife, poet Jessica Jacobs, in Asheville, North Carolina, where she volunteers at four different animal sanctuaries.

Rattle Chapbook Prize Winner

For the past three years, Nickole Brown has been at work on a bestiary of sorts, investigating the complex, interdependent, and often fraught relationship between human and non-human animals. In this chapbook you’ll find the first results of this project—nine poems from her new manuscript, all focusing on the experience of creatures in a world shaped (and increasingly destroyed) by us. These pieces—some of them long sequences that operate like lean, lyric essays—have their sight set upon the natural world. But these are not poems of privilege that gaze out the window from a place of comfortable remove. No, these are not the kind of pastorals that always made Brown (and most of the working-class folks from her Kentucky childhood) feel shut out of nature and the writing about it; instead they speak in a queer, Southern-trash-talking kind of way about nature beautiful, damaged, dangerous, and in desperate need of saving

“The strip mall pet store and the dollar store parking lot, in Nickole Brown’s wild and embracing poems, are reclaimed as places to discover a connection to our animal cousins. These are not quiet poems, they ring with aints and damns, with hair spray, shit, and the deep rhythms of Biblical speech sung through Appalachia (“If you will, Lord, make me the teeth / hot in the mouth of a raccoon scraping / the junk I scraped from last night’s plates”). With clear-eyed, scientifically accurate praise, they even reclaim Romanticism’s problematic yen toward personification, showing us how, if done with an awareness of self and how we cloud our own viewing, it can be a way to forge a connection with the wood rat, the parasite-riddled goat, the moth. Brown’s poems are full of play, but don’t overlook the keen mind at work here. She is tearing down the “here-for-our-use” capitalistic and patriarchal relationship to animals humanity has used since time immemorial. As she writes in her long poem about the Biblical Samson, “Because there’s a better way to solve this, / and the answer is no longer fear / curdled into rage, a murdered / lion with a swarm sugaring his remains.” If we follow her, we could do better by animals and we just might save ourselves, too.”
—Elizabeth Bradfield

“Nickole Brown creates a new language for our relationships with non-human animals. Her poems are founded on fully embodied listening and yield insights that unify mind, body, and emotions. At a time when such inner and outer connections are too often severed, her poems show us the possibility of wholeness.”
—David George Haskell

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