A review of The Animals of My Earth School by Mildred Kiconco Barya

Reviewed by Andrew Weatherly

The Animals of My Earth School
by Mildred Kiconco Barya
Terrapin Books
April 10, 2023, Paperback, 96 pages, ISBN-13: 978-1947896635

Mildred Kiconco Barya shows us ourselves in her poems about animals. Whether it’s her ex in a ladybug “small head/ and tiny legs dragging along a large body” or ourselves feeling our sexiness in similar motions of the ladybug. Then there are parallels between human behavior and locusts stripping everything to death, including us ourselves.

Her theme of just how animal we humans are continues in her poem “Heads Are Unnecessary for Copulation”. It is playful while exploring movement, human and insect, before its superb description of decapitation in sex. We are left wondering how much like the animals we are, even as we insist we are different.  

“Ode to the Sheep” is a visceral experience making you feel the sheep and poem. The “father/ ramming fists into you,/ membrane tearing,/ pushing against your/ skin, until you’re bare–/ a glossy redness” with short lines enjambing to add intensity to the experience.   

There is the heartfelt “The Heart, the Heart, the Hunger” where the speaker as a child has a toy horse that “broke me” rather than the human breaking the horse. The poem concludes “In cremation, I am told, the heart is/ the last organ to burn. Bit by bit.” Are we seeing it as the final part to burn?  The feeling is raw, sad, and broken open to experience deeply.

In the Aves section we are treated to turkeys who “take turns at the reflectors [of her car]./ They’ve discovered their own beauty” just as humans also “see/ themselves in the mirrors…and fall in love.” reflecting a mythological falling in love with the image of ourselves.   

In ”Dazzling Wickedness” the reader is left wondering if the raven is somehow wicked simply because it wants to eat. Or is the human wicked for hiding under a stone seeking protection from the “powerful gaze” of the raven? And we are left to wonder…who is getting fed?      

Finally, in “Relentless Play: The Nature of Struggle” as “crows are tormenting a baby/ owl”, we are brought an animal story that reflects our human struggles between bullying and dignity, playfulness and assault. It has all gotten under the reader’s skin like the “white parrot” where fairy tales slip under the skin and into the psyche.  

Mildred Barya’s The Animals of My Earth School does that: it gets under the skin and into the psyche in a labyrinthine hall of mirrors, the reader like the writer seeing our human selves as animals and the animals as human reflections.

About the reviewer: Andrew Weatherly hears inspiration from dying trees, Hawaiian shirts, fires, and other poets.  He is blessed to live in the hood, teach kids to think, dance in the streets in Asheville, NC, and slip off to pilgrimages to sacred mountains.   He’s been published in Belle Reve, Axe Factory, Former People, Danse Macabre, Cordite, BlazeVox, the Literary Nest, Commonline Journal, Hot News, and Crack the Spine.  He led a workshop at the National Association for Poetry Therapy conference in 2015.