To Those Who Were Our First Gods




Nickole Brown

« Rattle Chapbook Prize Winner »

To Those Who Were Our First Gods by Nickole BrownFor 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.

Praise for To Those Who Were Our First Gods

“….Oh forgive me, Lord / how human I’ve become…” murmurs the first poem in Nickole Brown’s new chapbook. And there, Reader, in the middle of that poem, is where I began to weep. I’ll speak here with directness to honor the tenor of Brown’s poems—intimate, knowable. To Those Who Were Our First Gods is dedicated to a three-legged goat called Gulliver. To see eye to eye with a goat, one must get on their knees; these poems kneel to the reality of the Anthropocene. Neither an “ecopoet,” whose language might become all but incomprehensible, distorting in concert with a ravaged world, nor a “nature poet,” who might reflect on the world as being of distance, an exceptionalized place of awe and exceptional untouchability, Brown is a poet of presence, participation, communion and communication. To Those Who Were Our First Gods feels committed to being—what some regard as a great poetry sin, (gasp!)—accessible. Language here is porch-stoop and diner and parking lot colloquial, a kind of poetry that does not risk losing the reader’s attention or identification by employing unconventional language or form. There is too much at stake in these poems to risk not speaking simply.
—Sophie Klahr, in Quarterly West

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, author of Approaching Ice and Once Removed

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, author of The Songs of Trees and the Pulitzer-finalist The Forest Unseen

To Those Who Were Our First Gods focuses on more than what we’ve lost by estranging ourselves from the natural world; it upholds and elegizes “that iridescent song,” “the soft and liquid cathedral” of the animal’s body, which, more often than not, ends up wrapped in a black bag and thrown away. Reading Brown’s poetry reminds one that to be an animal is to be alive in desire and suffering.
—Dante Di Stefano in the Best American Poetry Blog

[D]on’t let me mislead you into thinking that To Those Who Were Our First Gods offers only more of the same distinct voice and accessible, engaging poetry you’ll find in her previous books—although that would be reason enough to click “Add to Cart.” There is something new here too: a heightened sense of immediacy, an urgency that pulses from the lines. With this work, Nickole Brown has moved from subjects long known—her sister and grandmother, her Southern upbringing— to a territory she was warned against when she was growing up, that of the animal and wild.
—Wendy DeGroat in the The Poetry Cafe

Sample Poems

• “To Those Who Were Our First Gods: An Offering” in Rattle (online)
• “Against Despair: The Kid Goat” in Thrush Poetry Journal
• “Mercy” in Norwegian Writers’ Climate Campaign
• “A Prayer to Talk to Animals” in Academy of American Poets’ Poem-A-Day
• “Elegy for the Beauty I Was Taught to Detest” (originally published as “The Baby Possum”) in Punctuate Magazine

Other Poems

• “Fuck” in Oxford American
• “The Dead” in Cave Wall
• to read more poems, visit

About the Author

Nickole BrownNickole 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 Red Hen Press and a new edition was reissued by Sibling Rivalry Press in 2018. Her second book, a biography-in-poems called Fanny Says, came out from BOA Editions in 2015 and won the Weatherford Award for Appalachian Poetry. The audio book of that collection came out in 2017. Her poems have, among other places, appeared in the New York Times, Oxford American, Poetry International, Gulf Coast, and Best American Poetry 2017. She has received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Kentucky Foundation for Women, and the Kentucky Arts Council. She was an Assistant Professor at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock for four years until she gave up her beloved time in the classroom in hope of writing full time. Currently, she is the editor for the Marie Alexander Poetry Series and teaches periodically at a number of places, including the Sewanee School of Letters MFA Program, the Great Smokies Writing Program at UNCA, Poets House, the Poetry Center at Smith College, the Palm Beach Poetry Festival, the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, and the Hindman Settlement School. She lives with her wife, poet Jessica Jacobs, in Asheville, North Carolina, where she volunteers at four different animal sanctuaries. (web)


Cover art by Tiffany Bozic:
“Divide,” 2014, acrylic on maple wood panel, 40” x 35”

ISBN: 978-1-931307-39-0
Cover price: $6.00
Chapbook: 48 pages
Size: 6″ x 9″


Nickole Brown was the guest on episode #18 of the Rattlecast! Click here to watch …