Hymn for the Black Terrific

Kiki Petrosino

Sarabande Books

2013

Sunday, December 15th, 2013

Hymn for the Black Terrific is three tiny books bound together. The first section, “Oiseau Rebelle,” is as close as Petrosino comes to a miscellany, in that its poems don’t bear an obvious relationship to each other; the second section, “Mulattress,” is a ten-poem showcase of her manipulation of select lines from that gifted hypocrite Thomas Jefferson; the third, “Turn Back Your Head & There Is The Shore,” depicts the attentions of “the eater,” a figural stand-in for the very gifts of appetite and attention altogether. Three tiny books bound together. Does that sound dismissive? It shouldn’t. For each is light enough to whip by at the speed of thought, dense enough to achieve percussive consequence, shaped well enough to defy resistance. Three tiny books, a bundle of airfoil projectiles, mercilessly designed and brutally employed. A sort of one-woman poetic special forces squad, Petrosino is a show-off, a fact for which the reader ought be grateful, because the skill and intelligence she brings to bear is literally inspirational: it takes one’s breath away and replaces it with something both intoxicating and clarifying.

My disposition is sometimes inclined to ascetic poetries, those that pretend the world is clean as a desert, that the words of that world are few. But even in that appreciation I know this pretense flatly contradicts the world, which is full and getting fuller all the time, and whose words propagate endlessly. Even the desert is a riot, and while there’s something to be said for carving a near-silence from that chaos, there’s something of at least equal value in admitting and orchestrating it. Petrosino’s gifts, which know no apparent boundary, currently lend themselves to an additive intelligence, a tendency to say yes even to those things she rejects. Any one of her poems is thus like a meal that explicitly includes the histories, recipes and ingredients from which it was prepared, a lavish, extravagant acknowledgment of everything that any given poem could be even as she manufactures what the poem at hand must be. Here is a sample from “Oiseau Rebelle”:

Ancestors

One rages, white as wood.
Another sits ruined at the center of her realm.
One of them broods over a clutch of old combs.
One darkens like an oyster in the autumn smoke.
There’s one the shape of a ganglion, & one like a yawl.
There’s one climbing up from the deep planks.
You find a glass one. A leather one. A salt one.
You watch one dissolve into the embrace of an oak.
Already there’s one drawing a fine grid on your forehead.
There’s one disjoining the cables of your wrist.
One lives in horses. Another in a warp of snow.
One’s a kind of luster in the mouth. You remember one
who taught you to make a kerchief of your hands.
Another came in a nightdress browned with spit.
Sometimes, you glimpse one moving through the woods.
Or whispering through the slits of an iron rake.
There’s one who waits, & one who weeps on the road.
But you choose the one who blooms like a war by night.
The one pulling another sheaf of your hair into her mouth.
That one is always here. That one, the tender
trench knife in the head.

Although she wanders happily and successfully between types and tones of poem, “Ancestors” provides a good model of how Petrosino routinely incorporates a resolute commitment to multiplicity and excess even as she threads a singular path through the thicket she herself makes. You could ask what the ancestral ones who go un-chosen are doing in the poem, if the speaker already knows the choice to be revealed in the last two lines. Well, I imagine they are there because they are there: Petrosino’s choice only has meaning if there are things to choose among, and she won’t pretend that the act of choosing should erase or come at the expense of alternative choices. All are true and all are real, and even if all cannot be chosen simultaneously, each can be named.

This way of increasing the wealth works even better when Petrosino gives free reign to sound. “Ragweed,” another poem from “Oiseau Rebelle,” also makes much out of exploring the idea of less. Do yourself a favor and read the following out loud:

Ragweed

Neither wax, nor egg, nor honey on the knife.
In garden not, nor street nor bus nor bank—
Not sleep. Not word. Nor will-over-will
Not lung. Not hull, or sail. Just crank & tread

in place [no place] & white [not white] gets hot
& seethe & seethe—my sleep like steam
not long, but less. So less, till I am I who cracks
at last, begs air & says Am I such root? Such rot

for rage who scrapes, who darks each swatch of flesh
each branch of mesh & salt & bit? This rag—it rob
& sneak & rob & sneak, my tongue gets pins & pine & less
& less. Can run, but run gets gone. Can bellow, bellow

change. Only most, only half, & less & less get
here, get thick & stick. Not breath.

Like “Ancestors,” this too is accumulation by rejection: each neither and nor and not is a sound-stone Petrosino sends skipping. Not predicts street as bus predicts bank, just in time for sleep to echo street, and the b – consonance predicts will-over-will, and the assonance of lung and hull predicts the traditional association of sail and crank, which returns us to the theme of motility and motionlessness of sleep, and the relationship of speech and song to each. This is showing off, but while there are a few of her peers who could make aural associations as fluidly, I can think of none who can compress an argument (that version of the poem that remains when it is reduced to paraphrase-able content) into that act of virtuosity, much less one that celebrates its own powers while running right up against their personal and historical limits.

“Mulattress” further demonstrates Pertrosino’s astringent apprehension of our shared cultural inheritance. As Petrosino’s notes clarify, the end-words of each of the ten poems recombines the following sentence from Thomas Jefferson, excerpted from his truly horrifying apologia in “Notes On the State of Virginia”: “They secrete less by the kidneys, and more by the glands of the skin, which gives them a very strong and disagreeable odor.” The “they” refers to the African slaves whose admittance to the body politic Jefferson is busily dismissing as a manifest impossibility, and in Petrosino’ choice to italicize the words she has adopted and transformed she makes “they” those aligned with Jefferson, demonstrating how every instantiation of “we” or “us” comes at the inevitable expense of an “us” or “them.” Here are two examples from the sequence:

[6]

I don’t trust this body they
wrap like a razor blade in secret
crinolines. They want me bloodless
& soft in the jaws. Can’t recall by the
boudoir light how it felt to have little-kid knees
like moons in the dark, to have hands
alive with sweat & lightning bugs. I’m a Moor
now, I’m a Moor. You can tell by the glance
I use to trouble grown-up mean. Of the skin
I’ve got two square yards & a sob. They say a witch
dug me up from a barrow. I gives them a
smile at that. It’s true, my color’s very strong—
a high & disagreeable
gold. You can’t enter a hall with no door.

[7]

My colored body is so clean they
ask to run their fingers over the secret
songlines on my scalp. I crunch on the harmless
glitter left by their love of me. By & by
I’ve seeped onto every flatscreen. I’m the kid
with a talent. Spokesmodel. Young attorney.
Kid, I’m beautiful. Look at my televised hands
pale & polished; they peel in the sun like sycamores.
But: a Florentine once confessed, by the
light of a lake, that he’d never marry me. To glance
yes, of course, but not to marry. He said ‘Of the
women I know, you are not of my future.’ Without skin
there’s little point to love, or roast duck. Which
I learned by trying each thing both ways. It gives
me headaches to explain myself abroad. To them
I’m some dark hatchway, viewed from a very
high window. Storybrook-strong &
carved all over disagreeable
dialect. Who doesn’t love a sealed corridor?

Each of these poems is gorgeous, perceptive, sharp and fittingly cruel to the ethically rebarbative. Of particular note is the barbed use of the italicized “they,” which makes excellent use of the rhetorical coding of the obsessed-over but unheard and unseen “other” the archaic term “Mulattress” signifies. What, then, is the point of ten poems of this caliber, if any given one succeeds wildly in advancing the aim shared by the others? Other than the joy of seeing well-executed verse, of which we cannot have enough, the point is that the dynamic Petrosino writes about is old and persistent, and takes many forms and incurs many costs, felt in many ways by many persons. Given those undeniable truths, why wouldn’t she attempt to capture as much of that complexity as possible? In the same way that the affirmation-negations in “Oiseau Rebelle” operate by providing a richly textured backdrop for the objects of each poem’s attention, the repetitions of “Mulattress” pay heed to how a reductive practice truly effects the person reduced. The variance illustrates the pattern in a way a single articulation of the pattern could never capture.

The poems of “Turn Back Your Head & There Is The Shore,” which Petrosino tells us sometimes take their titles from the English-language menu of Beijing’s Pure Lotus Restaurant, do not immediately lend themselves as complementary to the poems of “Mulattress”&#8212but Petrosino knows what she’s doing, and it’s here that she shows us how these three booklets cooperate. The poems refer repeatedly to “the eater,” a figure no larger or smaller than life itself but one whose presence nevertheless disturbs all those who cannot admit what is central to eating, which is the unmaking of many things to make more of one thing, that-which-eats, the self:

Moon-Wrapped Fragrant Spareribs

Happy is the eater who rules by the cyclone of her face. By the
syrup of her eye shall she drown the clanging earth. For the eater
combs justice like beeswax through her hair, & her hands catch
only righteousness in their fiery mesh. Therefore, lament neither the
appetite that dismasts your cities, nor the emerald in her gut that
spins. I tell you, the eater is more terrible than all your needlework
of lemongrass, purer than aluminum the eater’s hum at eventide.
Fear not her blue-black shadow as she cruises into your airspace.
There’s lightning in the matrix of her marrow. Her teeth make
mirrors of the sea.

If this is excess, a gargantuan presentation of what is only the most basic and inevitable function, it’s an excess that pushes against an artificially imposed constraint, and one that serves only sinister purposes. This resistance to excess, which I suppose taints the word itself, girds the argument that if Petrosino is a show-off, then the poems she displays thereby are flawed in either conception or execution. But what if excess simply refers to any amount greater than zero? I Want More Petrosino, not less, and any call for her to restrain or restrict her powers is one I wholeheartedly reject. Even if the eater isn’t a named presence in the first two sections of the book, we aren’t surprised to meet her when she does appear, because it is her power and desire that advance across the lines of each poem on every page. In “At the Teahouse,” Petrosino seems to take stand that reflects both a principle and an essence. She writes

I can’t / simmer down, & I won’t simmer down. Some people make / a life of straw. Some people get holy / on not much at all.

Whatever gloriously artificed mess this makes, it’s due. Who would want her to simmer down? That holy, who would dare?

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