Taken in part from a description of Ahab in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, Kiki Petrosino’s second collection of poetry—Hymn for the Black Terrific—is a sharp, intellectual book thick with words which callous the tongue. Often in the dense blocks of prose an expected word is slightly different—looking so much like the expected word that a reader may initially believe the expected is there, only to find instead a much better word, a weightier word, a surprising word. These surprises indeed add to each poem and the collection as a whole. Much like Ahab’s final appearance in Moby Dick, Petrosino invites readers to taste the blood of a harpooned whale, to have the coiled knot around their throats and plunge into the fathoms of sea. Words are the blood and they roil in the water, returning with the tide.
If these metaphors sound trite or over-indulgent it may be that after reading I found myself buoyed, no buoyant with emotion. And if the aforementioned metaphors have missed I am still in the swirl of centrifugal force Petrosino’s poetry embodies. Early on repetition of words and phrases boil up to spin the work further from the origin only later to be connected, looped, strung, woven into a cohesive structure. It’s as if she takes a knife to peel back the layer of epidermis and slowly stitches the skin together, needling her way through. This isn’t to say there is a bow around the book, far from a bow, a scar, several scars, reminders of why it is we must look deeper into dark, why we must sing with what is available in the machinery of our bodies, our teeth bordering our voice as light upon the echoing darkness emerging.
Divided into three sections, the collection opens with “Oiseau Rebelle,” or “rebellious bird”. Most likely this is taken from the aria “L’amour est un oiseau rebelle,” which is the entrance aria of the titular character in Georges Bizet’s opera Carmen. Beginning with a short staccato poem of intention Petrosino appraises herself in “Personal Style Monologue,” by describing that which is “in” and which is “out”. Important here is simplicity of movement, a guide for the reader to understand how the poetry following will operate, how to understand shifts within poems and across sections:
To be in is out. To be out is still out.
Blondes are in. Blades are in.
Vampires are in. Gullets are out.
The power is out. Darkness is in.
America is out. America is out.
The dark is here.
This is noticeable in the pushing and pulling of “To be in is out. To be out is still out.” Essentially, in the hip style of modern culture there isn’t any place one can be that isn’t “out.” However, Petrosino isn’t as caustic as that, she lets us know that “Darkness is in,” that we the readers are in the darkness, the terrific darkness, that “The dark is here,” and in the dark there is plenty to see. For, shortly after the opening poem is “Allergenesis,” which ignites a flourish of prose opening the dark bodies of words (which in-print are almost always black):
They come in their millions, breaking open in the muck. They come with their barnacle bodies blooming. In white, in sulfur colonies they come. Rising from radial engines of dark, from millions of low hatcheries they come, unfolding their jaws sequin by sequin. They come hot & star-limbed & buzzing, with their wire bones, with their names turning edgewise in the mouth. Bloodweed, Chestbane, the names. Knifeclock, Mulehook, the names. They come lifting themselves long as sentences in air, spiraling down the rifled barrel of the windpipe.
Such elegant prose observes many tropes of the collection: propulsive movement of poetry, the black in white and vice-versa, names as signifiers in the mouth whose mechanics offer distinct interpretations or attempts at parsing letters/meaning and a violence motif as a situational hinge which opens and shuts, “spiraling down the rifled barrel of the windpipe.”
The middle section entitled “Mulattress,” (as noted by the author is [no longer in use today] “a woman with one black and one white parent.”) takes a sentence from Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia as its muse. Yet, muse is not the proper term, it is a meditation on the state of America then and now, Petrosino’s mother, race, skin, frivolous ideas related to propriety in this respect and her relation to color as something which continues to factor in America’s blood. Jefferson’s sentence—ostensibly about African Americans—reads “They secrete less by the kidneys, and more by the glands of the skin, which give them a very strong and disagreeable odor.” Each of the ten poems comprising this section uses a portion of the sentence as end words (in italics) for lines in a poem, at times forgoing accuracy for sound:
I live in a country they
didn’t leave for me. My color secretes
like taffy through my pores, or should. But I’m less
polite when pulled. Try to tell by the kidneys
where I’m from, or who made me, & more
lunatic moths race by.
Do you think the glance
of a colored woman is a glitch of the skin
or the proof of a witch?
No one forgives
me for sitting beside them
at lunch or for wearing a very strong
set of thighs. In this country, we’re all sad & disagreeable
to each other. Someone, open a door. (35)
This section makes me think of the possibility of the opposite of an apology. Seemingly it is a statement, but the italicized portions of Jefferson’s sentence, speaker’s tone, and action within the poem push into a different territory than benign expression.
Serrations, slices, swatches—the first two sections cut into the third section “Turn Back Your Head & There Is The Shore,” many poems titled with English translations of a Beijing restaurant menu (also from food stalls or fabrications), as lonely spaces of tin where pieces of pie no longer reside. Poems in this section focus on “the eater,” a personage followed through a Chinese smorgasbord. Although it may sound tame compared to the previous two sections, it’s not. For me it was the most emotional section, a contemplation of loneliness, of our shackled brains or how each one of us must live within our own thoughts and how even when our minds seem to grasp something it isn’t always as it seems.
Who says the eater must halve herself to heave through lace & eyelets? Let her be large & engaged to anything with blood in it. Shall she marry? Yes, down to her last atom. Shall she travel on the sea? Yes, & her huge parasol shall break like chitin in her jaws. See how she chomps through trash & tempests, how she gallops toward the next good time. Her bridegroom? Rather her sea-shanty. Rather her opera, agog with gongs. Here she plummets, my hearties. The very world’s reversed. (52)
Hymn for the Black Terrific is available from Sarabande Books
Matthew Schmidt is pursuing a MFA at the University of Arizona. His work has been published or is forthcoming in Asinine Poetry, Down in the Dirt and Eye On Life.