Colorado State University Center for Literary Publishing

Book Review

Hymn for the Black Terrific

By Kiki Petrosino

Reviewed By J.G. McClure

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“If poets coalesce as swans,” Kiki Petrosino writes in “Cygnus Cygnus,” “we’re mostly in the feet of swans, black as drums // pressing our rageful webbing into the earth’s flank.” This is the strange beauty of Hymn for the Black Terrific: not the expected but what hides beneath it. Not the swan but its black feet, pushing fiercely and beautifully down into the muck.

Petrosino’s ability to access the strange and the lyrical in our everyday experiences astonishes. Take a poem like “Allergenesis,” which opens:

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.

Through Petrosino’s eyes, we see the beauty even in dust mites. Her language is rich, vivid, and unpretentious: we get the sense not that she’s artificially elevating her subject through language, but rather that she’s using precisely the language needed to reveal the heights already concealed within the subject. The lyricism of the body, too, is revealed to us:

They come lifting
themselves long as sentences in air, spiraling down the rifled barrel
of the windpipe. Riven & sweltering & swelling, they come into
the body’s sad lake, its blue bag of steam.
…………………………………………………
See their millions of insectile wings grown thick
with theft. Come, let me clutch at them with my medicine claw &
my blood helmet. Down in the fens of histamine.

In describing the allergens as “long as sentences in air,” the poem shows us the strange similarities between language and what it describes, binding them together just as they are pulled down the windpipe. To the poem’s credit, it trusts its readers: it does not feel the need to stop and over-explain the idea, but rather takes us further inside the imagistic beauty of “the body’s sad lake.”

Petrosino’s eye for the significant within the quotidian carries over even to unfamiliar places. Take “Postcard from Ogun State”:

They tell me not to wander alone in this hotel, but to me an unseen
moon is a dead face going nowhere. In the half-dark, a single bat
surges across the corridor: a punctuation mark in the shape of a
swing, a silence with a hot light in it. I’ve never seen a bat before &
then I have.

The poem shows us a hotel, the moon, a bat—we could see them anywhere. We could see them at home as easily as we could here in Nigeria. But how little attention we pay. The poem reminds us of the importance of really seeing: “an unseen moon is a dead face going nowhere.” When we look deeply, we perceive not just a bat but “a punctuation mark in the shape of a swing, a silence with a hot light in it.” And when we are attentive, how quickly a revelation may come: “I’ve never seen a bat before & then I have.”

Even the alienation the speaker feels while traveling is expressed through the everyday:

I understand corridor,
I understand dinner, as a kind of ground I cross with caution in the
dark. I get out, I get out. There’s a trench at the edge of every door. At
the brink of each trench, another brink, & then a border sharpened
with stockade fencing.

Corridor, dinner, doorway—it is in these familiar elements that Petrosino finds meaning. And so, like so many poets writing about travel, she reaches a moment of epiphany. But crucially, her epiphany appears in the most humble of places:

They say to proceed
with caution through each plate, as if the table were a field alive
with birds & tall grasses. But I get lost among the starches, in the
blood-deep venison that keeps appearing on my tongue. I can’t stop
looking down, into the floor’s wet. So this is what I’ve been tilting
at, for so long. This is the face I’ve asked to see.

A less insightful poem might look for meaning only among the actual “tall grasses” of Ogun State. Such a poem might search only the most expected places (and worse, exoticize them). But in this poem, we see that significance is also to be found in a meal or a restaurant’s wet floor.

It’s been said that a poem should be just as difficult as it needs to be. Petrosino’s poems can be difficult, certainly, but it is never mere difficulty for difficulty’s sake. Rather, they use the language that they must in order to gain access to the deepest human subjects. Take a poem like “A Sister Is a Thought Curving Back on Herself,” which begins:

I watch her, small & stepping through dark doors. She wears a skirt
stitched from sparrows’ ribs & speaks a language dug from the hum
of coal tar. Somehow she’s grown arms like engines, spinning earth
& oxygen from the rain-wet. Her mouth, which once resembled
mine, now buckles like the beak of a record player over the blade of
her face. She hears not ginger or Beijinger, though I’ve transmitted
these to her in dozens of pink nacelles.

We sense, powerfully, the speaker’s alienation from her sister. The speaker can see her, but she has become an otherworldly figure. The speaker recognizes the changes but cannot explain them: “somehow” her sister has become this way, somehow her mouth no longer looks familiar. The speaker tries to reach out to her in some mysterious way—“dozens” of times—but cannot connect. We can trace the logic behind these images—but to do so leaves them bloodless. They are irreducible: Petrosino has been exactly as difficult as she must be to get at the feeling of the feeling in the poem. The poem concludes:

When I wake up in the small breastbone of night,
thinking of her name, the white terrific clock of it – I think of cities
made narrow by fire, I think of peacocks moving their slow tongues
of ash. A sister is a thought curving back on herself. This bruise dazzles.

The isolation is not resolved; the ache remains—more fiercely than ever, in fact, in burning cities and tongues of ash. And yet an epiphanic moment is reached—the speaker understands something fundamental about the nature of a sister. This is no easy resolution, and it’s unclear exactly what the insight might mean. Yet it feels significant; it is significant. “This bruise dazzles,” even as it remains impossible to pin down. Make no mistake: these poems are dazzling, bruised, brilliant. What Petrosino has accomplished in Hymn for the Black Terrific is a gift and a challenge to us all.

J.G. McClure is an MFA candidate at the University of California – Irvine, where he teaches writing and works on Faultline. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in various publications including, most recently, The Southern Poetry Anthology (Texas Review Press), and his reviews appear in Green Mountains Review and Cleaver. He is at work on his first book.