Book Review

How does a poet write down their journey of personal maturity in rendered honesty? That’s just one of the many questions that Jessica Hincapie’s debut poetry collection, Bloomer, seeks to answer. It is a book where the speaker shares a constellation of coming-of-age experiences that mirror the twists and turns of any life spent learning and seeking betterment. The opening poem, “Coping Mechanism,” for example, explores the tensions that accompany living and growing as a human:

All around town, the bricklayers bury the roses.
The railroad kids graffiti the train cars
making them look like ancient metal elephants
linked trunk to tail, on and on. The kids rattle
cans of paint, yet their heart-sounds are louder.
Who knew being in love this long would reveal
that I am not kind by nature like I was raised
to believe. Unable to make those around me
happy through sheer will only.

Bloomer begins with what I understand to be an observance of darkness, a looking inward—the description of a personal life surrounded by violence. By the second poem, “The Breakup of My Country,” there is a sense of happening to: “Like the hurricane that rolled in one year, / suddenly and all at once. How father left / us waiting in a closet during the eye.”  Here, I am reminded of how, as infants, humans are at the mercy of their parents, their whole world contained and imprisoned within the walls of what they can and can’t do.

Hincapie exhibits a funny and quirky lens in her poetry at times, like in her poem “Micromanaging,” which opens in a way that reminds me of Tony Hoagland. The poem starts with absurdity, “Have you ever watched someone disappear / into a suitcase?” Then, as the poem progresses, the speaker unpacks that absurdness slowly into concreteness, and into meaning. Hincapie even pokes at her positionality: herself as the writer of her own life versus simply the speaker on the page:

Soon I will be small enough to fit
inside the suitcase. Soon I will dismantle myself

completely, ascend into air and join all the tender
dust that settles on ceiling fans and desk lamps.

The poems in Bloomer tend toward a lot of questioning, which mirrors the multitude of questions a child might ask following new observations, grasping for clarity of definition. For example, of the fifteen poems that comprise the book’s first section, eight poems contain at least one question mark within them. As the collection advances into the third and fourth sections, the poems seem to narrow toward fewer questions, which reminds me of a kaleidoscope: a person must look through the narrow tube to see the colors blooming inside. The poems in the book’s latter half contain some of the book’s most surprising observations, such as Hincapie’s mention of a rat in “Unmoved Monster”: “I am not majestic / like the rat, able to chew through what keeps it from being free.” It’s a turn in the poem that moves from concrete to universal, to societal and political.

One of my favorite poems from Bloomer is “What We Build,” which functions as a pivotal poem for the collection. It stems from Sarah Winchester’s life as the heiress of William Wirt Winchester’s fortune. Following William Winchester’s death after serving as the treasurer for the Winchester Repeating Arms Company, Sarah claimed to be haunted by the ghosts of those killed by Winchester rifles. This led her to create an intricate mansion with stairways that went nowhere, doors that opened to walls, etc.—a mansion in never-ending construction until her death. The poem mirrors the maze that Sarah Winchester’s mansion became, traversing room by room, questioning what it means to live haunted by ghosts of culpability. Take this excerpt found in the poem’s section “Picture Window”:

Sarah knows something we don’t. That is what her house tells us.
Like the tiny mantis shrimp which lives in the darkest ocean and has tens
of octal receptors. How it sees past color into time and space itself,
can even see the overlay of lives lived, as if they were living presently.

The poems that precede “What We Build” use the speaker’s life (with the “I” as centered) as a basis for exploring the wider world, while “What We Build” seems to use another’s life—Sarah Winchester—as the basis for this personal reflection. With the recentering that this poem enacts, readers re-enter the speaker’s “I” in the following poems of the collection with a renewed perspective. There’s an interesting reflective quality in the poems that follow, such as exhibited in “New Sincerity,” which seems to extend the book into an ars poetica:

But the famous poet does not know
how small the world really is
compared to this poem.

. . .

I was hit in the head as a child
and things only got better
from there. Poetry, I’ve never
known what needs
explaining first,
the arrow or the bow,
the seamstress or the king. Poetry,
for years I’ve been faithful
and patient in this silo
dreaming and thinking
about those dreams.

“New Sincerity,” by addressing poetry directly, captures a looking back over the span of the created book, a surprising and fine move in a debut collection. What makes Bloomer stand out from a typical debut coming-of-age poetry collection is this acknowledgement of the poetic artform, a unique move toward honesty that the constructed narrative itself has room for growth.

In the penultimate poem of book, “All Good Things Must Come to Erratum,” Hincapie acknowledges the mistakes of growing, saying: “Of course there’d be mistakes.” But the speaker of the poem then looks beyond mistakes toward altruism, while still acknowledging personal failings:

I won’t lie to you.
It has taken too long to learn
how little it hurts
being happy for other people.

. . .

To be alive and to wish
otherwise. To consider myself
a creature of empathy, only
to eat all of the meat.

In “All Good Things Must Come to Erratum,” readers get the clearest picture of the speaker’s learned awareness of life yet. It recalls the opening poem, “Coping Mechanism,” and its lines “Unable to make those around me / happy through sheer will only.” In revisiting the idea of happiness, Hincapie examines more deeply what it takes to enact happiness both in oneself and in others. It makes me consider the nature of maturity, and a problem inherent within it: to grow as a person can sometimes mean hurting those around us.

In Bloomer’s last poem, “Doorknob Comments,” Hincapie takes the confessional nature of the preceding poem (“All Good Things Must Come to Erratum”) and upends the typical narrative structure of most poetry books, saying at the poem’s opening, “Here I go again, confusing confession / for a finale.” Here, the speaker is aware of what poetic moves too often permeate the literary landscape of book crafting, where poets turn to confession to achieve tidy conclusion, and Hincapie strives to reach beyond that in Bloomer.

I found Bloomer to be a book, essentially, about learning. It is a book that, by its end, is keenly aware of itself, which I consider to be an amazing feat for any poet to pull off, not to mention a debut poet like Hincapie. To showcase a journey of maturity while resisting angsty cliches, to indulge the speaker’s leaping observations while remaining attentive to grounding . . . these are the qualities that make Bloomer stand apart.

About the Reviewer

Daniel Lassell is the author of Spit (2021), winner of the 2020 Wheelbarrow Books Poetry Prize. He is also the author of two chapbooks, Ad Spot (Ethel, 2021) and The Emptying Earth (Madhouse Press, forthcoming in 2023). He grew up in Kentucky, and now lives in New York. For more, visit