Book Review

At one point in their debut poetry book, Content Warning: Everything, New York Times best-selling author Akwaeke Emezi’s (they/them) speaker is “a ragtag doll / scraps from men or places where I left myself / even when my pieces were taken. . . .”  By the end of this poem, titled “confession,” Emezi owns up to these broken pieces, “these offerings / to fill the negative altars burning inside me, father / forgive me, everything eventually is always mine.” Emezi’s empowering voice never shies away from being themself and taking responsibility as they reimagine this Catholic ritual. In this collection, writing about trauma within the intersectional spaces of identity, so prevalent in today’s poetry in such varied poets from Jake Skeets to Elizabeth Acevedo, Emezi transforms the oppressive violence of the male, colonizing, Catholic worlds in which they find themself. The poems’ speakers reveal themselves as female, Igbo, and bisexual. Emezi’s not so much a victim as an outsider—and one of the “little gods”—who survives and is intent on thriving, becoming free as themself through blurring, breaking, and reconfiguring the boundaries of Catholic norms, the body, and even language itself.

In this collection without sections, Emezi rarely uses punctuation and only uses one capital letter (“a little Black girl,” in “july 28”). The language is jolting, the lines ever-flowing, as in “disclosure”:

the real world is not like that but it’s a lie there are no real worlds you can live in whatever bubble you like a diving bell made of tender glass clap your hands if they said you’re too sensitive if they beat you because they could because you should be tougher harder gra gra ghen an igbo man in my friend’s home laughs and holds my food out of reach i am so tired

There’s the inherent clash and release of phrases, glints of memory overlaying as one moves forward. For example, continuing “no real worlds you can live in” until the next word “whatever,” one realizes “you can live in” starts a new sentence. The reader, briefly holding two versions of syntax, reconfigures and moves on. Emezi uses this subtle, blurry flow throughout the collection. One aspect of life leads to another. None are separate. Barriers are eliminated in the poetry, perhaps reflecting the absence of gender barriers in Emezi.

Later in the poem, after this oppressive violence putting themself down in their place, Emezi stands up against it:

So soft i tell him i am stubborn i wanted a better world a diving bell made of tender glass a better family i remembered how to be a god i give myself what i want no one raises their voice in my house no one lays their fleshy hands on me no one is cruel.

Through context, Emezi turns the repetition “diving bell made of tender glass” from a negative image to a positive one. Emezi is the “softest gate-opener,” the god here and in other poems who’s not all-powerful and imposing or ruling others, but who is nonbinary and protective— presumably allowing Emezi to be self-expressive and ultimately to be “called myself free.” This tension between being bullied (weak) and being the protective and caring god (strong) in this poem anticipates Emezi’s movements throughout the collection.

Emezi also blurs the boundaries of poetry and plays with the foundation of the poetic line via the prose poem, which takes up over a third of the collection. With this juggled prose form as an anchor, the collection’s arc seems more like a boundless, varied flow through language and body. Emezi evokes nuance and complexity amid clear and precise language in the violence of which her body receives the brunt. In “self-portrait as asughara,” one of only three short poems, which provide a space for readers, references their own debut novel, Freshwater. There is the sexually assaulted main character:

who ran through a window
as the glass spat
birthmarks on her neck

no one can see them
but me, they whip around
her throat like his hands

This violence in her rush (to escape?) seems inherently a part of the speaker (i.e. as a birthmark), even as it chokes her. Ultimately, there’s an indomitable male force and this interaction between them is fundamentally violent and sexual. Emezi’s skill and technique here of compression, word choice (no word is extraneous) in an exacting rhythm is akin to Yeats’s compressed, three-line summary of the Trojan War in “Leda and the Swan.”

Emezi’s poetry is an overwhelming barrage of violent intimacy. They leave a trail of visceral chunks about themself. In some poems, Emezi uses forward slashes to eviscerate the poem into chunks—slashes that break down the poem’s body, which echoes Emezi’s focus on breaking down bodies in the poetry, as at the end of “Thousands”: “your maddened body thundering through mine / dripping down my thousand throats” (includes slash). Emezi breaks down the bodies of others as well, as in “self-portrait as a cannibal”: “they blinded me with lights / i think some of you is still lodged in my throat / the salt and scratch / it tastes like treacherous memory” (includes slashes). Here, without punctuation, Emezi is tearing apart lines of a prose poem, effectively conferring any semblance of prose as poetry via a physical act.

In the last stanza of this poem, this treacherous memory becomes sweet:

they blinded me with lights / i told them how tenderly / you came apart in my hands, the sweet /sweet sounds you made

Emezi does not back down from this violent world. They participate and transform the violence done to them—from the violence of the body into the violent imagery and form in language, from “treacherous memory” into “sweet sounds.” Emezi can overwhelm a reader by being such an unabashed, physically aware poet—in energy and words that convey this physicality.

Emezi reconfigures words. They anchor themself to the word “skin,” which is more than a physical representation of race, culture, or country. It’s the approach to life Emezi takes. While it’s well-fit language for them, being the largest physical organ on the body and a protective organ that can easily be bruised as well as stimulated, “skin” is something more physically fundamental and profound. By the end of “salvation,” “the best gospels claim it’s never too late / to skin yourself and start all over, as nothing / except the roaring field of a fresh life.” Here, skinning to start over—an extreme, physical manifestation of the “changing my skin” cliché—is a very painful and vulnerable thing to do, and perhaps offers an emotional glimpse at becoming or being nonbinary. In essence, skinning eliminates the duality and boundary of gender—bodies and traits.

Words become the body and words are Emezi’s salvation. The triple word scrabble score their mother makes at the end of the first poem “what if mother met mary” are like Emezi’s version of the Trinity. Words are as holy to Emezi as religious symbols, writing as holy as ritual.  In the next poem “christening,” Emezi refuses to comply with priests complaining about their Igbo name (“the python’s egg”) as Emezi’s “throat is a river / full of the holiest water.” Emezi transmutes a Catholic ritual and appropriates it as speech, as their strength with words (i.e., as a writer), even Igbo—words or phrases peppering their heritage throughout the collection, grounding them as an outsider in language while being a writer.

Throughout the collection, Emezi also reconfigures the New Testament world—via Magdalene, Jesus, Mary, and Joseph—by imagining this ancient world meeting up with the current world, especially through names and the rhetoric of subjunctive, the what-if poems that take up a fifth of the book. At this distance, Emezi looks closely at aspects of intimacy, the bonds and connections they observe and feel. In “what if jesus was my big brother,” for instance, Jesus is the big brother protecting the speaker by unequivocally supporting her in her life’s trying moments, like when she “has fallen in love with a girl” in college, and wants “to drop out of school.” When both of their parents call, “Neither of us returns their calls.” Both are protected, isolated, yet intimately supportive. In this New Testament framework, Emezi gives readers a glimpse into the more intimate and quiet emotions in their world as an outsider and writer.

Near the end of the book, ”content warning: everything” has similar form and energy as “disclosure” near the beginning. After violence, including rapes:

I rose from my death that followed what wars have been fought on me what hauntings I carry in the blaze of unspeakable light look at me through tears of blood through the healing flesh

Following this conflation of personal and public, Emezi writes, “gaze upon me! i am the fucking miracle.” In Emezi’s narrative of themself, after this violence done against them, they rise after their death. There’s such emotive and subtle resonance in Emezi’s exasperated yet lively tone, disrupting the male gaze. There’s gratefulness to themselves—not in an egocentric way, but in a way that implicitly insists they exist, have survived, and now thrive because they can be comfortable in their skin, because they can and will and must. Such is the strength of the resurrection story in Emezi, in their salvation, in these words within this worthwhile collection.

About the Reviewer

Robert Manaster has published poetry book reviews previously in Colorado Review and in other such publications as the Los Angeles Review, Tar River Poetry, Rain Taxi, Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review, and Massachusetts Review. His poetry has appeared in numerous journals, including Birmingham Poetry Review, Image, Maine Review, Into the Void, and Spillway. His co-translation of Ronny Someck's The Milk Underground was awarded the Cliff Becker Book Prize in Translation.