Reviewed By Abigail Chabitnoy
- Sibling Rivalry Press (2020)
- 94 pages
What is it to write according to a socially engaged poetics, to demand of one’s audience a reckoning, and not lose sight of poetry’s ability to speak out of and beyond the present moment? In a year that has seen social justice movements refuse to be sidelined, what might a poet add to the collective outcry that hasn’t been heard?
In original kink, Jubi Arriola-Headley searches for a softness that was buried. One gets the sense, as the work progresses, that we are being told from the beginning how to read what follows, how to unpack lessons in toxic masculinity passed between father and son, how to renegotiate stories of sacrifice. Which is not to say there is always tenderness to be scavenged, as “Oedipus, Vexed” reminds us. How do we “metaphor punching bag”? Unless, perhaps, by the recognition of our own helplessness we are reminded not of our pride or our strength—but our softness. That too must be unearthed and preserved.
These are poems that, like the recurring image of the butterfly, seek to unearth all manner of buried potential. But that doesn’t mean the possibilities are always gentle. Beautiful boys won’t have to slit their own throats—they’ll be gunned down for all that they could be, soft or hard. These poems don’t merely tell the reader this. Through formal devices, Arriola-Headley alludes to the ways in which such stories are not new. The rhythm of these poems is insistent, as if to say I see your violence, your ugly side, America, and raise you a poem. These cycles of violence are felt upon the pulse. From “America”:
I’m a freak, America
. . .
I’m a schoolgirl, America
. . .
I’m a cowboy, America
. . .
I’m a symphony
of breaking bones
I’m shredding skin
. . .
I’m a teaspoon of history
. . .
I am original
kink, yes, I am the shackled
serpent, yes, I’m Jesus
to your Judas. Yes. I’m
the patron saint
of probable cause.
Such patterns are not new; they are assumed and preserved in the way fathers raise sons, dating back to biblical times. Just how much abuse is a person to take before tolerance becomes its own form of permission? When do the narratives we embrace become sources of tyranny rather than comfort? God, the father, and the son conflate in poems such as “The Chosen One.” Mother conflates with the Christ figure in “Genuflection.”
. . . She, now
rendered canvas (or landscape for labor)—
how many ways can we make of a woman
It’s time, Arriola-Headley insists, we question our metaphors and the complacency of our art.
“What does it mean, to forsake a body? To render it unto mud? To commit it to compost?” It means to allow new growth. These poems don’t deny discomfort or trauma. But rather they ask how such tired tropes might be renegotiated. There is a reckoning certain (white) readers are asked to do in this book—but we are called to do so merely by the revelation in these poems of all we take for granted, the “weightlessness,” say, of being able
to sense the breeze at your back
. . .
to presume God
looks like you
And though these poems don’t shy from confronting current social issues and real violence, they also do not hesitate to celebrate the self and affirm one’s own presence—to feel like “the one who’s unbreakable” in a hymn that was not written for us.
These poems, like “spinning snowflakes out of chaos,” similarly “aim for the infinite”—not as a final destination (this book is not interested in easy arrivals but persistent acts of coming) but as a rest stop, to reevaluate our condition, our wounds, how we fill or deprive them, how we allow them to “replicate, again and again.” “Please indicate which wound best fits in the emptiness provided” Arriola-Headley asks in “Fractal.” It is an invitation.
While certain words are not perhaps off-limits in a book in search of infinity, we as audience are reminded still of the violence inherent in fraught terms, which the poet reclaims ownership of when such language is appropriate—and for whom. In this way these poems don’t just take to task problematic societal norms of masculinity but also equally problematic assumptions about access, race, and history. In this the poet is blunt—but not simplistic. Space is “left intentionally blank” in the company of these poems—not merely on the page, but in the spaces they open, palpably, beyond the page. We are reminded throughout the work, “[this is not] a white space.”
And though Arriola-Headley asks that we renegotiate, rethink, rewrite the metaphors that shape our society, he demonstrates too an unavoidable continuum with that tradition. Making use of traditional form in “Passage Haibun,” he asks “Why does every diaspora require a shattering of who we used to be?” The self, the creating, speaking, demanding, dictating “I” in its insistent presence refuses to surrender to a narrative of erasure and forgetting. There is reference to nature in his haibun, as tradition demands, but that nature includes the mud of sugar plantations, and the poet isn’t about to continue that tradition of erasure by maintaining a façade of impersonal, transcendent objectivity.
As readers, as audience, as other in some manner or another, anticipated or not, we are reminded throughout that these poems, as much as anything else these days, are a curated presentation. We are not privy to the entire catalog of the speaker’s inner being. Likes and dislikes, lists, reveal only what we want them to—and everything that we want them to. From “Reasons I Love Myself”: “78. / My laugh is all about that bass. / … If my laugh was a nation it’d be the one / we haven’t fought for yet.” How often in this country do we fail, refuse even, to see the Black body as anything but what we are expecting to see? These poems don’t just remind us to think again, they invite us to look again. “Don’t sleep, you’ll miss / the gild, the yearn: this world, / a-twirl, just lusting for your gaze,” Arriola-Headley writes in “Invitation.” Look again. Rewrite the stories you’ve been told. Fill in all the holes. There is softness, too, yet to unearth.
Abigail Chabitnoy is the author of How to Dress a Fish (Wesleyan, 2019), shortlisted in the international category of the 2020 Griffin Prize for Poetry and a finalist for the Colorado Book Awards. She was a 2016 Peripheral Poets fellow and her poems have appeared in Hayden’s Ferry Review, Boston Review, Tin House, Gulf Coast, LitHub, and Red Ink, among others. She is a Koniag descendant and member of the Tangirnaq Native Village in Kodiak. Visit her website at salmonfisherpoet.com for more information.