by Kiki Petrosino
Published 2017 by Sarabande Books
$16.95 hardcover ISBN 978-1946448033
By Luiza Flynn-Goodlett
Witch Wife gets power and momentum from a few sources, the most striking of which is repetition. Echoing (and even explicitly referencing) Anne Sexton, phrases (sometimes whole lines) reappear, and upon each usage, deepen, expand, and echo outwards, enlarging the space within each poem while drilling deeper toward its core. It’s more than form, though there’s plenty of that; these poems unfold like incantatory, irresistible spells.
Voice is another huge driver here, and the speaker is full of contradictions—prickly and tender, intelligent and childish, cruel and guileless—that keep the reader perpetually unsettled and engaged. The voice is also intimate, using short, simple words and a nursery-rhyme cadence that balances the poems’ lyric intensity as acid does salt, resulting in something more delicious than either element alone.
The book is split into four numbered sections, the poems in each loosely correlating to a phase in the speaker’s life. And the tension of domesticity (wife) vs. wildness (witch) is carried through each section, though it manifests in different ways. The first two sections take us through childhood, and subsequently, a young adulthood of travel, sexuality, and heartbreak. Especially in the first section, the speaker expresses a real disgust toward the physical self that’s recognizable to any woman/femme who’s grown up in this world where their body is considered an unfixable problem, and their desire a hushed mystery. It’s especially biting in poems like “Young” where the speaker refers to her “runny custard body / with its buried corkscrew of hate.”
Early in the book, the speaker also reflects on lineage and how she has been shaped by the women who came before her, as evidenced in “New South”:
I’m always marching
my hair cropped close
my mothers beside me
in robes & crowns so
I go back, go forth
light girl, light girl
crammed with light
The self is subsequently cast into the world, with all the complications that entails. There’s also a purposeful, sincere messiness that mimics the inevitable collisions between the speaker and others in poems like “Europe”: “My age / is a seed-pearl under my tongue. Was I wrong / to weep in my clothes on the street?” The contrast between the imagined and the real, the wildly lyrical and quotidian in these lines generates a deeply bewildered feeling that mimics the emotional terrain of young adulthood.
The book’s concerns then transition into those of adulthood, with the attendant realities of living as a black woman in America, as in “Letter to Monticello”: “Every month brought / me closer to Mars, a planet ruled by black women astronauts.” There’s also the splendid “Political Poem,” which uses Martin Luther King’s words as its refrain:
Now the moral
autobus kneels like a camel at the curb. It bends
& I climb into the sinking dark. I climb. It bends.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Let it curl up like the moral
fortune still inside the cookie, the moral
border dissolving in cold milk.
The cyclical emphasis placed on this quoted phrase reflects how civil rights struggles are ongoing, repetitive, and oftentimes frustrating, leaving each generation to go back over the same ground, using their limited energy bending the same arc.
Witch Wife reveals growing anxiety around family and motherhood, which begins with “Little Gals,” (“One says You know / it’s past time you bred / & opens her mouth / full of egg teeth.”) and continues with “Vigil” (“I glimpse a momentary face, a tiny zero snugged within / my elbow’s dark”). We see a familiar tension of simultaneously wanting and not wanting children in poems like “Nursery”: “They had no faces yet. We spoke / into their quince-bud ears.” This is complicated by the external voices the speaker is exposed to in poems like “Prophecy”: “I can see you / at thirty weeks, your skin bright as automotive paint.” By the end of the book, a détente has been reached, as articulated in “Confession”: “Every month I decide not to try / is a lungful of gold I can keep for myself.” It’s not a harmonious resolution, but an awareness of how society places women in an impossible bind when it comes to choices around making (or not making) family.
Witch Wife asks, can one be both a witch and a wife? In other words, is it possible to preserve deep wildness, what in us is most inexplicable and essential, while choosing to inhabit the quotidian confines of domesticity? Petrosino doesn’t pretend to have all the answers, but she does ask unceasingly interesting questions. And, by giving attention to the questions that occupy her speaker, she elevates and illuminates them, holds them up to the light like precious stones and lets their facets cast an astonishing lyrical light.