book review by Jamie Berrout
Reading back through Kierra’s love and other words i mispronounced for this review, the first thing that comes to mind is how fortunate I feel to have lived long enough to be here reading it in 2018. That’s not an exaggeration. This is the ideal poetry; a work so subtle, which forms such a unique world in itself, that reading it feels exhilarating.
But ideal here means more than just poetry that I happen to love reading; it’s also that Kierra’s approach is refreshingly different from the trans poetry (and even trans women’s poetry) that is seemingly getting a lot of attention now. In this book we are mercifully spared from reading lines like, “I am a fucking tranny standing in / A field, what the fuck?” Or, “From this moment forward, the moon is trans” (and something-something, cis-people can’t look at the moon because it’s trans now). Or a list of non-sequitur, such as: “This is such a useless fucking poem” and “I’ve always wanted to put those lines in a poem.” All of which you're welcome to research to see the disproportionately bewildering support that these poets receive in the form of book publications, graduate degrees, teaching jobs, and other opportunities.
In the self-published, largely unknown love and other words there are no such gimmicks. There’s no calculated insincerity, no awful pandering moments for the poet to hide behind. Instead of layers of irony and distance that, like with the poets referenced above, add up to a superficial, sarcastic, hipster-ish voice what this book offers is a sincere expression, beauty in vulnerability, and self-reflection and a search for truth in the aftermath of an abusive relationship.
There’s attention to the language here, as with all great poetry, but this focus doesn’t shatter or devour up the poems themselves, as tends to happen with my poetry. Even the title page – though its layout is as minimalist and unassuming as the rest of the eighteen pages of this brief book – offers us a kind of poem in the form of a list of mysterious words. In my first reading I skimmed these words; they were unfamiliar and hardly meant anything to me. But when I opened the book again and looked up their definitions it was a revelation.
On one level, yes, these are the mispronounced words referenced in the title – and I still don’t have a clue how to say things like “Occhiolism” or “Exulansis”, which John Koenig created and as well formed part of his Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows – but piecing together the meanings of these words had a powerful effect. Occhiolism: the awareness of the smallness of your perspective. Exulansis: the tendency to give up trying to talk about an experience because people are unable to relate to it. All of a sudden I’d acquired a vocabulary to describe these profound yet before undefined states of emotion; but, more importantly, I wouldn't know these emotions in isolation anymore. I had Kierra’s poems now, which wrestled with these same feelings.
The book itself opens with a poem in the form of a letter titled “vulnerability.” This gives us the backdrop for the book (the long relationship with an emotionally abusive partner that eventually led to Kierra away from a sense of herself and towards self-hatred) and tells us that themes of healing and self-love will be at the heart of love and other words. Her prose is raw and bare, though she cuts against the brutal sadness of this particular poem with the openness and self-possession in phrases like “[t]he dramatics of a Cancer...”, “I’m not going to lie. This is painful. Let’s just jump right in”, and her own admission of the voyeuristic aspect of writing, that she writes to be seen in a way that won’t erase her.
And one of the first things I saw was how immediate, physical, and elegant the metaphors are in these poems. How in “papaya”, for example, Kierra brings together various echoing strands – the humility of a god she finds in the hollowed center of a papaya, how a room can be full with sunlight and the scent of fruit and still be empty, the superficial nature of the “shell of mirrors” where she sees herself reflected but must guard against falling into, and in peeling back “the skin of fruit” on her face (both the papaya face mask and the surface layer of her self) – to arrive at a profound truth, that what matters most is her connection to the women in her life and the strength of their love. She closes “papaya” by bringing us back to the beginning, back to its opening words “she teaches me...” with the last couple of lines: “that was beauty, the way she makes me feel. / that is what awe is, the way she makes me feel.” And though it’s not specified who “she” is, we can guess that it might be the friend mentioned in one of the first poems or her mother or her sister (mentioned in the previous poem as forming a divine “trinity of black women” with the poet/narrative voice).
There are other beautiful aspects of these poems to talk about. The fact that Kierra’s word choices (delphihiums, god shaped, petrichor of spring, iris of desire, sheets of salt water) and phrasing (like “I am the penumbra nuisance” and “the gold / Indentation of a pollinated meadow.”) surprise me in the most joyous, rewarding ways. The way her lines connect smoothly (whether logically or intuitively or through rhyme) from one to the next, while also serving as stand alone statements, which offers us multiple ways of reading them. And, of course, there are the biblical references which run throughout the book, adding a spiritual dimension to the poems that resonates with the themes of healing and introspection and a return to the self/body in a way that I don’t think I’ve ever seen before from a poet of my generation.
It’s not that these are perfect poems. The more I read love and other words the more I’m left wanting resolution for the spots that are vague and lacking detail. “i talked to a friend”, one of the first poems, opens with the line, “she tells me it is a balm”, but we never get a name or any other characteristics about this friend. We’re also left to find our own answers as to a few other people mentioned in the book. We can guess that the “you” of several poems is the abusive partner we learned about in the intro poem “vulnerability.” However, “the boy who reminded / me of orange blossoms” who appears in one poem and seems to become a “we” and “our” with the poet/narrator in the next poem before vanishing – why does he appear and disappear so abruptly?
I think this is an issue that wouldn’t be resolved if love and other words was simply a longer book. It’s that these are choices Kierra has made as a poet and they will continue to create a tension between her readers and her work until she finds a way through it, whether that means adding names in the poems or including more information and more of the narrative into the introductory part of the book or something else. But no matter what Kierra decides, even if her next poetry book carries forward these same issues and even if she essentially gives us more of these same poems, I’m excited to read whatever she publishes next.
artwork: Vaginal Davis, No One Leaves De;lilah, 2001