Hymn for the Black Terrific
Kiki Petrosino

Sarabande, 2013

Kiki Petrosino’s baroque line and her focused somatic history of literal and figurative darknesses make the three sections of Hymn for the Black Terrific satisfyingly coherent. These poems intimate that all stories find their way back home in the body, in the past its bones hold, in its wounds, desires, and appetites. In the first section, Oiseau Rebelle, the poem “Ancestors” tracks a lineage by conjuring talismanic objects—old combs, an oyster, a nightdress—and parts of the body. This litany not only recalls but also re-animates the poet’s legacy of ghosts: “There’s one disjoining the cables of your wrist” and “One’s a kind of luster in the mouth.” The book’s title poem echoes the line, “You say: Some things get denser in the dark” three times and complicates the erotic between its fearsome speaker and a presumed beloved. The last iteration changes “the dark” to “here,” locating the origin of the poem’s atmospheric and emotional force in Petrosino’s dense language. For example, in “The Terrible Test of Love,” sibilants and iambs lend lushness to anxiety: “If you, my scrim, my awl, behind a door should sleep, & then—if I should come, in swarms of dark?”

Petrosino does not adorn a mood so much as she sonically and syntactically builds and accretes towards it. “Mulatress,” a virtuosic sequence of ten poems comprising the second section, embodies this movement. Every line embeds Thomas Jefferson’s words at the break, and Petrosino composes—quite literally—against the vertically aligned sentence. That the speaker in these poems exults in her own strength, grace, and beauty, sets Jefferson’s racism in cruel and stunning relief. This formal constraint shapes the poems’ agon: Beauty is tasked to recover and redeem, through the artifice of rhetoric, what has been diminished by the artifice of rhetoric. When she asks in “[1],” “If you could become a very strong/horizon […] would you slip your disagreeable/knot of flesh,” we wonder if language can escape either its own history or the body. In “[8]” we glimpse an answer: “I learned to forgive them all with my bare hands. This body makes a very strong sort of gunlock now.”