Petrosino, Kiki. Fort Red Border. Louisville: Sarabande Books, 2009. 88 pp. $14.95 (paper).
Reviewed by DéLana Dameron
From her statement in the collection’s acknowledgments, Kiki Petrosino wants to make clear that her poems in Fort Red Border “describe things that are entirely imaginary [and] do not describe [...] actual persons” (Petrosino, x). In making this claim, Petrosino attempts to create a greater separation between the speaker’s voice and that of the author, despite any assumed similarities. This distance is echoed by the book’s epigraph that quotes Brigit Pegeen Kelly who writes, “a thing like me, / but not the thing I asked for, a thing by accident or / design, I am now attached to.” This epigraph seems to be set in place to dispel readers’ impulses to assume that the “I” in the poems that follow this introduction is not a dramatic “I” but the speaker herself. One must also consider the “thing” Kelly refers to—that Petrosino adopts as her door into her collection—to be both the author’s body and maybe life. The body given is a “thing like [Petrosino], / but not the thing [she] asked for.” Fort Red Border explores the idea of inheritance, what we do with what we’re given and how do we come to terms with the marriage of the two, even when they are potentially at odds.
These poems seek not to be identity poems, but end up functioning as such: navigating the complexities of one who has traveled much, of one who is not always comfortable in her real or imagined skins, of one for whom perhaps the “[body] not asked for” is still the body that must move through the world.
Fort Red Border is divided into three sections: “Fort Red Border,” “Otolaryngology” and “Valentine.” As a debut collection, it is difficult to imagine the book as a singular unit except that all three sections are bound into one volume. The first section begins by invoking a very narrative world, where the speaker of the poems remains the same and ruminates on a relationship with a male character. Poems in this opening section, such as “Canto Thirteen” deftly render the intimate moments of this imagined relationship:
have dropped from the long snowfield of his body. As he reaches
for his glasses on the nightstand, I feel the mattress
give; a slight hollow of warmth opens just under
my knees. Redford sits up & slides one arm
around my waist: I relax into his bare
The poems in this section show an interesting dynamic of a female speaker in a functioning relationship without mourning a loss. This is refreshing—to see poems in which a couple works through a situation, getting to know each other. This slow reveal is complimented by Petrosino’s timing—her pacing and line breaks. Even the first poem, “Wash,” that is almost fully end-stopped, deserves quoting as an exemplar of her timing with the line, her understanding of the muscularity of what a line can hold:
He never uses the faucet to shampoo my afro—just an old clay jar.
Redford fills the jar at the backyard pump.
Then he leaves it in the sun to heat.
So it’s only going to be so warm by the time it gets to me.
That’s the point of doing things natural:
You get what the sun dishes out, not what you customize.
The sun is not a customizable thing. (3)
What can be disappointing about this point of view—considering that much of poetry can be about mourning and rebuilding what is lost—is that this dynamic Petrosino establishes, this subject that she writes about with such clarity and verve, is fully imagined. One wonders if—despite Petrosino’s attempts to disconnect herself in the acknowledgements and epigraph, these are not actually the complete desires of the author imagined through a created speaker. That is not to say poems cannot be fully imagined and true at the same time, but one does enter into the collection questioning the sincerity of the narrator, despite the seemingly seamless world created.
The second section of the book is a departure from the initial door through which one enters Fort Red Border. It feels like a sharp turn into difficult terrain, more than a veer left or right. In this section, Petrosino puts aside the narrative near-linear progression that defines the book’s first section and instead explores language itself, what narrative is built upon. Petrosino converts the line from a place to explore a story to a kind of holding shelf that displays interesting word choices where each utterance by itself bears a unique weight, but, held together in the mouth or in the ear, is rather cryptic in meaning—amounting to a type of poem that begs to be read again and again. Take for example “The Human tongue slows down to speak”:
Silted slab, gone white with injury
in decorated dark, in budding vault of mayflies
blind & basking, lifts itself:
Is it birch trees again, is it breakfast again
No bowl of branches here, nor light to brood
in shallow pellicles.
The tongue inclines, a swim with char
and pheasant grease.
_____Mother was a sieve.
_____How will I speak, when all my bones
_____are hewn from nets I ate
_____the little birds all from?
Now, the swollen deck of summer lolls.
The tongue begins & can’t begin.
To dock the dawn as it swamps the tonsils—
To catch the blazing protists down.
Such slur of mud in mouth.
Such blackened clang & yards not ringing
in such house.
The tongue stills, lordly.
White root in the vascular dark.
White trumpet in the dark’s
low tent. (30)
It is not that poems such as these are not a pleasure to read. More specifically, they ask the reader to engage a different part of the brain—to read the poems out loud, to listen to the language’s musicality, to suspend one’s desire for immediate comprehension that may have occurred more readily in the first section. There are elements that Petrosino carries throughout the section to create some continuity and keep the reader afloat: the one-word titles serve as islands to land before immersion into the ocean of language again. In just examining the titles alone (“White” and “Afro” or “Saints”; “Crusaders” and maybe “O Lord”) one can see how they lend themselves to thematic groupings that serve as signposts when returning to the sections and individual poems, to help the reader to piece together meaning beyond the pleasure of sound and music of language.
If Petrosino was consciously calling these separate worlds to converge—like the unnamed speaker (presumably of African descent, identified as such by the several references to her “afro”) being in a relationship with Robert Redford, or like the vastly different aesthetics of the first and second sections—the third section of Fort Red Border is more of a hybrid. Aesthetically it is some offspring or marrying of the two schools of poetry presented before—the narrative and the language/musical. The minimal-level of security her one-word titles offered as signposts or landing strips in the second section become the prototype for titling each poem in the third section but with each poem sharing the same title. As a reader, one has to consider each iteration to be a variation on the “Valentine.” Unlike the speaker in the opening poem who is defined only by the reflection offered by “Redford” when he speaks such lines as, “Were you this soulful as a child,” or the speaker who is hard to pin down or identify as the same in each of the poems of the second section, the third section offers an almost fully-realized self. Here the reader enters with Petrosino into a more playful realm, a realm that may only have been entered after having traveled through the first two sections in order to see what has come of their amalgamation. In this section, the reader can align herself or himself with a speaker who is confident, and willing to claim her own desires. Unlike the speakers earlier in the book who represent two caricatures of sorts (the narrative speaker and the non-narrative speaker), this speaker successfully uses both story-telling and lyrical play in poems such as the eighth “Valentine” of this final section:
I build you from a crust of glass.
I build you.
From frost, from cinnamon
I build you.
From the wood of the pear tree
From horses on the covered bridge
From fennel soap & thyme
I build you.
I build you from glades.
I build you from scree.
I build you from soft shells of light.
I build you from the twelve
Stoneflies I captured in a foil drinking cone.
From the Gunpowder River I build you.
From willow trees, from canoes filled with snow.
From the crown of trees, from the rag and crown of trees
I build you. (74)
Like the speaker in this “Valentine,” Petrosino can be best described as an architect or designer throughout Fort Red Border. The book welcomes readers into the imagined world of the first section, and goes on to intrigue and excite with the permutations in the sections that follow. Ultimately, it is Petrosino’s fresh and innovative language use that makes for a first book of poems that sets her apart. Each word, each image, each narrative begs to be read aloud, to be taken apart and put back together.
DELANA DAMERON‘s poetry has appeared in numerous journals and anthologies, including The Ringing Ear: Black Poets Lean South, PMS: PoemMemoirStory, 42opus, storySouth, Pembroke Magazine, and Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review. She has received fellowships from the Cave Canem Foundation and Soul Mountain. She is also a member of the Carolina African American Writers Collective. A native of Columbia, South Carolina, she currently resides in New York City. Her debut collection of poems, How God Ends Us, won the South Carolina Poetry Book Prize.