Little gal, who knit thee?
Dost thou know who knit thee?
In “Self-Portrait,” the first poem of Kiki Petrosino’s third poetry collection, Witch Wife, the speaker introduces themes of origins and girlhood in the charming and danger-tinged language of fairy tale. The poem continues: “Gave thee milk & bid thee beg / Slid a purse between your legs.” This beginning frames a book that takes on the experience of living in the female body, the black body, the potentially childbearing body, the body in relation to family, lovers, country, and the natural world. As in this image of someone undertaking doll-like construction of a girl, the body is often made strange to the self in this collection. It is both thing and home, to be both managed and inhabited. It is something possessed by the self as well as a story written by others.
The world of the collection slips between everyday and surreal, from plastic candy canes to words marching off pages. Metaphor and simile animate: exes rise up from their Mazdas, and the body has rooms, rugs and nooks. Skin is bright as automotive paint; July is an alkaloid tongue. We move from poems that inhabit our specific, thing-filled moment—Whole 30, Sting concerts, nutritional yeast—to poems that open the door to a dark, glowing dreamscape.
One such poem is “Little Gals,” in which small creatures on “membranous wings” swarm the speaker as she stands “a soft deer / browsing the woods.” One tells her “You know / it’s past time you bred / & opens her mouth / full of egg teeth.” The speaker runs from them, but they follow, and:
a red delight
in the heat & snap
of their pincers […]
new bodies burrowing […]
where I let them dig down
into the dim
This elemental image of fertility and the body overtaken recurs in the different ways in the collection.
Through stunning use of repetitive form and language that ranges from ordinary to electrically strange, Petrosino shows both the mind and body at work and the fraught relations between the two. After “Little Gals,” in which the body feels primal and at the will of greater powers, and “Pastoral,” which ends with “You drink the drinks & bleed. You’re foam,” the collection shifts back to the cerebral. “Nocturne” shows a mind asserting control over being again: “What good am I doing?… / I take my pills. I bury watermelon seeds… / I fill myself with my regrets & begin to speak.” The tension of control pulls back and forth throughout the collection, mirroring the push and pull of Petrosino’s engagement with traditional forms.
Witch Wife contains a whopping eighteen villanelles, mostly unrhymed and sometimes altered, as well as prose poems, a sestina, a ghazal, and a pantoum. Rather than final or enclosed, the repetition here feels wild, infinite, becoming. The question of how to live in this body seems impossible to answer. Circular form lends a feeling of the inability to stop or to settle on anything, and highlights the attempt but inability to control our selves.
These villanelles often emphasize how nothing is ever finished or neatly packed away. In “Europe,” specific memories are past tense (“It was summer. I stood in my smithereens”), as is one of the repeating lines (“I wept in my clothes on the street”). The present tense of the other repeating line, “Every night, I go back to your house,” then, creates the drama of bringing, repeatedly, this era and person to the present, in an inescapable loop. The poem ends:
I’ll never be so lonely again, or young enough
to weep in my clothes on the street.
Every night, I go back to your house.
Negating the two previous lines, the final line addresses the paradox of how we are both always and never again our former selves, and how people we love continue to live with us in absence.
Similarly, in “Gräpple,” a villanelle about the decision not to have a baby, the speaker continually undercuts what she’s stated before. She decides: “no starburst of cells / to haunt my fond flesh, round as a pomme.” But then: “But it’s hard to promise. / Something still / considers me.” The poem ends with a beginning: “It goes wrong. I start to plan.” These continual shifts become hypnotic, inviting us in to a profound ambivalence that isn’t often shown.
The impossible questions of the collection are not just a matter of an unsettled mind: though the poems are more personal than socially-minded, the book contains the underlying issue of how society has created this in-betweenness with its conceptions of the female body and the black body. In “Thigh Gap,” Petrosino writes:
to think: OK! A clean sharp place
to keep. Or: I’ll grow
a thing! to keep, for me But
In “New South,” the speaker is born “light girl, light girl / each step blessed but slant.” The poem ends with increasingly short and fragmented lines:
I look down hard
at my hands
white webs opening
The question, then, becomes how to continually cultivate a whole self not just individually but in the face of racism and misogyny.
Witch Wife’s magic is that it creates a world in its pages—one that believably co-exists with our mundane world, but that carries the possibility of a life in more dimensions. Here the fears that linger below the surfaces of our lives bloom into colorful, glittering places we can enter. In seeing these fears and horrors in full bloom, we can live with them a little better.
Anna Tomlinson is a Poe/Faulkner Fellow in poetry in the MFA Program at the University of Virginia