Pepper Girl by Jonterri Gadson

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When I think back to college parties during the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, a few things come to mind: the mix of melting snow and beer under my shoes, clove cigarettes, and Salt-N-Pepa’s “Push It” thumping through the walls. “Push It” wasn’t the only song students pumped from speakers linked by long cords of questionable wiring; I can still hear the bass lines from songs like “Groove is in the Heart” and “Me, Myself, and I.” What was so appealing about Salt and Pepa and the third member of their band, DJ Spinderella, was that in those oversized varsity jackets they not only owned their sexuality as they strode down stage, but they had fun with it in a way that the Robert Palmer girls never did. There was no question—they were in charge.

Judging by the title of her debut chapbook, Pepper Girl, Jonterri Gadson is also a fan of the hip-hop group. Pepper Girl is about mistakes, or to put it more precisely, about being mistaken. Gadson lays out the problem in the first poem, “Finding Idaho,” in which the speaker reveals that she once believed that beyond her own cul-de-sac was another just like it. She realizes she couldn’t see over the top of her own “singed desert valley.” Gadson’s speaker repeatedly tries to wield some power only to see that the assumptions she was working under were wrong. That recognition provides the underlying grief of many of these poems. This is not to say that Pepper Girl is without humor. You’ve got to love a book that invokes not just Salt-N-Pepa but also Willie Nelson, a book that has the chutzpah to claim in the final poem, “Blues Triumphant”:

I am the thrust
that left lovers
spent, I am the
Oh God!
of their apex.

Beat that, O bra-less ones.

Gadson favors a straight-forward approach to form and content. No triple-lutzes or Salchows here: just tight tercets in a rough trimeter that fly straight to their targets. Generally light on metaphor and simile, Gadson has a conversational style marked by a mix of parallel structure and repeating sounds. She often relies on silence to convey the weight in her poems. Take “Idaho Primer,” which movingly combines self-indictment and hurt:

You don’t know sin
until you’ve been the black girl
in the cab of a white boy’s Chevy
parked outside a Circle K
when his door shoves another white boy
by mistake and their puffed chests circle
while you watch through the window,
until the one you’re with is ready
to smash a push broom
over the other one’s head […]

The n- and b- sounds give way to s’s and w’s, connected by “until” and punctured by the staccato “black girl,” “white boy,” and “push broom.” Meanwhile the boys behave like cartoon roosters until her date says, “Dude, / I’m just trying to buy some condoms // and get some ass.” Not understanding that his admission changed the dynamic, the speaker waves hello and the boys shake hands. She thinks she’s the peacemaker because she’s “that cute.” She doesn’t realize that her looks have nothing to do with the two parting ways. Looking back, she sees her error was not “wondering what message // passed between their palms” and shows it in that sharp stanza break. That she was just a kid doesn’t seem to matter; she’s just as hard on herself as she is on the boys.

jonterri gadsonThe speaker in “Pepper Girls” finds herself in a similar relationship with power. The poem begins with an epigraph from Harriet Wilson’s novel Our Nig (1859), which tells the story of an abandoned black girl named Frado, whose white mother and black step-father leave her with a prosperous white family, never to return. As her parents bring her to the Bellmont house, school children shout, “Black, white and yellar!” The family must then decide whether to keep the six year old or send her to an orphanage. One of the sons says she should stay: “She’s real handsome and bright, and not very black either.” When his sister protests, he retorts with the epigraph of the poem: “If she should stay, it wouldn’t be two days before you would be telling the girls about our nig, our nig!” Wilson’s novel highlights the damage racism does on a child’s emerging sense of self, and its destructive effects form the undertow of Gadson’s poem. After the speaker and a friend are taunted by classmates chanting “Pepper girls, pepper girls!” they try to diffuse the insults by taking the name as their own. Though they may feel a momentary boost by identifying with the music stars, they soon begin arguing over who should be Salt and who Pepa. “You’re the lightest. / No, you are! / No, you!” What exactly is at stake and what’s the tone? Are the girls simply talking about who looks most like singer Cheryl James, would they rather be Sandra Denton, or have they somehow internalized their classmates’ prejudice? The two friends divide themselves and lose control. The heartbreak is the recognition that they may have never had it.

Pepper Girl is full of direct addresses: prayers, appeals, confessions, epistles, and marching orders. Balancing pathos and wit, they give voice to the speaker’s vulnerability. One of the most striking is “Virginia Baptist,” a poem in which a hospital bed becomes a symbol of stability and flexibility while the speaker’s child is in a hospital psychiatric ward:

Holy bed, twin & tiny, teach me
how to be firm with his body,
but to yield for his spirit,
give me something to carry home
long after morning when he’s risen,
once you’ve sprung back & forgotten
his shape, his weight,
how much to give to hold him.

The double-bind of being both powerful and powerless comes through Gadson’s poems about motherhood. With compelling candor, the speaker struggles to find the balance between providing freedom and protection. Pepper Girl’s hyper-awareness gets ratcheted up in Gadson’s poems about her son; her actions affect him as well. The speaker must recognize and meet both his and her needs as she wrestles with the past and the world continues to widen beyond her childhood home. Reclaiming the name that was used to attack her, in Pepper Girl Gadson has written a big-hearted, fireball of a debut that will leave her readers looking forward to more.


Joelle Biele is the author of White Summer and the editor of Elizabeth Bishop and The New Yorker: The Complete Correspondence. Her new collection of poems, Broom, will be published this fall. More from this author →