Hymn for the Black Terrific by Kiki Petrosino

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Q: What do the words nacelles, scrimshaw, and crenellated have in common? How about billet, perianth, and heliodor?

A: They all make surprising appearances in Hymn for the Black Terrific, a collection that stimulates both mind and ear with its impressive, lexical reach. For instance, “If you were scrimshaw, & this the Arctic loop with miles to climb.” For instance, “Mark that each of your hands is a perianth of light.” Petrosino hears the music in our language and makes every word sing.

Q: Is there a representative poem in this collection, one that epitomizes the poet’s singular voice?

A: Petrosino has composed a postmodern hymn, and while it is distinctive in sound and quality (her poems are strikingly non-derivative), there is in fact a chorus of voices here. No single poem, no single voice within a poem, captures sufficiently her complex score. The collection forms a gestalt in which forty-one lyrical and enigmatic cantos culminate in a provocative canticle that surpasses the sum of its parts.

In “Personal Style Monologue,” the speaker-singer playfully enumerates the dichotomies of our time. This is a ditty for our zeitgeist, a gusty diagnostic of the culture at large and in motion.

The doctor is in. Martinis are out….
Bacon is in. Sparkles are in.
Elbows are in. Wasp waists are in….
Time travel is in. Going out is out.
To be in is out. To be out is still out.
Blondes are in. Blades are in.
Vampires are in. Gullets are out.

In “Nocturne,” her song turns tender, melancholic, a hot kernel of narrative burning at the heart of the poem:

Last night, the one I loved
before you went before me, walking
with his bride.

I followed with my broken
feet & coat unlatched. He called
her cake & coin & wing

& told her of a place so high
the pines grow small
as thumbs.

In “Moon-Wrapped Fragrant Spareribs,” the anthem morphs into parable, set outside of time, replete with image-wisdom and oracular commands:

Happy is that eater who rules by the cyclone of her face. By the syrup of her eye shall she drown the clanging earth. […] Therefore, lament neither the appetite that dismasts your cities, nor the emerald in her gut that spins. I tell you, the eater is more terrible than all your needlework of lemongrass, purer than aluminum the eater’s hum at eventide.

Q: A hymn is typically written in honor of something. What is “the black terrific”? What else does Petrosino praise in this volume?

A: The phrase “the black terrific” refers to a description of Ahab in Melville’s Moby Dick. In the title poem, this allusion immediately breaks down and spreads out, like a vial of mercury cracked. “With this spell, I conjure you,” the speaker-singer begins. This you, this black terrific, is by turns “magic swamp,” “secret smoke,” “kayak-shape,” and “key.” It is a shape-shifter, a riddle, a fascination. She inquires, “Are you my son? Are you my smallest rib?” She proclaims, “You’re dear to me as sleep or fire.”

In this title poem, the word “dark” appears five times. In the collection overall, the word “dark” appears thirty-six times. Twenty-three of the forty-one poems reference “dark” or “darkness” explicitly. This black terrific is another form of dark, a metonym for many kinds of darkness. The dark is a hinge on which these poems swivel, open and close. It is also the doorstop by which each poem remains enticingly ajar.

Petrosino writes a fraught paean to the dark—that small word with a squall inside it. In the invocation, her speaker-singer concludes the list of binary oppositions (in/out) with a declaration that breaks this pattern boldly. The dark is not part of the binary dark or light. It is neither in nor out. Rather, “The dark is here,” present, immediate, pervasive. She sings of a “dark hatchway,” of “dark decks,” of “radial engines of dark,” and of the “treedark.” Several times she sings of the “Beloved Dark.” Yet this same dark perplexes: “what/does it mean to bite down in the dark?” It becomes a “tuneless dark.” She must carry the dark the way a singer carries a tune—something for which she is responsible and also protective. The dark is sometimes the problem (“I/ felt the earth a dark/cut on my gums”), sometimes the solution (“O apple of dark, O Door”). But in the end, the dark is inevitable, ubiquitous, amoral. In the end, the speaker-singer resolves, “I bless this dark, which/carries on for miles.”

Q: How does the poet make sense of her vocation? Does she grapple with this vocation in her poems?

In “Cygnus Cygnus,” the speaker-singer begins, “To love a theory leaves no room for imprecision.” It is an arresting assertion. A poem, of course, is not a theory. It is the opposite of theory. A poem is all praxis, language mobilized in the making of art. Then, “I see how art is. It’s a fine blast furnace, & my knuckles/ make an imperfect pomegranate-delivery system.” A theory operates in abstractions. A poem, a work of art, thrives in rendering what is concrete, real. Here I feel the heat of the furnace, the hard rind of the pomegranate against the vulnerable knucklebone. The poem engages all my senses.

“It’s tempting to lie to the young,” the speaker-singer continues, but poems are not in the business of covering up the truth; they are in the business of exposing it in order to explore it, even when the truth is a raw and bewildering thing. For instance, “Everyone I’ve loved is balanced/ on the edge of my chopstick.” For instance, “Once upon a time/ I had enough anger in me to crack crystal.”

In Petrosino’s arias and dirges, the truth is almost always a raw and bewildering thing. That is no reason not to sing it: “To be a poet is to surface plainly/ from the wound of sleep. To observe how thickly feathered/ the heart, how small & bright the planet of human thought.” Even the theories. Especially the theories.

“Just so,” she tells of her teacher, “you taught me to be warlike/ in my songs & still to praise the palm-sized stars/ brooding over their clutches of great darkness.” We hear the evidence of this nuanced knowing, fighting, and praising in all of Petrosino’s songs. We marvel at how well this student sings such unteachable things.

Julie Marie Wade is the author of 13 volumes of poetry, prose, and hybrid forms, including the newly released poetry collection, Skirted (The Word Works, 2021), the book-length lyric essay, Just an Ordinary Woman Breathing (The Ohio State University Press, 2020) and the limited-edition, hybrid-forms chapbook, P*R*I*D*E (Vermont College of Fine Arts, 2020), which won the inaugural Hunger Mountain Chapbook Prize. A recipient of the Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Memoir and grants from the Kentucky Arts Council and the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, she teaches in the creative writing program at Florida International University. More from this author →