I was fifteen when I started cruising. Almost every day after school, my father would drop me off at the Richard J. Riordan Central Library in downtown Los Angeles, and every time, instead of studying, I wandered the aisles and halls of that impressive complex with a new kind of hunger. A flirtation shared between two (or more) men, cruising hinges on the throttle of body language. Sustained eye contact is followed by a few rounds of Follow the Leader, affirming commitment to the chase and its endgame—sex or sexual activity furtively enacted in public places like parks or restrooms. As an awkwardly budding queer in those days, I rarely ventured beyond the cat-and-mouse game to its orgasmic end. But finding that new hunger in another man’s eyes became enough of a standalone thrill.
“Peacocking,” the opening poem of Jubi Arriola-Headley’s tremendous debut collection original kink, details this queer ritual as enacted by a teenage boy in a mall department store. The poet vividly captures the excitement of an interaction and attraction that is overwhelming, and potentially dangerous. Alliteration deployed in this stunner of a poem amplifies the erotic energy inherent to the encounter:
…Perhaps the boy had
stared too long the man behind
the cosmetic counter […] lingered, longing,
lusting, fingered the fabric of some
skirt or blouse
Amidst this lustful flow of energy, masculinity is undone, queered by its proximity to the feminine (“the fabric of some / skirt or blouse,” the drawn-on eyebrows of the man behind the counter). In “First Time,” the poem’s speaker wrestles with ambivalence as they recount the give of their virginity to an older man (“tiny fissures / fires / that no one warned would come / wanting to stop but I wanted this / [I asked for this]”). Going further, the proceeding poem “Interior:” seats the reader in a cruiser’s hotspot, the gay adult theatre. The poem reads like a how-to for a successful anonymous encounter—“Don’t speak. […] Wait, gag a little. […] Don’t spit, swallow.” In these instances, there is a noted lack of tenderness. Or rather, tenderness is expressed solely through the pleasures of the flesh.
The flesh is not solely a conduit for pleasure, however. It is also a vessel for receiving and enacting violence. Throughout original kink, the reader bears witness to how this violence permeates Black and queer life in the public and domestic spheres. “Infinite, or ‘Y’all do not want to meet my alter ego. Trust.’” chronicles the speaker’s formative relation to the law:
I did like y’all taught me to do […] walked up to the nearest cop & asked
how a boy could get home. &
he drank me in & said
on the tip of my cocked gun, _______.
This entangling of sexual desire and violence (as enacted by the state) upon the Black body informs day-to-day existence. Queer people of color, too, cannot escape the specter of harm and death even in celebration, as Arriola-Headley alludes to in the Orlando nightclub elegy “Pulse” (“Too soon, we / come to end of anthem, our burden now / to steel our souls; finger linger, stealth down / your chest, press flesh / where bullets soon enter.”).
The implications are more devastating when violence encroaches upon the home, which Arriola-Headley explores in pieces like “Oedipus, Vexed” & “Demons.” In “Vexed,” violence enacted upon the mother by the father is mediated by metaphors that have an increasingly difficult time veiling the aftermath of these fierce visitations. Not until we reach the volta where metaphor has exhausted itself, are we—the reader and speaker—left with explicit, painful truth: “But how / to metaphor punching bag? How shall I set jaw / broken behind closed doors to music? How do I draw / bath to salve sore flesh—in chalk? ink? blood?” “Demons,” following immediately after, renders unambiguously domestic cruelty (“Her / cheek, swollen & purpled / from the caress of His fist, / pillows a fractured jaw”). It is also here that we see violence seep into the speaker, not as an expression of ferocity but as a bid to save his mother and himself. He ends the poem cutting the skin from his father’s fingers.
Daddies are central to formations of power and identity in Arriola-Headley’s collection. Indeed, the book’s epigraph reads “For all the Daddies in my life, & for the Daddy in me.” But the idea of Daddy is most poignant in original kink’s centerpiece “Cactus [Intro] / Daddy / Cactus [Outro].” Bookended by photographs of the poet’s father, the sequence begins with a contemplative haiku (“Does the cactus long / for touch / hoard water in its / belly to nurse us”) that leads into “Daddy,” an orchestration of six seminal remembrances meeting at the intersections of sonnet and prose poem. Each narrative is rendered with exquisite detail. There’s a near collision on Fourth of July, 1976 where the child-speaker is barred from harm by his father’s reflexive arm, “hairs prickling [his] chin.” There’s the “fistfuls of sugary” meant to bribe and silence the boy at the dog track on Thanksgiving, 1979. There’s Queen Tony whose “butt [bulges] like ripe melons” and who sits on the speaker’s Dad’s lap during weekly card games with the father’s fellas on Labor Day 1982, inviting the queer into a deeply heteronormative space. In each instance of “Daddy,” the father is seen, but the lack of reciprocation is a violence, a violence the speaker doesn’t put to rest until his father is laid to rest. The sequence completes itself with another haiku, the notion more declarative (“Cactus roots spread broad / not deep / in this they mirror / a diaspora”).
Three poems in original kink share the title “FAQ: Proper Use of Syntax of Poetry,” but it is the last line of this series’ final poem—“Until then you can call me Daddy”—that I find empowering, and all-encompassing. The first two “FAQ” poems are formatted as a sequence of questions and answers that reside above a black line. Beneath that line, at the center of the page, a phrase reads “this is not [a white space].” The sectioning-off of “a white space” suggests the historical limitations of not only the poetic page, but those of real life. This contrasts with the negation of “this is not.” When the phrases bond into a singular phrase, a dissonance arises. There’s power in the declarative nature of the phrase, but the brackets imply a fixity not easily repaired by negation alone. The third and final “FAQ” poem answers its questions (“Is ‘nigga’ ever a proper noun? Should ‘nigga’ ever be capitalized?”) below the prominent black line where “this is not [a white space]” previously held domain. The speaker’s answer dismantles the idea that he (and by extension, Black Americans) can be known by their true name, enacting the implications inherent to existing within white space. In a blunt poetics, the speaker reveals:
What you call me is not who I am. […] if I should speak my true name to you /
the bilge and bile would rise up out of you & […] you would wish not for an end
to your existence but for / a never-having-been […] My name is a gift you haven’t earned.
It is here that the onus of resistance shifts from Black Americans to the historical purveyors of white space. Indeed, the poem proceeds by offering examples of performative allyship—tearing down every Confederate statue to replace them with Harriet Tubman, eliminating “the words plantation, pioneer, & trailblazer from every language”—that remain inadequate gestures. True satisfaction is achieved when white America learns how to transubstantiate or turn water into wine. In short, when they learn how to perform a miracle. Until then, all other names are “failed analogies & fractured truths.” Except for the speaker argues, one name, one with a subversive and sexually charged twist: Daddy. Daddy will suffice. Daddy does suffice.
original kink is a testament to how violence informs how we love and hate, how we are and are not. But it’s also a document of the tender moments that soften the rigidities of living with racism and homophobia. Violence can be turned around, turned into pleasure, or an act of freedom, or an act of defiance. In “America,” Arriola-Headley writes, “I am original / kink, yes, I am the shackled / serpent, yes.” But rather than lament, the poet turns the tables (“I’m Jesus / to your Judas. Yes.”) before ultimately daring America to love him “like it’s legal.” “Cómo Amar a Tu Suegra (How to Love Your Mother-in-Law)” points to the power of ritualistic listening and memory as evidence of the tender. The lyrical “A Modest Proposal” finds love in the quotidian through use of elevated language that amplifies the speaker’s desire to the cosmos (“Thrust me toward ineffable, / cliffhanger faith, race me / to this inescapable reincarnation. Let’s hope / we come back bugs”) in the face of catastrophe, as the speaker desires to hold his beloved “til the moment / past apocalypse.” This is not to say that the violent and the sensual cannot be separated from each other. But rather than separating violence and tenderness, original kink blends both to carve a path toward personal liberation. It’s found in the recognition of one’s own power. As the collection’s final poem makes clear for the speaker’s nieces and for us: “You were not made in God’s image—you are God. God is in you.”