Radial Burns and Double Binds in Kiki Petrosino’s Witch Wife
by Madeleine Wattenberg
On The Bind’s “About” page, you can read a short description about the website’s name. Possible resonances include bookbinding, spellbinding, binding a wound. Think, also, what binds a word to its meaning, a name to a subject, a poem’s content to its form. And who has the power to command these connections? Kiki Petrosino’s Witch Wife evokes many of these definitions in order to question how language binds. By formally alluding to incantation and spell, Petrosino shows us that it is a mistake to see language as merely descriptive; language acts and language causes. “Self-Portrait,” for example, begins:
Little gal, who knit thee?
Dost thou know who knit thee?
As a self-address, the poem generates instability between the self as creator and the self as created: “I who cut your palms with glass / & poured in poison tasse by tasse / I am nimble. I am young. / I peeled you with a pair of tongs.” Yet the addressee and addressed merge at the poem’s end to “come together in the dirt” and “watch the long pig dig.” The nursery-rhyme meter pairs child’s play with childhood’s violence of becoming. “Long pig” re-contextualizes and re-codes “human” and “animal” under this speaker’s cannibalistic gaze to demonstrate how language doesn’t just describe the world, but determines it.
Throughout the collection, Petrosino applies pressure to assumptions about meaning formation. She borrows and creates kennings (grief-bacon, oil-dark) in order to crack and reform. She catalogs. She lets the ghosts in through the gaps. “Doubloon Oath” demonstrates this through its anaphoric listing:
By dead gal or stove bones
by rainbow or red bird
red bird or cracked spine.
The word “Doubloon” already foreshadows the poem’s logic—doubled value, doubled beats, the necessity of a coin’s two faces that can never look toward one another yet form the whole. This list poem, which largely comprises spondaic names, builds its engine in linked sounds. Pairings (“time kill or toy star”) establish new associations through the disjunctive “or,” which suggests that the paired terms cannot coexist in one space. Petrosino pulls words from easy contexts. Yet in the final line the speaker states “by bone-bruise or kneesock / I get my gift,” and thus the poem, at first a series of double binds, undermines the seeming necessity of decision suggested by the syntax. Regardless of their pathway, this speaker will receive.
This doubling within language is further complicated by the shifting subject positions Petrosino’s speakers occupy as they navigate the public and private, the academic and familial, and the hostile spaces full of “Federal dust” that feed on the erasure and silencing of black women’s utterances. A poem near the end of the collection entitled “Letter to Monticello” begins: “I must apologize for leaving my seat in the middle of your summit on social justice.” The speaker describes developing a caffeine-deprivation headache during they keynote speech, though she overhears the declaration that “we should only send black women astronauts to Mars.” The poem, more overtly narrative than many others in the collection, expands as the speaker reflects back to when she considered becoming a mother and had daily deprivation headaches: “Every month brought me closer to Mars, a planet ruled by black women astronauts.” Though the poem does not explicitly detail the history of slaves on Thomas Jefferson’s plantation, this history is harbored in the speaker’s embodied experience, one thread knit into a poem that also considers stigma against childless women, openings forged by black women’s imaginations, tulips that “appear as chemical flames.”
Petrosino’s juxtaposition of poems like “Letter to Monticello” and poems that use fairy-tale language necessitates a re-negotiation of what traditional form and framework bring to the poem. In “Nursery,” the speaker splits as she gains entrance to “the fairy house”:
Somehow we got out of there alive
though something crystalline of us
remains in that dark, growing its facets.
. . .
Somehow we got out of there alive
though we didn’t quite return. Our life
is different now we’ve drunk the tea.
The fairy-tale logic provides only an opaque narrative, but what it means to be whole and alive is clearly at stake. Once one enters the fairy house and drinks the tea, they cannot leave unchanged. The hosts—fairies or faceless gods or absence itself—do not appear benevolent. The invitation requires that the speaker and her companion ever after inhabit two worlds but never fully belong to either. Admittance is not full admittance, the return home a return to what is no longer fully home.
Linked questions about arrangement and power to arrange continue throughout the collection. Petrosino blurs, even dissolves, the line between “spell” and “poem.” Like incantations, poems are recited formulas that bind language to its histories. Villanelles, the form that appears most frequently in Witch Wife, rely on repeated lines. The poem “Pastoral” acknowledges the villanelle’s roots in the pastoral in order to muddy the form’s assumptions: “Where did it start? In a city of gardens & muck.” She recognizes and subsequently collapses the city/country divide on which the pastoral form rests. The villanelle “Maria” questions the power of naming:
She’d appear in the break before sleep.
Her face a glass zero. Her dark buzzing.
I was twelve. I sweated & begged
to live. Back then, I believed she could
spike me with faith, a silverweed stolon—
she’d appear in the break before sleep
pronouncing my name in her language
of radial burn. Name, name, name, name.
I was twelve. I sweated and begged . . .
Does a word become more strongly bound to its referent with each repetition? How does language sediment and solidify in our bodies? Repeated language becomes a vibration that strengthens the bone, but it does not purify the body. Petrosino’s use of the villanelle seems less about obsession than the necessity of moving within a predetermined form. Her poems explore the unlit spaces of familial history, bodies, the enchanted woods, the unsaid. Her work questions the way formal poetry binds tradition to new meaning within the form, binds the writer to its repetitions, to the form’s material properties.
Formal poetry often necessitates the question—to what extent does predetermined form bind content to shape? To what extent is the content then predetermined by the form it must take? Petrosino extends this conversation to cosmic dimensions: how does language arrange the universe? These questions appear most directly in “Political Poem,” where Petrosino allows the sestina’s repeated end words to move her speaker from “justice” to a final “just is.” Her speaker asks, “What’s a universe?” then answers:
A tingle up my legs. The stars. Once, I dreamed a moral
constellation of strawberry seeds, arranged towards justice.
But I don’t know how to read stars, the arc of
Federal dust that governs me. My body is long, but
not quite free.
“Someone else’s calculus” constrains her where the “moral firmament . . . bends.” Tensions between the magic to create, freedom to self-govern, constraints of imposed form, and the ability of others to read one’s form are present both in the choice of formal poetic approaches and in the collection’s reflections on black women’s bodies. Petrosino’s speakers are bound to universes and worlds formed by others. Like any bind, form may be broken. But, like a perpetually reabsorbing universe, the breaking of form often becomes the form itself, leading to a changed and unchanged universe.
Madeleine Wattenberg's lifelong dream of writing a review entirely in emojis feels closer than ever. Her poems have recently appeared in journals such as Best New Poets 2017, cream city review, The Seattle Review, DIAGRAM, Fairy Tale Review, Ninth Letter, and Mid-American Review. She is currently a PhD student in poetry at the University of Cincinnati.