Krysten Hill’s chapbook is as fresh as today’s headlines. It calls out a culture where women continually risk abuse, invisibility, and soul-killing erasures, and where black women are particularly threatened. The book begins with found language from a Google search that serially exposes the penumbra of violence in the male gaze. It ends with a litany drawn from “This Mouth”: “never/your canary, parakeet, sweet/feathered thing that lives/just to sing for you.” In between is a journey from the pain of being defined by others to the power of chanting one’s own song.
In Krysten Hill’s poetry, spirit is ghost, breath, language and life. Tamir Rice’s sister, tackled by police as she runs toward her brother’s body, then “handcuffed/…in the back of the cruiser,” watches as “…his wound exhales/in the cold,” and sees “the wall of her breath grow thick/on the window.” Tamir’s wound becomes her breath, and his name, “the way she called him to the house,” is “a frantic flood from her mouth.” Her spirit and his mingle until she absorbs him, vowing to be “all of it: his sound, a love—/a force that can take everything with it.”
In several poems, the spirit acts like a wily escape artist, hidden in languages other than speech. Food is one of them. “On a Scale From One to Ten” begins, “I don’t know how to count/the times my father showed me how/men hide their love…/…How many times did he/pile too much food onto my plate, or/pick an eyelash from my cheek/asking me to make a wish?” In “Feast,” the poet drops the hot sweet potato pie she’s been entrusted to bake in her aunt’s kitchen: “…this feels like a sin,/and instead of casting me out,/she steps over the mess” to tend to her niece’s burn. Gardens are another. “Women Who Go Missing” pays homage to those “…who planted their visions/on the tongues of their daughters,” including the grandmother who grew plenty “in the middle of concrete teeth and sirens,” and, in “her boots and short-shorts,” gave “the marigolds a drink from the hose” and “fix[ed] the slouch/of tulips.”
In other poems, inner struggles reflect external ones. “Kansas City Loves You,” Hill writes, “but you’re tired of her/so you pick a fight with a bottle/…on a bet/that you’d puke neon. You do.” At a bar, the moment “…resolves/into a Queen song on the jukebox./Try to fit the movement/of your hips into a song that/doesn’t want you.” “My mama never taught me to fight,” she writes in “Defenses,” “not because she didn’t know/how to turn her own black body/into a baseball bat…” but “because she thought that everything/would be different for me.” Instead, “I become a horn to be heard over whistles./…/…My voice a short step, a turn of shoulders, my extended arm, my entire body in resistance.”
Hill’s poems include allusions to foremothers like Audre Lorde, Sylvia Plath, and Zora Neale Hurston. Like Lorde, she responds to sexism, racism, and injustice with passion and perception. From Plath, she’s learned to figure the details of her life in images that are fierce and arresting. Hill understands the power of narrative and savor of vernacular speech, both loved by Hurston. The result is a voice that is beautiful and raw, intimate yet public, both confident and vulnerable.
How Her Spirit Got Out won the New England Poetry Club’s 2017 Jean Pedrick Chapbook Prize. I knew Jean Pedrick, one of the founding members of Alice James Books and later, with Connie Veenendaal, founder of Rowan Tree Press. I think she would have loved this book, and the small press—Aforementioned Productions, which supports “challenging writing that combines the cerebral with the visceral”—that brought it into print.