Traversing “Fort Red Border” with Kiki Petrosino

In many ways, Kiki Petrosino’s “Fort Red Border” embodies a lot of what I imagine my future child to be like. He will be silly, he will be insightful, honest, proud; he will be a little bit tongue in cheek. Like my child, the poems in Petrosino’s debut poetry collection grow and learn, showing a depth to them that can only be associated with self discovery and a coming of age.

Despite the book’s caveat that it only touches upon “things that are entirely imaginary,” the book very much is an expression of Petrosino’s growth as a black woman living in a white America. “Fort Red Border” is divided up into three parts, each representing a stage in Petrosino’s own self discovery.

In “Fort Red Border,” the first part of the book, we explore the speaker’s realization of her own identity through constant reminders of her “afro” and poor background, all juxtaposed against the speaker’s foil in the form of Robert Redford. Instead of outright describing the speaker to us, Petrosino sets her up against the all-American, blond haired, blue-eyed actor Robert Redford. Everything that he is and that he stands for, she is the opposite.

Cognizant of her newfound identity, the book’s second part “Otolaryngology” forces us to jump into the speaker’s mind as we watch her process and think. “Bitchfoxly” in particular is a prime example of how involved we as readers become immersed into the speaker’s mind. The poem’s first two lines of “Is this he asks where you keep it this where you keep it this the / board where you keep it the flitch on the palm where you keep it the rotor” (1-2) contain no punctuation at all, relentlessly pushing thought after thought, image after image, through our heads. Confusing as it is exhilarating, Petrosino’s language works just as uniquely as the human mind does.

In a third section, “Valentine,” in which all the poems are similarly titled “Valentine,” Petrosino’s persona-like speaker has come to grips with herself. These valentines are not written for any lover, but rather they are written for herself. Every poem, every line, every words sings a song of the speaker’s self and her acceptance of that self. She is sure of who she is and what she wants; so sure that she can tell you without stuttering, “I just don’t love you / I just don’t love you more than pizza” (13-14). This statement is as resolute as it is quirky and cute.

Petrosino, just as well as she can write typical contemporary poetry, experiments in her premier publication. Full poems that look like they could’ve been a page ripped from a novel make debuts throughout the body of work. Like Petrosino’s speaker, language can change too.

What is poetry today is not what the poetry of tomorrow looks like. It excites me to think about what the poetry of tomorrow will look like and I feel like I get a glimpse of it in “Fort Red Border.” But don’t take my word for it; find a copy and conquer “Fort Red Border.”

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