Comfortingly Mundane, Surprisingly Bizarre: Lauren Shapiro on Kiki Petrosino’s Fort Red Border


Kiki Petrosino, Fort Red Border, Sarabande Books, 2009

Kiki Petrosino’s debut poetry collection Fort Red Border is exuberant, humorous, and complex in both form and content. Two of three sections are unabashedly concerned with intimate relationships (the first section follows an amorous liaison between the narrator and a fictitious Robert Redford, and the third section is entirely comprised of poems titled “Valentine”). One might expect such a set-up to be at best overly sincere and at worst trite; Petrosino’s book is neither. The narrators of these poems are constantly searching—for love, affection, a choice cut of meat—yet these poems inhabit a realm that is both comfortingly mundane and surprisingly bizarre.

In the first section, the elevated register and odd assortment of events and details create a space that is intimate and refined. There is “smoked salt from Wales,” “pommes frittes,” “tiger prawns,” and “chevre,” and Redford makes comments such as “Darling—/ I could marry you in this goddamned airliner,” or when asked if it snows in Malta, “Terribly”; “How fine,” he says of a hat. The film star touches down on earth long enough to sweep both the narrator and the reader into an adventure similar to what one might imagine of Aspen, Cannes, or any of those fabulous places where the rich and lucky luxuriate. These two travel first class, yet there is no pretension; the narrator seems as surprised as the reader by the turn of events, yet accepts them without question. I would argue that it is this very spontaneity, this blind acceptance of seemingly out-of-the-ordinary events, that makes the characters such enjoyable traveling companions. The series amplifies short moments of touch: a kiss on the forehead or earlobe, a reach around the waist while doing dishes become moments of utmost tenderness.

In this section, and indeed throughout the collection, Petrosino makes incredible use of dialogue; whether between the narrator and Robert Redford, an unknown “Valentine,” a bartender, uncle, certified chef, or even Jack White, it is dialogue that keeps much of these poems moving in their paces. Most often, the dialogue reflects the “real” way people speak, correcting themselves as they go. At the butcher in “Valentine”(p.67):

What can I get for you today?
Well
—I said. I wanted the 85% lean beef.

How about the 85 beef I said.
I mean, lean I said.

There is tension between thought and spoken word; the reader makes the leap alongside the narrator. And as should be obvious at this point, these poems are wonderfully humorous. Who but Petrosino could imagine eating “Cinnamon Frenchrolls” with Robert Redford after a visit to the City Museum of Industry, or the difficulties of making green beans amandine with Benito, a certified chef, while a book of Shakespeare takes up the entire kitchen sink? In “Valentine” (p.59), Jack Black and Jack White physically vie for the narrator’s affections:

Intense I say. Jack White opens his shirt. He takes out
some kind of raptor. This is totally poisonous he tells me.
Cool I tell him.

Whether there is a winner in this strange confrontation is left ambiguous, and one might hazard that the underlying meaning of this struggle has more to do with the ambiguities of race than these two engaging fighters. Elsewhere in the book, Petrosino drops small nuggets that suggest the author is very much aware of these complexities. The image of the author’s afro is a constant symbol throughout, and the juxtaposition of the colors white and black make many appearances, as in the “The Human Tongue Slows Down to Speak,”

White root in the vascular dark.
White trumpet in the dark’s

low tent.

Am I reading too much into this? Perhaps. But one needn’t look farther than the narrative to find racially charged moments, as in the last poem of the collection, “Valentine,” when the would-be lover puts off the narrator: “My whole family’s Anglo he joked. I can’t be the only one/ whose kids have too much hair.”

To her credit, Petrosino handles such heavy subjects with aplomb. These poems do not cast judgment nor make value-laden pronouncements, but are rather constantly seeking, constantly circling the issue. This examination moves from content to form almost seamlessly. In all three sections of the book, Petrosino uses repetition and syntax in interesting ways; her diction and choice of line breaks create both energy and surprise. In the poem “Gristle,” she writes,

lookathem says Uncle lookahow birds

eat up that chicken.
I lookahow birds eat up that

chicken good
God chickens’ll eat up

that chicken girl.
Chickens’ll eat chicken

girl best
cover up those dirty

legs—

This shocking ending to the poem is just one of the many surprises Petrosino has in store for the reader, and demonstrates how quickly she can change tones within a poem. Repetition begins as a game or a joke but ultimately becomes a source of emotional intensity. The title of the poem “Bitchfoxly” brings on a smile, but by the end the poem feels more like an interrogation: “where you keep it is this where you keep it is this/ where you keep it is this when you open this open it.” Similarly, in “Sonnet K,” the last line reads “Kneel down the dead face go down kneel down dead I kneel down–”. Words start to become a mantra, and the actions follow, trance-like.

If there is any negative aspect of this book, it might be that at times the specificities and allusions to pop culture start to feel a little overwhelming. In “Valentine” (p. 57), there is reference to Tunisia, Milli Vanilli, a Trapper Keeper, Moby-Dick, convertibles, zucchini flowers, BBC news, the casings on salami, Walgreens, contact lens solution, Sicily, and the Normans. While it may seem ingenious to be able to fit all of these items into a single poem, in places (particularly with the Trapper Keeper) it starts to seem kitsch. Does it truly matter whether M&M’s are “treats” or “snacks,” or that the pencils are No. 2? That said, these details, when they succeed, are exactly what create the wonderful sense of intimacy in these poems, so if here and there the author pushes them a little too far, that’s a small price to pay. Ultimately, Fort Red Border is a complex, funny, and engaging debut collection, and this reviewer, for one, can’t wait to see what’s next.

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