By David Nilsen
Gave to thee such vicious lungs
for breathing glitter past your wrongs
– from “Self-Portrait”
In her poetry collection Witch Wife (Sarabande, 2017), Kiki Petrosino breathes out incantations to circumscribe the wrongs that have come to her, and to heal—or repay—those wrongs. These dark liturgies speak from the deep spaces of the earth and of the human heart, painting 21st century relational angst with the blood and broken teeth and forest roots of the grimmest classic fairy tales.
Much of Witch Wife’s effect is found in form rather than content, as across these poems Petrosino draws attention to similarities in the rhythms, requests, and repetitions of seemingly disparate formats such a sermons, Old Testament poetry, witchcraft, liturgical call-and-response, séances, and children’s rhymes. She layers these forms together and periodically cinches the threads to draw them into visual and sonic focus. There are many ways to tap into the infinite, into the divine and diabolic spaces both inside and outside our humanity, and they are not as different as they may seem.
In “Sermon,” Petrosino writes with language and repeated lines that echo the style of the Psalms and Proverbs:
A lioness subdues all things to herself.
Yes, even a lioness subdues all things to herself.
Who shall change my vile body into a glorious body?
Petrosino employs Biblical phrasing at other points in the book to humorous effect, as in “Afterlife”:
My exes shall rise up from their Mazdas
and adorn themselves in denim.
Elsewhere, Petrosino creates list poems that feel like aborted attempts at creating a spell. In “Twenty-One,” stanzas like this subtly morph and change throughout the poem, but never quite coalesce, chugging like an engine that won’t start:
Birthstone anklet, white Peugeot,
Journal, mixtape, leather coat,
Perseid shower, bear paw charm,
Lunapark, broom flowers, ferryboat.
Are these notes for an incantation? A mnemonic device? Attempted prayers? Are they the exhalations of vicious lungs breathing glitter past her wrongs?
Perhaps the crux of Petrosino’s spiritual explorations in Witch Wife is found in “Political Poem,” in which the poet wrestles with belief in justice and the suspicion the universe is not governed by order and reason. She says early on that “birds chatter toward justice,” but a bit later laments, “This universe is // not worth my heard-earned glitter. This universe is / not what I dreamed.” Ultimately, she leaves us with either random chance, or else a providence so arbitrary as to mimic it:
Will everything we know collapse towards justice?
Bodies, berries, beaks, barns—will all of it bend
& wash under the moon? It feels like this universe is
someone else’s calculus, the arc of
a moonbeam in the moral firmament. It bends
& the light is long, but dimming. Such universes.
Here, I draw the arc of two words: just is.
To practice witchcraft or to pray to a benevolent god both require a belief in order, a faith that speaking or acting or believing in a certain way will influence the outcome of events, the shape a life takes. What if the only thing those actions influence is our own state of mind, and everything just is? Petrosino ultimately doesn’t seem to think this is the case, but still recognizes that with or without supernatural intercession, she must claim what is hers. In “Doubloon Oath” she begins an incantation that seems crafted in the dark places of the forest,
By dead gal or stove bones
by rainbow or red bird
red bird or cracked spine
by silk wrap or jaw jaw
And concludes, after an extended list of such images,
by bone bruise or kneesock
I get my gift.
She will have what is hers, whether by the aid of the divine or her own grit and skill, and maybe those are the same.
In Witch Wife’s final movement, she begins to explore the tension within her (and more explicitly put upon her) between trying to conceive a child and retaining the freedom of childlessness. In “Confession,” she writes,
Every month I decide not to try
is a lungful of gold I can keep for myself.
Still, I worry you’ll come to me anyhow
A few pages later, in “N/Ought,” she unravels the image that has been hinted at and flashed throughout the collection: that of the childless woman as witch, as unnatural being to be feared and shamed.
I must forgive myself for waiting so long.
I know a woman who waits is offensive
My heart is a springhouse of doubt.
Don’t blame me for not bellying up.
It is here the book’s imagery snaps into focus. Modern society still distrusts ambitious and/or childless women. They are those frightening creatures in the old stories who haunt the woods and hex the village housewives. Why won’t they just behave and do what is expected?
Petrosino is brave enough to admit she might not know yet what she wants, and is willing to hold the course until she’s sure, or perhaps until some outside force—be it night spirit or bright goddess—reveals it to her. She closes the collection with these lines from “Purgatorio:”
When I dream of the future, I’m always alone.
Even now, something drags me with fear teeth.
I don’t know what I want. I only love
what I’m Lord of. Teach me, or else.