Tuesday, July 20, 2021

The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo

Source of book: Audiobook from the library


Last year, we listened to Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson, the first spoken word/slam poetry style book we experienced as part of our road trip audiobook selection. Because that one was so good, I poked around and discovered this one, which was also recommended by one of our librarians. Although it did not win a Newbery award, it picked up quite a few other awards. 

The Poet X is a story told by Xiomara, a fifteen-year-old girl, born to Dominican immigrant parents, living in Harlem. She is close to her twin brother Xavier (who she affectionately calls “Twin”), but struggles with her parents. And, well, they have some issues. 


It turns out that her extremely devout mother wanted to become a nun, but her parents forced her to marry a man with a favorable immigration status, so she could be the first to come to the United States, and eventually bring the rest of them. Her dad was quite the player before - and after - he got married, at least until the twins were born. Their conception was a surprise, as it was late in life and children we not expected, and thus the twins bear the burden of being the “miracle” babies. And thus, their mother believes that they should be impossibly grateful to God for their very existence. Dad gave up the affairs, but instead has essentially shut down emotionally, leaving mom to be the enforcer and try to drag her kids into following her religious preferences.


The problem, though, is that Xavier is gay, and Xiomara is increasingly doubting her religion. Oh, and their strict parents are freaked out about any romantic contact whatsoever, so…


Yeah, it’s a mess. Xiomara has other things going on too. She is tall and large and curvy, and has been sexually harassed ever since she hit puberty. She has learned to respond with violence, and has earned a bit of a reputation. Xavier is a brilliant student, and as he was born first (and is male), he is clearly the favorite of the family. But he is also effeminate and non-confrontational, so he gets bullied - at least until Xiomara decked a bully that one time. 


Xiomara also is a poet - she calls herself The Poet X once she starts participating in events - and uses poetry to express the things she can’t really say to anyone else. Her brother gave her a notebook, and encourages her gifts. As I said, the two are really close, which is why when they both fall in love, the separation that brings about stresses them both. 


And, of course, the real shit hits the fan once Xiomara falls in love with her lab partner Aman, and the two of them get caught kissing on the train, then Mami finds the poems and tries to burn them. Yeah, it’s a real mess. 


There are some similarities in this story to both Brown Girl Dreaming and I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter. In each case, there is some tension between a parent (or grandparent) who is devout and a child who has come to doubt. The tension isn’t just about religion. Maybe not even primarily about religion, but more about culture. The loss of a particular culture, as children grow into a different world than their ancestors. The way the parent responds determines whether the relationship will survive adulthood. While we do not specifically find out, this particular one seems slightly more hopeful than in I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter, but there is still reason to believe that both Xiomara and Xavier will be seriously relieved to get out on their own. 


I want to mention a few things I really liked about the characters too. The priest is a decent guy, and not white, which is a bit of a refreshing thing to see in a book (and in real life too.) However, like most clergy in my experience (there are exceptions, but almost never in conservative denominations for obvious reasons), he has no answers to the actual hard questions, and so deflects around them. Ultimately, he is a force for good in the world, but he cannot truly satisfy what Xiomara needs. 


Also great to see in this one is a trend in several YA books we have read: young guys who are, how to put it? Decent human beings. And not just in general, but specifically in relationships, and in sexual situations. I already mentioned I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter - in that case, Connor is in over his head (unsurprising for a teen guy with a girlfriend struggling with mental illness and an abusive mother), but he tries hard, and doesn’t act like a dick in the bedroom. Likewise, in The Hate U Give, Chris is a genuinely decent guy, and a role model. In all of these, the sexual experiences are consensual, and positive, even if not always satisfying. In The Poet X, I have to say that Aman is such a gentleman when it comes to the sex scene. Xiomara has just had a most traumatic experience, but wants something sexual. However, once they are naked and he is wound up, she freaks and can’t continue. And guess what? He hands her her clothes, drys her tears, and is a friend to her like she needs. Because that’s what decent men do. For me, the best part of these stories when it comes to sex is that it gives a positive role model for my sons, and encourages my daughters to expect this decent behavior from their partners. 


[Side note here: this is so much better than the “men can’t control themselves” narrative that Modesty Culture feeds our kids. Hey, I wrote a bit about that!]


The poetry itself is delightful, with a superb flow, and some amazing killer lines. The audiobook was narrated by the author, and she clearly is a veteran of spoken word poetry, because she has it going on. 


Since I was driving, I had to go back and search for the lines, but here are some that really stood out. 


And I think about all the things we could be

if we were never told our bodies were not built for them.   


This is in the context of gender roles and expectations. And, heck yeah. This is a bit of a sore spot for me, as relationships have been severed over the expectation of gender performance. And very, very related:


Their gazes and words

are heavy with all the things

they want you to be.


And this one, in the context of the story, is perfect. It’s devastating.


Just because your father's present, doesn't mean he isn't absent.


And this one, flung back as a weapon against an out-of-control mother:


“Burn it! Burn it. This is where the poems are,” I say, thumping a fist against my chest. “Will you burn me? Will you burn me, too?”


Some of the language and ideas are just breathtaking. Here are my favorites:


I only know that learning to believe in the power of my own words has been the most freeing experience of my life. It has brought me the most light. And isn't that what a poem is? A lantern glowing in the dark.


It's about any of the words that bring us together and how we can form a home in them.


Your silence furnishes a dark house.

But even at the risk of burning,

the moth always seeks the light.


She knew since she was little, the world would not sing her triumphs, but she took all of the stereotypes and put them in a chokehold until they breathed out the truth.


If I were on fire

who could I count on

to water me down?


If I were a pile of ashes

who could I count on

to gather me in a pretty urn?


If I were nothing but dust

would anyone chase the wind

trying to piece me back together?


My little words

feel important, for just a moment.

This is a feeling I could get addicted to.


The Poet X isn’t particularly long, but it is so beautiful, as the above quotes demonstrate. I would recommend reading it out loud, or listening to the audiobook, because the music of the words is what it is about. 


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