Monday, August 19, 2019

A Girl's A Gun — Rachel Danielle Peterson (University Press of Kentucky)

Today's book of poetry:
A Girl's A Gun.  Rachel Danielle Peterson.  The University Press of Kentucky.  New Poetry and Prose Series.  Series Editor Lisa Williams.  Lexington, Kentucky.  2017.

34331918. sy475

Today's book of poetry has no idea what to make of Rachel Danielle Peterson's A Girl's A Gun.  Oh, we know we like it, we like it a lot.  But we are unable to put our finger on exactly where Peterson took flight to dance fancy with her angels of desire, her demons too.

A Girl's A Gun hits the bull's eye with her first shot, it is splendid from the opening salvo.  But some consideration is required to get inside Peterson's patois, mountain codes.  Her language is heartbreakingly familiar and at the same time foreign enough to make us feel unsure, nervous.

A Girl's A Gun feels like your first time drinking corn liquor, you know you're drunk but where did this speaking in tongues come from?  Suddenly language and voice become magical.

Love Song of the Sea-Girl

In the rearview mirror:
             passenger's side,
             marine eyes, patina.
Sweat. Just you and me
in a hushed, hothouse flush.

Scrape and save,
             just scrap the sulk
             of holy here.
No priest to crook my knee,
say naughty. Naughty!

Feel the god within me
             flee somewhere low,
             like a
hanged man's soul
flees where? We don't know.

Lover, you smile
             that solid grin
             from braces and bleach,
sign a heart on
each beaded windowpane.

I should just shush,
             be sweetie pie, dove,
             beneath the dread
lull, the hymn, the
windshield's swift wipe.

Catastrophe can be fine
             sometimes, when found
             in a catapult, words
from a slur.
I won't get hurt again.

I'll leave, caress the steel,
             the wheel that bends
             this way, neither
a king nor prince of anything,
just a trim-coifed queen alone.

Cleopatra and her billions,
             those stoney-eyed ,
             mermen so swoony,
they still crave
a tune about then.

I'll give them a song.
             Way down in Egypt's land,
              I grow up, I grow up.
O Lordy, let my people do the same,
but they will never grow up.

So, I will watch
             the Derby and sip
             a mint julep, elegant
and be forgot.
You'll enter from behind.

My gods, still my eyes,
             extend us beneath
             that delicate shell.
Any moon is made of honey,
if you hold fast, tight,

when you open my mouth
             red as a gill
             or a wound,
I'll croon for you, sweet baby
Only you.


A Girl's A Gun gets smoking hot.  The poems range from coming-of-age poems to songs of pure romantic need and joy, all of it in a language both ancient and new to us.  At times A Girl's A Gun sounds like it might be coming from a pulpit of a new religion.  In this religion the heart rules the realm and we know the power of women.  We are witness to a new conflagration of faith.

Rachel Danielle Peterson burns.  Peterson burns electric and blue, burns with, as Walt the Whitman said:

     "Do I contradict myself?
     Very well then I contradict myself,
     (I am large, I contain multitudes.)
     Keep your face always toward the sunshine -
     and shadows will fall behind you.
     I celebrate myself, and sing myself."

Peterson embraces herself, lets loose a fiery torrent that the reader cannot help but admire.  These poems all come heavy strength.

The One

I was cursed with eyes of emerald, to leave
the backdoor unlocked, and he would see
would fill the room, such a head of honey-hue,
more blonde than most I've found.
Amid acres of soybeans lush, strange,
like he always was, like I could be,
I was Dorthy to his Cheshire King.
He ran, shirtless, through fields.
He had a smile without a cat.
It would spread from him to me,
from one kiss from the red tenderness of lips.
One breath, and you'd disappear, you'd die.
Dangerous predicament for those without soul.
Though different in many ways, there was little
I held back, wouldn't let him slip in,
a cancer stick shared between the meeting
of our eyes. I felt responsible, do it right,
for goddamn once. But, always there are always but's.
Sometimes, there was grass in his mouth,
and his face held a look like brass,
cattish, inward. One pregnancy scare made him
Existential to cross his emptiness,
fear of death. No human could comfort him,
no matter how he'd worship a knee.
At the back door with some SoCo, he said,
write but don't write about me, so I didn't,
I tried to do it right, and write about
Odysseus, another sharp one. Didn't you know
that he could dive like a shark?
Like him, I have few fears now
because I've been beneath clothes,
beneath water, until a part of me was gone.
He loved the crush of ocean in his ear,
like I love the reach of the sea.
Even if he forgot my smell, I recollect
the aroma of Old Spice, bourbon whiskey
as clear as anything can be. How I wish,
why do always wish for what will never be?


Old Walt insisted on sticking around for the morning read here in the Today's book of poetry offices.  He crushed Peterson's poems every time his turn came around.  Great reader and great sport.  A Girl's A Gun takes dead aim, every sharp shot more clearly defining Peterson's poetic identity.  There were some struggles with dialect and idiom but it never got in the way of Peterson's sense of purpose or direction.

Today's book of poetry was in full learning/loving mode as these poems spread across our horizon, seemingly at the speed of light.  A Girl's A Gun cracks your head open.


            for Sarah Hubbs
     "If happiness never comes, what is a life?"

       July 2015, Saipan

When you live in Ohio, you live for oxygen,
even the girl who was shot in the mouth
in her bedroom on a very clear day.
Ohio was hard on us, but I will always survive,
take more than I need, yessir, wrap my legs
around something, even as they hush me.


Boom, that's what tragedy feels
Like you can never return again.


Even if you've lost your eyes,
I will tell you wonders that will drip
lifeblood onto lashes,
Even if you can't hear me,
does it matter?


I wasn't as good a friend
As I should be, never am.

Sometimes, I'm afraid that I
Don't need people enough.

Sometimes, maybe, too much.
I tell myself a lie older than any cemetery.

Lean close, maybe I'll tell you.
Only the dead should hear it,

Maybe you're dead—or will be.
The page you touch now,

the sly soul that fills in
when dense eye strays down.

You want a good story.
So, I'll have to improvise:

Imagine this—

jagged outline, molten galaxies
coal and volcano, we have tears that beat
the brain an' heart, the inevitable groans.
Their need? Ta crack open, like a comet's flame,
a tangle hand down into black hair,
gray or blue—none of it matters then!
the flare of the sun, one constellation,
Three Fingers that spark the tenderness.

So, let the suns explode,
But will my lover come

Dripping honey?
The question you dead can't ask,

but I can. I have to.


Cardinals do,
but who can truly
mate for life?

No one
that I have
clenched mid-flight.

Can birds
be truer
than we suppose?

O plumes
of gray-blue,
crimson-hue we'll have.

Yes, I'll lose
and have to wing it.

The cardinals
will somehow
gore, scatter the

seedpods of
these graves,

their flowers,
hibiscus, and—God—
red-violet leaves

falling in
an April shower,
another flaming tree,

not just
in Kentucky,
but everywhere,

something red
will break out.
Sweat honey

on the rock,
that's what they say
on the day

the past can be revised.

Here's my attempt, anyway:

Around 2005, the porch-light flickered off, then on. He blocked
             the doorway with a human outline, a shadow.
Either, we stumbled toward the falls. The wallop grazed each
                        Wading in calf-deep, I was happy, strong, splashed him
wanting to peel off my clothes, the water to whir like a prism
                        hiding every distraction. I wanted to be hip-deep,
in you and me, at you, at us, before inevitability.

Close your eyes, feel this lay on your forehead. Tell me
                     again about the faucet, water Mama drew so hot
that the porcelain wept deep as anguish.
                     Hard to tell. Maybe the wet came from over there,
your lashes hesitating to give way, to flutter.
                     Either way, you bit that pouting bottom lip,
groaning all the while for the content you get
                     from lipstick on nose's cradle, you don't
wanna rub it off. Just like I am made to hunger
                     after the musk of your dark, hidden hairs,
trilling for each and all. Even you, marked by
                     freckles, scars, divides, be proud of each,
these kisses savored under sun, yes
                     the sun inside, and someday right now
my fragrant, flowered love. By some magic bullet
                     or by sunshine, some way, every page will rise
into sky, like oxygen, from those red lips to mine.


Today's book of poetry loved Rachel Danielle Peterson's A Girl's A Gun.  Wickedly powerful, powerfully wicked.

Peterson has an honest authority, she wields language like a sharp knife, she cuts clean.  These poems burn hard.


Rachel Danielle Peterson

Rachel Danielle Peterson is a contributing editor at Poet’s Quarterly and a member of VIDA. Her work has received numerous honors and has been featured in Front Porch, Literary Imagination, Arsenic Lobster, Midwestern Gothic, Los Angeles Review, Upstart, Her Royal Majesty, the Inspirer, and Revolver.

Rachel Danielle Peterson’s collection, A Girl’s A Gun, reads as part tall tale, part bildungsroman, part geode. These are poems meant to be enclosed in a palm and pressed against the heart. Peterson’s strengths are in her cinematic depictions of women, her vibrant imagery, and the precision with which she code-switches into the tongue of the mountains. The heady combination leaves the reader a bit breathless and we plummet with her into a line that feels like proverb, such as in ‘Birthday,’ ‘The heart is cruel/an organ with no song.’ These poems do not balk at their own content, circling around love that is tough or risky or absent or misplaced. They press on, lead the way, suggest that there’s no way around but through.
      — Bianca Lynne Spriggs, author of Call Her by Her Name: Poems and The Galaxy Is a Dance Floor and coeditor of Undead: Ghouls, Ghosts, and More and Black Bone: 25 Years of the Affrilachian Poets

With a mouth full of sticky mountain laurel, Appalachian soul liquor, exclamatory verve, iconoclastic Biblical gospel, and tender purchase, Rachel Peterson’s A Girl’s A Gun cross-talks with a prodigious and prodigal personal and poetic tribe that includes family members, figures from mythology, Jeanne d’Arc, Apollinaire, and a host of hymns and rock ballads. 'Home is in the vocal chords— / the sound,' she writes in 'Harlan County.' By turns vernacular and soaring with lyricism, Peterson’s foray into the emotional violence, Eros, and beauty of the places that hold us, and that we hold inside, evokes another American innovator, Emily Dickinson, who not only felt her life to be a loaded gun but who also, like Peterson, puts language under such unique psychological pressure that it almost seems to be its own tongue. 
     —Lisa Russ Spaar, author of Vanitas, Rough and Orexia



Poems cited here are assumed to be under copyright by the poet and/or publisher.  They are shown here for publicity and review purposes.  For any other kind of re-use of these poems, please contact the listed publishers for permission.

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