APRIL 27, 2018
IN The Poet X, the debut novel from National Poetry Slam Champion Elizabeth Acevedo, young heroine Xiomara arrives for her sophomore year of high school ready to do battle with the masses — in more ways than one. These “masses” include the Catholic church services her Dominican mother makes her attend, the adolescent baby fat that has settled into her hips and breasts, and the people populating her school and neighborhood.
During her battles, two important events take place. First, Xiomara is assigned a new lab partner, Aman, who sits close enough that she can feel the warmth of his forearm. Second, Ms. Galiano, an English teacher who miraculously pronounced Xiomara’s name right on the first try, invites her to join the Poetry Club. Both these encounters inspire Xiomara to write slam poetry, in which she expresses the rage, lust, and fear that make up the life of a teenage girl in Harlem. Poet Acevedo — author of the chapbooks Beastgirl & Other Origin Myths and Medusa Reads La Negra’s Palm (a 2016 Berkshire Prize Winner) — knows Xiomara’s story intimately and narrates it with intelligence and care.
Xiomara’s enthusiasm for romance and poetry is thwarted at every turn by her strict Catholic parents. The resulting conflicts form the plot of the novel and serve as the springboard for Acevedo’s astute musings on the difficulties of an adolescent girl fighting for control over her body, voice, and life. Xiomara and her twin brother were born late in the lives of their Dominican parents, who “Do. Not. Play.” The twins’ miracle birth transformed their father from a drunk womanizer into a silent, emotionally absent man. Now that Xiomara is maturing, her mother fears that she will become a cuero, “the Dominican word for ho.”
Her religious mother mandates no dating until after Xiomara has graduated college — which means no accepting Aman’s offer to listen to Kendrick Lamar’s album in Stone Park after school. Or, rather, it should mean that, but Xiomara “can’t wait to go anyway.” Her mother prevents her from joining the Poetry Club by making her attend confirmation classes instead. Like many teen girls, Xiomara views her mother as her nemesis. When the woman speaks, Xiomara’s eyes roll so hard that she wonders if “a stranger could use them / as a pair of dice.” Acevedo’s poems document battle after battle over conflicting ideas of what it means to be a woman. The two get into a fierce quarrel after Xiomara refuses to eat the communion wafer, with Xiomara concluding: “I’m not sure who won this round.”
Even though dating Aman breaks all three of her mother’s dating rules (“1. No dating. / 2. Not unless you’re in college. / 3. See rule 1 and 2.”), Xiomara continues to meet the boy in Stone Park, where they share earbuds as they listen to rap albums. The two start texting each other during the day. Aman sends her Drake lyrics that remind him of her. He holds hands with her in his coat pocket as he walks her to the train. Xiomara writes that, “Every time I think of Aman / a poem builds inside me.” Her crush on him marks an important change in her perspective. Ever since her “baby fat settled into D-cups,” Xiomara has been beating back both the unwanted advances of neighborhood men and, inadvertently perhaps, her own desire for sexuality and romance. She remarks about Aman:
as much as boys and men
have told me all of the things
they would like to do to my body
this is the first time I’ve actually wanted
some of those things done.
After agreeing to their first date, Xiomara admires herself in the mirror before leaving for school, for the first time valuing her body and its implicit sexuality, instead of trying to squash it.
Teenage girls are frequently looked at but rarely listened to. In the poem “Unhideable,” Acevedo describes the social status of a post-pubescent girl, whose “body takes up more room than [her] voice.” Acevedo revisits the rage of being ultra-visible and undervalued in another poem entitled “After,” a Green Eggs and Ham–esque listing of the places where Xiomara experiences sexual harassment: at the bodegas, at school, on the train, on the stoop, when wearing jeans, when wearing shorts, and so on, before concluding, “it simply never stops.” This onslaught of unwanted advances, combined with her mother’s constant assertions that “men ain’t shit,” convince Xiomara that the only man she needs in her life is her twin, whom she calls, simply, Twin. Xiomara is Twin’s fiercest protector. Twin “was birthed a soft whistle: quiet, barely stirring the air.” While Twin is a reprieve from the rough men that surround her, his softness means Xiomara has to protect both him and herself. She worries that her closeness with him will “keep them both small.”
Her relationship with Aman forces her to reevaluate her relationships with men. While Xiomara’s bond with Twin might be keeping her small, Aman makes her feel big — good big, as in loud, audible. To borrow a phrase from Pablo Neruda, they do with each other what spring does with the cherry trees. Or, to paraphrase Beyoncé’s “Upgrade U,” they do for each other what Martin did for the people — bring growth and freedom. Xiomara rekindles Aman’s love for ice skating, despite his father’s insistence that the sport is too “soft” for a man. In return, Aman helps Xiomara transform into the powerful Poet X, despite the forces working to silence her.
Xiomara’s relationship with Aman exacerbates her growing crisis of faith, her disdain for what she sees as the patriarchal culture of Catholicism. After their first kiss, she walks into confirmation class feeling as if she is wearing the endearment as a “bright red sweater.” Unlike her pious best friend Caridad, Xiomara doesn’t think it’s sinful to “notice if a boy is fine.” Xiomara doesn’t want the Church telling her what to do with her body. She looks around the chapel and notices that none of the women depicted in the paintings or sculptures are big and angry, like her. She relates more to a figure from Greek mythology: “If Medusa were Dominican / and had a daughter, I think I’d be her.”
In writing poetry, Xiomara finds something akin to religion. Her verse partakes in a conversation with the unknown. Poetry Club promises a devoted group of fellow writers. Xiomara’s poetry captures her close attention to life, an attention so close it borders on worship. Throughout the novel, her poetry acts as a confession, a prayer, and a sermon, tracing her changing views on religion, family, romance, and poetry itself.
As with Xiomara, slam poetry had a huge impact on my life as an adolescent girl, after a classmate let me borrow her copy of Bum Rush the Page, a collection edited by Tony Medina and Louis Reyes. I gasped when reading certain poems in The Poet X because the images brought me back to being a young girl in Philly, taking the train downtown to sit with my boyfriend in a public park, always hoping that none of my mom’s friends would walk by. Perhaps my love of poetry is what led me to revisit Acevedo’s poems daily, individually, as if The Poet X were a devotional. The novel-as-verse structure allows multiple avenues for the reader to access and enjoy the work. One could easily flip through the book feasting on the poems alone.
While these poems create a narrative, a gripping plot that propels the reader forward, it’s quickly evident that they are more than a vehicle for the story. The slam poetry, crafted by an accomplished poet-author, generously renders the interior life of a teenage girl without diminishment or obfuscation. Acevedo rings changes on the adolescent voice, from humorous:
In ninth grade you always frozen
between trying not to smile or cry,
until you learn that no one care about
what your face does
to heartbreaking (“God, if you are thing with ears: / please, please.”).
At times, it’s difficult to resist the temptation to read The Poet X as a diary. The poems often focus on the meaningful events of the day, their titles documenting the speaker’s evolving thoughts on a matter. In one progression of poems, the titles reveal Xiomara’s evolving views of Twin: “Why Twin Is a Terrible Twin,” “Why Twin Is a Terrible Twin, for Real,” “Why Twin Is a Terrible Twin (Last and Most Important Reason),” and, finally, “But Why Twin Is Still the Only Boy I’ll Ever Love.” Some of the poems are written in borrowed forms — for example, a transcript of a text-message conversation between Xiomara and Aman or a list of the personal shortcomings she finds in her immediate family members. Encountering such relatable moments is one of the joys of reading The Poet X.
In “MaNyfaCedGod,” Jay-Z raps about the universal siren call of love, saying, “Ain’t nothing like somebody that get ya. Baby, I get ya.” The allure of feeling understood draws Aman and Xiomara not just to each other but to rap music — a reoccurring presence in the novel. When Ms. Galiano asks Xiomara to write about a person she admires, she chooses Nicki Minaj because the singer modeled a way of owning her voluptuous body and sexuality. One of Xiomara’s poems even shares a title with Minaj and Beyoncé Knowles’s celebration of the sexual female body, “Feeling Myself.” Other poems share names with rap and R’n’B songs, such as “Poetic Justice,” “Ring the Alarm,” and “Can’t Tell Me Nothing.” For Xiomara, fully realizing her sexuality didn’t mean becoming promiscuous; at one point, instead of having sex with Aman, Xiomara explains how they spent the night: “We watch YouTube highlights of the Winter Games. I help Aman fry eggs and Sweet Plantains.” This moment recalls the song “Mind Sex,” where Dead Prez raps that, instead of rushing into sex, he and his love interest eat “fresh bed of lettuce with some croutons” and “play a game of chess on my futon.”
Xiomara’s poems catalog the shackling — and often competing — demands placed on her. Her mother wants her to go to confirmation classes on Tuesday nights, while Ms. Galiano wants her to go to poetry classes. Outside the house, men catcall her and boys badger her to send them pictures of herself in a thong. Inside her house, her father wants her to be chaste, “ignorable […] and silent.” She feels like her silence is a “leash yanking her in all directions.” Amid this chaos, Xiomara finds her bearing in writing, where she learns to hear herself and strengthen her inner voice.
In our current cultural moment, young women’s voices are doing a lot of heavy lifting. Emma González, a survivor of the Parkland High School shooting, has established herself as a leading voice in the gun control debate. Aly Raisman, along with other former US gymnasts, testified to years of sexual abuse suffered at the hands of their team doctor, and in doing so put their abuser behind bars. This is not even to mention Malala Yousafzai and other young female leaders abroad. The poet Muriel Rukeyser once wrote: “What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open.” In The Poet X, Acevedo offers a deep dive into the crucial yet frequently maligned mindset of a female adolescent — a mindset that is proving so critical in reshaping our culture.
In this way, the plot of The Poet X captures this cultural momentum. The book builds up moments of Xiomara being listened to, first by her teacher, then by her boyfriend, her poetry club, her parents, and finally a huge room of people waiting silently, patiently for her to speak. By sharing her poems, she discovers a new kind of silence: “I never experienced a silence like this, a hundred people waiting for me to speak.” The novel serves as a strong reminder of the galvanizing effect writing can have on one’s life: “the more I write,” says Xiomara, “the braver I become.”
Sadie Shorr-Parks teaches writing at Shepherd University. Her nonfiction has recently appeared in Sierra Nevada Review, Appalachian Heritage, and Witness Magazine, where her essay “Attic Bats, Modern Love” received a nomination for the Pushcart Prize.