The first poem in Fort Red Border begins when Robert Redford, cast as the poet’s beloved, is about to shampoo her hard-to-tame Afro with cold well-water he’s tried to warm in the sun. “That’s the point of doing things natural,” she says, wishing the water were warmer: “You get what the sun dishes out, not what you customize. / The sun is not a customizable thing.” The wound at the center of Kiki Petrosino’s remarkable debut is the gap between the dished-out givens of reality and the words and worlds we “customize” out of desire. Each of the book’s three sections dramatizes how even in our high-flying fantasy lives, the ordinariness of the natural reasserts itself as a source of both limitation and, paradoxically, extraordinary beauty.
The title is an anagram for Redford’s name, and the first third of the volume narrates moments from the fantasy love affair as it plays out in midwestern diners, Swiss ski resorts, and the airplane cabins that pass between. In the hands of a less adroit poet, this gesture—dropping a pop culture icon into the near-sacred space usually reserved for “you”—might come off as an easy absurdity, good for a quick laugh; but in Petrosino’s hands, Redford behaves with a casual gentleness that belies his iconicity. His part as ideal lover unfolds with such acute detail and in such quotidian situations (the poems almost always take place when the couple is having a snack) that we’re tempted to forget he is a fantasy, until his name reminds us: “I’m washing dishes at the kitchen sink, & Redford / puts his arms around my waist. He says: I want / to tell you something […] / I hear him / opening the candy wrapper with his teeth.” At moments of euphoria or terror, these poems break into lyricism, but their emphasis on the ordinary comes freighted with its own pathetic power, produced in large part by the suspicion—central to the dramatic lyric since Thomas Hardy—that the ideal beloved is no more than a fictive, temporary presence. The book’s third section, “Valentine,” delivers a series of slanted, aggressive love letters in the colloquial mode of the stand-up comic (“Suppose it was a cold throwdown for my affection. / Who would win, Jack White or Jack Black?”), but behind the smack talk, the sadness remains.
The middle section, “Otolaryngology” (a.k.a. ear- nose-and-throat medicine), forfeits the coherence of its neighbors in favor of a smorgasbord of strategies, including an Oulipian treatment of biracial identity, an ode to the poet’s Afro in the Magna Carta’s idiom, and the hilarious and poignant “Secret Ninja,” a masterpiece of self-ironizing middle-school stoicism: “My lunch—mustard. / Straight from the packet. / No one sits next to me. / Keep working my skills. / Keep circling the word blood / in Macbeth. // Good. // It takes days. / It takes days.” In “Gristle,” a grotesque moment of identification between self and chicken is conveyed with line breaks reminiscent of William Carlos Williams at his best: “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—”
Some readers may take this book’s cornucopia of styles— haute-cuisine beside comfort food—as the sign of a young poet showing off her range at the expense of a square meal. Most, I think, will take it as the natural function of mixed feelings towards lyricism, elegance, and the high (European) cultural “good taste” to which Petrosino finds herself both outsider and heir.