Witch Wife by Kiki Petrosino
Sarabande, 2017. 72 pp.
Reviewed by Emily Pérez
Kiki Petrosino’s Witch Wife is a bildungsroman that weaves fairy tales into 90s mixtapes as the speaker evolves from awkward-bodied adolescence, through first romance and heartbreak, to marriage and the consideration of children. With a nod to the coveted, mysterious woman of Millay’s poem “Witch-Wife,” Petrosino reveals that power and self-possession can co-exist with ambivalence and doubt.
The first poem, “Self-Portrait,” an inverse mirror of Blake’s “Little Lamb,” portrays a “Little gal” knit together like a doll with a “purse between [her] legs.” In asking the girl “who knit thee?” it introduces one of the book’s questions: who owns the female body?
In the opening section, the speaker’s body is a loathed object. While it has the dieter’s sought after but useless “thigh gap,” the speaker refers to her body as “worse / than a war zone,” having “ballooned to a specific kind of ugly.” The self-hating tone could repel a reader— were the feelings not so resonant, the language not so gorgeous, the imagery not so surprising, as in “First Girdle”:
For this glob of a girl who feeds like a grub. For her teeming belly apron. For her frowning navel, sunk like a moon in the night-night lake. For the soft eggs of flab that hatch in her.
Despite the visceral discomfort of the scene—“soft eggs of flab” hatching!—Petrosino makes something so mesmerizing that the reader cannot look away.
Petrosino’s use of forms that rely on repetition—villanelle, pantoum, ghazal, sestina—also fix the reader in the moment of discomfort. In the villanelle “Pastoral,” one of the lines that appears with slight variants four times in the poem is “We drank & I bled all the way home.” Through juxtaposition, the drunken celebration merges with bloody self-abnegation; furthermore, the blood becomes a sign of self-harm and menstruation all at once. Like the girdle, the formal structures hold us in place; like the girdle, the formal structures make “pretty” what would otherwise feel unruly.
The book soars in its last section, where the speaker has gained maturity but still struggles with the body’s questions. She has a “good belly for twins,” but does she prefer the “lungful of gold [she] can keep for [her]self” that comes “every month [she] does not try” for children? Again Petrosino uses repetition—returning again and again to ambivalence about procreation so that we cannot look away.
The title poem speaks of a woman who “conjures the perfect Easter,” not in the sense of baked ham and dyed eggs, but by
wrangling life from the dirt. It all turns out
as I’d hoped. The warlocks of winter are dead
& it’s Easter. I dig up body after body after body
with my pink gloves, my green gloves.
She is both earthly and spiritual—conquering warlocks and digging up what’s been buried—an act of resurrection or reckoning. The pink and green nod to Millay again, and the speaker reaches into that poetic past and beyond, while also wrangling life from dirt, anticipating spring.
Emily Pérez is the author of House of Sugar, House of Stone, and the chapbook Backyard Migration Route. She earned her MFA at the University of Houston, where she was poetry editor for Gulf Coast and taught with Writers in the Schools. Her poems have appeared in journals including Poetry, Diode, Bennington Review, Borderlands, and DIAGRAM. She teaches English and Gender Studies in Denver, where she lives with her husband and sons.