Kiki Petrosino


In. I got in. That is, inland
to the inmost place, my Albemarle
blue ink on the letterhead
orange slit in my thumb
in the innards of each fingerpad
so deep, you could not prize me
out of my acceptance, how
I prized the letter they let me
in with, into that indwelling spot
where I grew like a braid
in bad light, in some bind—
Honors-of-honor, my crown
grew all season. Circlet of torches
blooming on the hill. 


Blooming across hills, I was
a girl of blooming sense. Of slip
& colored sedge. A floret.
The stem of my neck spiked
up from my lanyard. My head
leaned & looped, sunwards.
Back then, my body filled a chair
—plant body, water body—
Back then, in that weedy way
—seed girl, scholarship girl—
but I didn’t feel so heavy, didn’t yet
sense myself turning. That twoness.
Sedge grass spiraling from the root
blade upon blade upon blade. 


Blade upon blade upon blade
a Cavalier grows. In here
the colonnade clink of goblets.
A Cavalier loves her universe:
slashes, shadowed stripes.
She looks center right, or center
justified. She seeks that middle
note some never reach. White heart
of the page, where distinguished men
appear in battalions of charm.
They will not speak to thee. How
to write, with only thick white ink
& not be thought a cheat? We think
& think. We think & think & think. 


To think! Of those white kids
whose turn (some said) I took.
I took it hard.
My turn, my breath.
My package of aid. I made
a massive shape
mid-traipse across the Lawn
or hunched at lunch. I ate
the beautiful books I bought
with borrowed funds
& swallowed down
that twoness one ever feels.
My body’s debt: silent slab.
I knew I was a living lab.


Since I was a living lab
I scythed, skull-clean
my crop of hair.
I buttoned up
my button-downs like tarps
& hummed, in botanical Latin
the notes of my glasshouse
erudition. Now I can’t stop
counting these dents in my ribs
system of stinging whorls
tiny rosettes stelled in my side
for I leaned
so long against that trellis
what I thought were petals, were scars. 


What I thought were petals
were scars. What I thought
was Jefferson was Jefferson
Park Avenue. At ten
o’clock on a Tuesday, what
I thought was just Tuesday
was my Grandpa in Brooklyn
looping the cord about his neck
testing the clear, tensile
mettle of the cord before
he dropped over. What happens
when the beloved body
drops its flowers? Every flower drops
over the top of the door. 


At the choir leader’s door
I stood, offering guests
chilled shrimp bites
woodsy darts of rosemary.
I waited with the tray
she’d given me & peered
back through her Pavilion.
Orchestration of deepening grids:
silver, silver, silk. One whole
chamber just for books. With
my eyes, I robbed it bare. No one
saw me chomp the chandelier.
It went down, a carnival onion.
My jaws grew: salt-sharp & strange. 


Let my jaws be His salt shovels.
Let my eyes be His cannonball clock.
Let my feet be the dark birds He keeps in a cloud.
Make my chest His chinaberries, their medicinal ring.
Make of my side His smokehouse smell
& my arms His lettuce, dipped in French light.
Turn my scalp blue from the smoke of His fires.
My debts, at lunch—let them be His glass doors.
Turn my neck into His turning buffet.
Ain’t my breath His dumbwaiter loaded with wine?
Ain’t my thoughts His nail rod, His ice house, His pond?
Look at my skin, nearly shell-edged—O
still this rattle, my heart. Bone dominoes at night.
This rasp in my heart, red leather, His swiveling throne. 


Ha ha my heart, red feather of joy.
Ha! Academical Village, ha! Ha ha, diversity.
Ha! Direct Loans. Ha ha, poetry!
Ha ha ha Eurydice’s pierced foot & ha! My ears
pierced with white stars. Ha, thesis! Ha ha ha
Distinguished Major! My parents divorcing, ha!
Ha! My mother’s secret apartment, plastic smell
of burnt-out headphones, ha ha ha, diploma, ha ha!
Ha ha, library, where I cried for a year & ha
Financial Aid, where I cried for two. Ha ha! My aid
disbursing a few late coins. Ha, cutting my hair & crying.
Ha ha! My Grandpa laid out, his black suit ha ha ha
his collar pinched too ha ha on his neck, remember
in Camelot, how the great thorn trees wept?
Words & blood, words & blood ha ha! 


In Camelot, the great thorn trees wept
over the green page of land. Remember
how light dawned, in chapters.
There, the hems of our garments soaked
in promissory rain. Deep within those
snake-bright grottoes, many vines bore
their fruits of salt & wood. Water &
salt & the smell of books—in Camelot
we cannot live without books.
All of us runaways know
each other by our paper-cuts. Our blood
inks the dark map of the mountains.
You ask me if I believe in forgiveness.
I do, I say. But it is rare.    


I believe in the rare—
how some trees decay with pressure
then resurrect as jet.
I believe in mineral lozenges
formed in the hot black throats
of pine forests, & in the hard belt
pine forests make
as they buckle, at long last
over the beloved larynx.
In the Theory of the Beloved
the living make do with tiny lights.
We wake up in the deep hours
to track where the body has gone:
gem of empty air, brilliant among violets. 


Gem of empty air, my Grandpa
brilliant among violets now. Here
his green shadow condenses.
When I return to his room
trying to cross—that door—
I’m permitted only clouds
of dark leaves, only blossoms
& bee-song: so, so, so. He made
that room—so, what?—his gallows
gibetto or orto. Made a glass lasso.
O, astonishment of glass—O, pain—
O, knowledge, shivering by
my little votive in this stanza where
he will not stay, or let me, either—     


My ghost-life won’t stay, or let me
pull it into order. So I keep ordering
my memories forked, hard-scrambled.
Mine is that pool of slow gold
scraped down to cheerfulness. Mine
that serpentine wall, the forgetting
about crying. Gold look of the air
gathered between mountains, mine too
that graduation in mud before
the Rotunda’s bare belfry.
Who knew me then, yolk-in-shell?
In whose wagons did I ride safe
in my straw nest? Neat trick, close shave.
How was I the dream, the hope, of the slave?    


How was I their dream, their hope?
Born too late to know them or walk
the perimeter of their graves
dug deep in the next county, next
planet, where I couldn’t read the land
or speak the right words in the woods.
I almost drowned in the woods.
Trees turned to water. My head slurred
so I couldn’t tell up from down.
How could they ever dream of me
that first ravenous morning on Grounds
my face a bright vine, twisting south
back along the way they had come
to seek the dreadful light? 


Blooming on the hill
blade upon blade upon blade
I think of flowers
in their living labs. I know
about scars. They become petals
dropping over the door.
A door, a jaw: salt-sharp & strange.
But remember the heart, its red swivel?
Remember the great thorn trees of Camelot?
I do, I say, but they were rare.
Gems of violence, brilliant in space.
Camelot will not stay, or let me, either—
How am I the one they dreamed?
I go dreadful, seeking an inland light.

Kiki Petrosino is the author of three books of poetry: Witch WifeHymn for the Black Terrific, and Fort Red Border, all from Sarabande Books. She holds graduate degrees from the University of Chicago and the University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop. Her poems and essays have appeared in PoetryBest American Poetry, the Nation, the New York Times, FENCE, Gulf Coast, JubilatTin House and online at Ploughshares. She is founder and co-editor of Transom, an independent online poetry journal. She is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Louisville, where she directs the Creative Writing Program. She also teaches part-time in the brief-residency MFA program at Spalding University. Her awards include a residency at the Hermitage Artist Retreat and research fellowships from Virginia Humanities and the University of Louisville’s Commonwealth Center for the Humanities and Society. In recognition of artistic excellence, Petrosino is the recipient of an Al Smith Fellowship Award from the Kentucky Arts Council, the state arts agency, which is supported by state tax dollars and federal funding from the National Endowment for the Arts.