Book Review: Kiki Petrosino's Fort Red Border
The "I" pronoun is a distinctively American dilemma, as Eleanor Wilner has often expressed, and much of the current poetic world wants its readers to accept that the first person pronoun is an archaic word for use only on rare occasions. Modern poets are encouraged to eliminate it as often as possible to avoid sounding egotistical, but as a result, these writers continually distance themselves from their work. In Fort Red Border, however, Kiki Petrosino fearlessly places that personal "I" at the core of virtually every poem. Petrosino also breathes new life into the persona poem, with the entire first section of her book centering on an unnamed female speaker and her lover, actor Robert Redford.
Redford is clearly a central figure for Petrosino's work: the collection's title is an anagram of his name. At times he functions as a representation of the speaker's ideal partner, saying just what she wants to hear, as in "Sense-Certainty":
Do you know says Redford what I was thinking just now? He looks at me, as if through leaves. I was thinking, now I'm with her. Now her body is under my hands. You know that feeling of daybreak? You were stretching away from me, bright. Complete— like when you wake up with dreams of water still trembling on you, & you want to pull yourself down again, like an engine or a flag.
At other times he's a means by which the speaker self-examines, as in "En Route":
how would it be to work in darkness, & who would wait for me in darkness? I thought I will make a tent for him. I make a small tent of my fingertips & look at Redford. His face is a halting city of returns. What do you think will happen I say what will happen? I listen to the car moving its slow metallic tongue. What will happen doesn't have to hurt us, ever. His breath blooms over me, a moth of stillness. Still, still, still—I am burning.
This self examination theme emanates from poems throughout the first section of Fort Red Border, and as the speaker attempts to "find herself" she discovers two opposing states—the real/natural versus the unreal/unnatural—which constantly stand in the way of her self discovery. The effort to distinguish between these two ideas becomes the overarching theme uniting all three sections of Petrosino's work. One wonders by the end whether Petrosino means her speaker to be involved in a real relationship with Redford, or a wholly imaginary one.
In the second section of Fort Red Border, the focus turns from the speaker and Redford to words and speech in general, as in "The Human Tongue Slows Down to Speak":
Now, the swollen deck of summer lolls. The tongue begins & can't begin. To dock the dawn as it swamps the tonsils— To catch the blazing protests down. Such slur of mud in mouth. Such blackened clang & yards not ringing in such house. The tongue stills, lordly.
Petrosino seems particularly interested in repeated speech, as in the short prose poem, "Bitchfoxly":
Is this he asks where you keep it this where you keep it this the board where you keep it the flitch on the palm where you keep it the rotor that keeps it the train of the camlet where keeps it is this where you keep it
The repetition reflects words' inability to express emotions fully. Because words cannot encompass the desired emotional effect through real language, the only solution is to repeat them until they become unreal and thereby make their impact.
The repetitive nature of Fort Red Border's second section foreshadows the poems of the third section, each called "Valentine." Like the previous poems, these teeter on the boundary of real and unreal. In "Valentine [Suppose it was]," Petrosino sets up an imaginary battle between musician-cum-actor Jack Black and straight-up rockstar Jack White over which of the two will be her lover, whereas in "Valentine [In Chicago]," she presents readers with a narrative of a single, realistic evening in which the speaker invites a chef to her apartment, seemingly to have sex, but instead asks him to cook green beans. The valentines are diverse; each offers different ideas and a different aesthetic form from the others, and they're marked out sharply from the poems found in the book's other sections as well.
In short, a line of Petrosino's final poem, "Valentine [Once I wrote]" best expresses this reviewer's opinion of Fort Red Border: "What's not to like about it?" The book presents such a wide variety of poems that any reader will find something interesting to take away from it. The "I" found within Petrosino's poems is never intrusive and always interesting and consistent. The reader sees the same speaker from start to finish as she tries to distinguish between what is real and not in a world filled with that dichotomy, and ultimately finds that the only reality she can be certain of is her own self.