Book Review: The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo (2018)

August 21st, 2018 7:00 am by Kelly Garbato

“I felt it here,” I say.

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review through Library Thing’s Early Reviewers program. Trigger warning for sexual harassment and assault, misogyny, child abuse, and homophobia.)

And I knew then what I’d known since my period came:
my body was trouble. I had to pray the trouble out
of the body God gave me. My body was the problem.
And I didn’t want any of those boys to be the ones to solve it.
I wanted to forget I had this body at all.

(“The Last Fifteen-Year-Old”)

Ms. Galiano asks about the themes and presentation style
but instead of raising my hand I press it against my heart
and will the chills on my arms to smooth out.

It was just a poem, Xiomara, I think.

But it felt more like a gift.

(“Spoken Word”)

Because so many of the poems tonight
felt a little like our own stories.
Like we saw and were seen.
And how crazy would it be
if I did that for someone else?

(“Invitation”)

Some people find novels written in verse gimmicky, but I adore them. I love poetry, but don’t always “get” it, which can be frustrating. (Or, to quote the Poet X: “I don’t always understand every line / but love the pictures being painted behind my eyelids.”) But the poems in verse novels are usually more straight forward and easier to grasp. Plus there’s something about the departure from more traditional narrative structures that just pulls me in. A novel written in verse is just what I need, every once in awhile. And The Poet X might be my favorite to date.

To say that fifteen-year-old Xiomara Batista lives in a strict Catholic household is an understatement. She and her twin, Xavier (but whom X mostly refers to as “Twin” in a way that’s super-endearing) were “miracle babies,” of a sort, born when their Dominican parents were already “old” and had given up on a family. Mami and Papi’s was an arranged marriage; Altagracia would have preferred to marry God instead of the philanderer she ended up with. But she looks at Xavier and Xiomara as her reward for the misery she’s endured.

Consequently, Mami projects all her dreams of extreme religiosity and life in the nunnery onto her children – her daughter especially. Xiomara’s life is strictly regulated, from who she can associate with (talking to guys is not allowed; forget about dating!) to what she can do with her time outside of school (homework, chores, and church good; social life bad). Punishment includes hours spent kneeling on grains of rice in front of her mother’s altar to the Virgin Mary – or a slap across the face. (There’s actually worse, but giving it away would involve spoiling the plot.)

As tall and formidable as Xavier is small and scrawny, Xiomara has always settled conflicts with her fists, much to her mother’s disapproval. As she grows older, Xiomara’s discontent and disobedience only grow and swell. She challenges Father Sean as he espouses the Church’s more misogynist teachings. She falls far her lab partner, Aman, over a pair of shared earbuds at the smoke park. She commits her increasingly “treacherous” thoughts to paper. And then, when Xiomara joins the poetry club at school and eventually enters a slam contest, she commits the gravest sin of all (in Mami’s estimation, that is): she airs her family’s dirty laundry, in public.

The Poet X is … in a word, awesome. Let’s start with the poetry, which is simply delicious. It sings and shouts and sometimes flutters right off the page to punch you in the throat…or heart. There’s so much adolescent discontent and feminist subversiveness here; you could seriously make a whole etsy shop filled with tees and messenger bags using only the verses in this book. Acevedo’s poetry is really something to behold.

And the story itself is dynamic and exciting, but also incredibly sorrowful and heartbreaking. There were some moments when I genuinely feared for Xiomara. It felt like Mami had cleaved my own heart in two when she did The Unforgivable Thing. (Honestly I don’t know how there’s any coming back from that.)

Xiomara is just an amazing character, full of passion and ferocity and righteous indignation. Yet she’s also vulnerable and sometimes rendered voiceless by forces beyond her control. I’m not sure what’s braver – standing up to Mami, or bleeding your feelings onto a hundred strangers, to examine and caress; to ultimately judge; to possibly reject. Though we’re from entirely different backgrounds – race, religion, ethnicity, geography – there was so much in Xiomara’s struggles as a teenage girl to which I could relate (most notably, developing early and having your body become an object of public discussion…though happily, my mother never hit me and called me a slut for using tampons. IS THIS REALLY STILL A THING!?).

Acevedo has created some wonderfully complex and nuanced characters here, especially where the young adults are concerned: Xavier, Caridad, and Aman – they all have so many layers to them. I kind of hope Xavier gets his own book. It would be marvelous to experience this same general time period through his eyes.

I don’t care whether you particularly dig poetry or not; The Poet X is a must read, one of my favorites so far this year.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

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