The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo, 368 pp, RL: TEEN
The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo
A verse novel, there is a poem that comes toward the end of The Poet X titled, "'You Don't Have to Do Anything You Don't Want to Do.'" These are words spoken to Xiomara, the Poet X, by her English teacher after the major climactic moment you know is coming from the first page of this stunning, unforgettable story. A first generation Dominican-American born to older parents - a mother who wanted to become a nun and a philandering father who took the birth of his son and daughter, twins, as a sign - Xiomara is walled in by what everyone else wants for her, expects from her, fears for her. Tall and with, as her mother says, "'a little too much body for such a young girl," Xiomara has forced herself to have thick skin to shield her from the unwanted comments - and touches - of the men and boys in her Harlem neighborhood and at school, letting her knuckles talk for her. Her religious, ultra-strict mother explodes if she even hears that she has been talking to a boy and blames Xiomara for for the unwanted attention she gets. She is also used to protecting her brother, Xavier, or Twin, as she calls him. Physically smaller, but a brilliant student (he has skipped a grade and goes to a magnet school) Xiomara is saddened that he seems unable to protect her from the men outside their apartment and their mother inside, she takes the responsibility on herself.
The only thing Xiomara can connect with in her narrow world is the page - or the words she puts on the page when she writes poetry. Through the poetry club at her school - and her perceptive, empathetic English teacher - Xiomara begins to find confidence and power in her writing as she opens up and shares, with her club and on stage at a poetry slam. Xiomara also opens up to Aman, even though she knows her mother's fear of sexuality and fierce grip on Xiomara will only lead to a bad ending. As Xiomara finds her voice in her writing and through her relationship with Aman she finds the connection, meaning and definition she has been yearning for, writing in the poem, "Compliments,"
And, although I'm used to compliments
they're rarely ever about my thoughts,
so I can't stop the smile that springs onto my face.
I make sure to swallow it before it blooms too big.
The ending Acevedo's delivers in The Poet X is deeply rewarding and gratifying and without compromise. Acevedo's writing, Xiomara's voice, is so powerful that (despite it being almost four decades ago, as well as a time I'd rather not revisit) I connected with the feelings of isolation, ignorance, fear and yearning to know another person as well as know myself, that Xiomara experiences. I say it almost every time I review one, but verse novels constantly amaze me. With an economy of words, authors somehow manage to tell powerfully intense stories. I am in awe of and grateful for every verse novel that I read. I'll leave you with two stanzas - words and thoughts that jumped off the page at me:
From "What We Don't Say,"
On the train ride home
Twin steps into his feelings
like they're a gated-off room
I don't have visitation rights to.
From "Around and Around We Go,"
And now his smile is a little sad.
And I think of all the things we could be
if we were never told our bodies were not built for them.
Coming May, 2019!
Read a preview of With the Fire on High, the story of Emoni, a teen mom in Philadelphia with a gift for cooking, here.