Reading the new selected poems of Wanda Coleman, Wicked Enchantment (Black Sparrow Press, 2020), at the same time as Kristi Carter’s new collection Aria Viscera, I was struck by a resonance of language between Coleman’s poem “Essay on Language” and Carter’s poem “XX: A Negation Ballad.” Not only do both poems making claims about language forms in their titles, but both are interested in the historical and metaphorical movement of circles, particularly as related to trauma. Coleman’s poem opens: “this began somewhere // suggest middle passage. consider the dutch ship / consider adam and eve and pinchmenot.” The ways communities speak, Coleman’s poem reasons, has a historical root and relevance, has violent particulars; for African Americans, the cycle is one of social containment and continued harm. Coleman’s speaker relates a conversation: “blacks think in circles she said. no they don’t / i said it too readily, too much on the defense. of course / blacks think in circles. i think in circles.” The recounted exchange serves to dilate both poetic and social forms, to reveal grammar as inflected by circumstances past and present.
Coleman’s speaker’s resistance to circling, and the practice of circling, also interests Kristi Carter and the poems of Aria Viscera. But in Carter’s poem “XX: A Negation Ballad,” the circling and oppression is owed to gender rather than race, the poem offering a vivid image of such circling: “If to be female is to be your own ouroboros—/ you are born with one arm coming out of your own womb.” Later, Carter’s poem details:
To be your own ouroboros, to be a pit of energy that spirals into neat rings over and over is why you fear repetition, is why you look in the mirror for lines in your face that will etch your mother’s over your own soft, uneven jawline.
The circling of gendered lineage, of mother and daughter relationship, repeats without comma in Carter’s breathless line: “to be a pit of energy that spirals into neat rings / over and over is why you fear repetition.” How do we grow beyond the forms dictated to us by others? How do we become an end in ourselves, rather than a means for someone else?
In an interview with Luna Station Quarterly, Carter comments: “I’ve seen the way that women are coded as producers, commodities of making more, and the narrative of that repeated as an end goal has reductive implications for women as complex entities. Why is motherhood still an end-goal held above all others in the stories people are fed over and over?” Certain communities must “talk in circles” because the issues and narratives are circular, exhausting in their inexhaustibility. The poem “One Orange Streak of Day” notes how,
In this moment, under rain, we cannot distinguish weather from nightfall. This is the same riddle that has haunted me most of my life: what should be routine and what should be sacrifice mimic each other, painful to peel apart.
The environment, a dark sky with one orange streak of light, mimes the blending of the speaker’s thoughts: the gendered conflation of routine and sacrifice for a person inhabiting a woman’s body. Like the mirror that reflects the daughter and the mother’s face together, the natural world is simply another object that appears differently to the woman-gendered viewer. In the speaker’s own words: it is a “haunting” of the self by language that repeats as a riddle.
One of the most striking aspects of Aria Viscera is the high register of Carter’s language—the language of aria, opera and goddesses, of cartography, labyrinth and chiromancy. Ishtar and Nike of Samothrace make appearances. “What is the language we go to when we speak of difficult aspects of our lives, of our families?” is another question Aria Viscera asks. The language of mythos and the forms of opera (aria, oratoria) embody the speaker’s valuing of herself and her life, her storytelling. Something these formal forms of language might distract the reader from is the fact that Carter also writes beautiful lyric at the level of the line and a lower language register. For example, consider these lines from the poem “The Cosmology of the Daughter Who Emerged from an Unrecognizable Place”:
This is the beginning of the muscle in my neck sculpted by a lifetime of looking back. These are the sinews of aspiration: the ligament wishes it could be the eye of God, the only organ that can remember things with neutrality.
The gesture of the backwards glance—a small gesture of mythic proportions (Lot’s wife and Orpheus being two separate traditions of such a glance)—enters Aria Viscera as a fundamental pose for the speaker. Yet the glance has built “muscle,” and is “sculpted” through repetition into strength, the “sinews / of aspiration.” This is a text of gendered empowerment even as it is a text of circling what has failed a person gendered as a woman and a daughter her whole life.
The act of circling enables remaking and variation even as it moves through repetition. Think of the many voices the figure of Mary, the mother of Christ, has been given through new songs, poems, stories. Think of the Rabbinic commentary tradition of midrash, and how it encourages new lessons and insights of old stories through revisitation. In “Another One on Her Name,” the speaker of Aria Viscera revisits her name, Mary, and offers
another theory on why you would name an infant after a woman who watched her son bleed out to underscore public law.
The poem’s narrative does not end on a name invoking the highest example of biblical maternity and gendered sacrifice, but continues with,
Another theory on why you would name my brother after her husband who believed his teenage bride gaslit him with the kerosene lamp in her womb When it caught fire to the world, the scar covered the earth.
The powerful layering of language here—the biblical narrative of Mary and Joseph folded into another family drama, the language of immolation combined with the reimagined “light of the world”—astonishes. Carter’s poem highlights that the manipulative drama of gender is an ancient drama, revisiting the speaker here and now—it “[covers] the earth.”
One specific act repeating throughout Aria Viscera is named by the speaker in “Choke Spell”:
Let me remove your hands from my neck. Let me emerge from the dark closet haunted by your pastel dresses, Dad’s Winchester leaning upright in the back corner. Let my breath stay steady— no halting—when I hear cicada and smell honeysuckle, when I stand between a dusk held up by pines and memory.
That the poem remembers and recollects violence done to the speaker in order to recite (and revoke) a “choke spell” shows the power of self-narration. The poem’s anaphora, built on the repetition of the word “let,” weaves both imperative and supplication into the poem-spell’s fabric. It is a protection spell, but it also asks for permission to undo violence. “Let me avoid your beloved White Zinfandel, and let me / not avoid it just because of you.” Memories, particularly ones of traumatic violence, are not stable presences. Sometimes traumatic memories can lessen over time. Some never do. Some can be denied by the body and mind, and only remembered in time. Some are never recollected. Part of the special work of Aria Viscera is the choice to make songs of the speaker’s trauma. And repetition is essential to singing.
“We, chattel of the world, proceed in singing / our thin hymns, which are purged on the mist / before dawn,” says the speaker in “And the One Doesn’t Stir Without the Other.”
Aria Viscera reveals the gendered pressures of living in a human body and being the child of parents that describe and circumscribe the life of their children according to cultural norms that run deep where the poetry of bodies and the natural world are concerned. Doesn’t the fertility of fruit and the pollination of flowers by bees say something about how a person’s uterus should be occupied—a natural argument for the good of being “fruitful”? Against the persistency of such a reading, Carter’s speaker notes how “every month the news / of vacancy ruins my clothing / with its blood and blackberry pith”—a uterine absence turned to a trace of fruit, while the poem “Unsown” opens:
When they ask her does she want children they mean to ask her does she want to die.
Not so fast—and not so violently—say the poems of Aria Viscera. These tender, valiant poems by Kristi Carter chart paths beyond circles of gendered confinement (motherhood, daughterhood, childbearing) into more promising fields of self-definition. There is something beyond the gendered circles and gendered violence women everywhere experience. What better way to move past such circles than with the poetic line of Kristi Carter.