Friday, May 21, 2021

Freeform Friday: The Poet X - Elizabeth Acevedo

This Freeform Friday, we are spotlighting The Poet X, a novel told in free verse poetry.  As you can see by the cover, it has won numerous awards!

Summary:
  Xiomara Batista feels unheard and unable to hide in her Harlem neighborhood.  Ever since her body grew into curves, she has learned to let her fists and her fierceness do the talking.

But Xiomara has plenty she wants to say, and she pours her frustration on to the pages of a leather notebook, reciting the words to herself like prayers -- especially after she catches feelings for a boy in her bio class.  With Mami's determination to force her daughter to obey the laws of the church, Xiomara understands that her thoughts are best kept to herself.  

When she is invited to join her school's slam poetry club, she knows that she could never get around Mami's rules to attend, much less speak her words out loud.  But still, she can't stop thinking about performing her poems.

Because in spite of a world that may not want to hear her, Xiomara refuses to be silent. (Summary from book flap - Image from amazon.com)

NOTE:  I made it about twenty pages into this book before I had to stop and look up Elizabeth Acevedo slam poetry on Youtube.  Spear spoke directly to all the fears that I have for my growing daughters and the world they live in.  Unforgettable, was just that.  Both were incredibly intelligent, emotionally raw, and so disturbingly relevant.  After listening to her spoken poems, I wanted to listen to her read The Poet X, so I checked the audiobook out from my local library.  I definitely recommend listening to it as you read to really get the full effect of her words. 

My Review:  The Poet X is a coming of age novel, written in free verse form that tells the story of a young girl named Xiomara, who lives with her parents and twin brother in Spanish Harlem. On city streets and in school hallways, Xiomara is seen in ways that make her want to hide, objectified and harassed for her curvy appearance.  At home, she is rarely seen for who she is, as both she and her brother are compelled to hide parts of themselves or risk angering their devout Catholic mother.  Xiomara's bites her tongue as best she can and tamps down her pain, her feelings about faith, and her fury in the face of daily injustices.  Instead, she turns to writing, specifically poetry, pouring her feelings into a special notebook, managing her pain with the written word and secretly committing small acts of rebellion until the invitation of a favorite teacher sets her on a path of healing and self discovery. Eventually, Xiomara -- sister, friend, daughter, and fledgling poet -- finds her tribe and the courage and strength to define and speak her truth.

The Poet X touches on several relevant issues, but especially the different forms of sexism, like gender inequality and the sexual harassment, that Xiomara encounters daily and its affect on her.  In her words, I wish / my body could fold into the tiniest corner / for me to hide in. There was a time and place in my life where I felt something similar.  Acevedo's writing brought all that forward, as well as a sense of bitter outrage for all the girls who have ever wanted to hide or be 'less' to keep from gathering unwanted attention and especially those who have ever felt like all that attention was their fault.  The story also addresses Xiomara's dwindling faith, her unanswered questions about religion, and the age-old conflict between living authentically and trying to please a parent.   While I don't personally identify with some of her religious beliefs (or the lack thereof), many of Xiomara's doubts and questions felt genuine and reasonable for someone of her age and experience. 

The Poet X also gives an interesting glimpse into the narrator's Afro-Latinx culture, beliefs, and traditions.  Though the book is primarily written in English, Spanish words are sprinkled throughout.  I speak enough Spanish to know what they were saying, but even if I hadn't the meaning was usually clear from either the context or the narrators own casual translation. The mixed language felt natural and realistic, like what you would expect to hear in a home where the parents spoke primarily Spanish and the children spent their days at school speaking English.  

The Poet X has won several awards, and for good reason.  The parts of the book that really drew my attention were when Xiomara would talk about how boys in the neighborhood and school treated her, how she felt like she wanted to hide in order to escape their attention, comments, and gestures.  I loved the novel-in-verse format and how all the different elements combined, each poem building on to a bigger story.  Xiomara's poems about her mother, brother, and father felt passionate, complicated, and authentic.  What I liked most about The Poet X is that it tells a very relevant story -- that of a girl in pain (for a variety of reasons) and how she is emotionally redeemed by speaking her truth and having that truth acknowledged by others. 

Much of the book centers around X's relationship with her mother and how religion is a catalyst for conflict between them.  X has so many questions about what she is learning in confirmation class -- good, valid, thoughtful questions that deserve to be acknowledged rather than dismissed.  Xiomara and her mother are at odds several times in the book, but one moment in particular stands out.  I won't spoil that moment for you, but as the chaos unfolded, Xiomara's words just poured out of her and I felt her desperation so intensely I could barely breath.  

At times The Poet X was uncomfortable to read. Some of the character's life choices are not ones I would want my daughter to make.  Some of the language and subject matter was relevant to the story, but not my cup of tea.  Example: A poem that explores the pleasure, shame and confusion Xiomara feels when she masturbates.  It wasn't graphic per se, except for the obvious subject matter.  While the poem relates to her natural curiosity and her feelings of guilt....well, I'd just rather not read about it.  I also can't say that I agree with every opinion X holds about religion (nor do I agree with all of her mother's) but I appreciated the opportunity to see the different perspectives.

Personal discomfort aside, there was only one part of the book that felt truly frustrating.  I never got to 'see' Xiomara perform her poems.  Yes, the whole book is a poem and in a way they are all X's words, but I really wanted to feel like a part of the audience when X spoke those words aloud.  I wanted to be able to read them and imagine X giving her all to the performance.  Unfortunately, those particular poems don't make it on the page.  The omission of her performances felt deliberate and I am sure the author has her reasons, but I felt their absence keenly; I wanted to see X fly.  

I don't want to end on a negative, so as I wind this review down, I would like to share my favorite poem from earlier on in the book.  After expresses the character's deep emotional response to relentless objectification and sexual harassment.  I think that many women/girls will identify strongly with this poem, which is why I feel compelled to share it here. In book format it spans a few pages, so I created this image (below) so you could see the visual element and read the full text.  

BONUS: here are a few of my favorite X quotes, as well:  

  • "When your body takes up more room than your voice you are always the target of well-aimed rumors."
  • "...I think about all the things we could be if we were never told our bodies were not built for them.
  • "When I'm told to have faith in the father      the son    in men     and men are the first ones          to make me feel so small."
  • "...the pages of my notebook swell from all the words I've pressed onto them.  It almost feels like the more I bruise the page the quicker something inside me heals."
  • "...words give people permission to be their fullest self. "

Ultimately, The Poet X is a powerful story about a young girl coming to terms with her own feelings about faith, her family, and her own worth.  To a certain extent, I think all women have felt unheard at some point, uncomfortable in our own skin, and undervalued by the people in our lives.  In that way, I think that many readers will relate with Xiomara's story, even if their everyday experiences are dissimilar.  Fans of Jacqueline Woodson's Brown Girl Dreaming, will likely love The Poet X.  While I don't feel comfortable recommending this book to every reader (sensitive reader issues), I do feel that it offered valuable insight and inspiration, and am glad I took the time to read it.

My Rating: 4 Stars

For the Sensitive Reader:  Some profanity and adult themes, including sexual harrassment and assault, questions about sexuality, abuse, etc,   A description of first-period trauma.  One poem about masturbation. A consensual sexual situation (not quite sex).  The main character also has a crisis of faith and some of her feelings, questions, and actions might bother devout believers, specifically Catholics.

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