YA novel 'The Poet X' is an elegiac meditation on poesy and religion

Young poet-protagonist Xiomara must dig deep to reclaim her identity and her voice, in spite of her rough circumstances.

The Poet X By Elizabeth Acevedo HarperCollins Publishers 368 pp.

Five minutes after opening The Poet X, the YA debut from poet Elizabeth Acevedo, I set the book down and tweeted, “Reading #ThePoetX without a pen is an exercise in futility. You will want to underline something astonishing on every single page.”

That feeling never went away. Expect to use up multiple pens on this novel in verse, an elegiac meditation on poesy and religion.

Xiomara Batista, sometimes “X,” is the only daughter of strict Dominican immigrants. She was born a fighter – feet first, fists waving, given a name that means “one who is ready for war” – and she’s been battling ever since.

As a woman in NYC and an agnostic in a devout Catholic household, Xiomara is always on the defensive. Everyone looks at this tough, beautiful girl with a curvy figure, but no one actually sees her. Both she and her twin brother, Xavier, whom she calls “Twin,” struggle to hide their true selves within the family’s small Harlem apartment.

The dominant message seems to be, your words do not matter and your voice should not be heard. For a poet, that dog won’t hunt. Words and a right hook are Xiomara’s weapons of choice; she uses her hands when her voice has been silenced.

Not long into the fall term, Xiomara’s English teacher invites her to join the Spoken Word Poetry Club and compete in local slam competitions. This turns out to be a borderline spiritual experience. Practicing at home, X finds poetry to be a place she can finally “let [her] body take up all the space it wants.”

Throughout the novel, Xiomara ruminates about where she fits, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Her body, she says, “takes up more room than [my] voice.”

“Even with my Amazon frame, / I feel too small for all that’s inside me,” she confesses. (Check out Acevedo performing this poem here.) Much later, Xiomara writes, “I think about all the things we could be / if we were never told our bodies were not built for them.”

Poetry gives X back her voice, but it’s an Eden apple: the poetry club meets on the same night as confirmation class, which X’s mother is forcing her to take.

Señora Batista sees herself as a modern Hannah. Childless for many years, the Batistas view twins as a divine gift and have upended their lives in honor of it. Gregarious, skirt-chasing Papi became quiet, solemn, borderline invisible (“a converted man-whore”). Mami, already pious, became even more fervent (“the only man Mami wanted was nailed to a cross. … / I don’t think Mami’s ever forgiven Papi / for making her cheat on Jesus.”).

Yet Mami cannot seem to grasp that neither X is a Samuel; these two are not on loan from the Lord, not destined for the godliest of lives. For a deep-thinking doubter like Xiomara, confirmation class is just another exercise in biting her tongue and unraveling it later via verse.

“It’s not any one thing / that makes me wonder / about the capital G.O.D. / About a holy trinity / that don’t include the mother,” she writes. “It’s all the things.”

How does the church fit into a woman’s life, she wonders, “when I’m told girls / Shouldn’t. Shouldn’t. Shouldn’t. / When I’m told / To wait. To stop. To obey.” Later on, she rails against being told “to have faith / in the father     the son / in men     and men are the first ones / to make me feel so small.”

What do you do when your parents’ number one priority doesn’t even crack your top 20? Did a young Samuel also strain against parental expectation? Xiomara, gasping for breath in Mami’s straitjacket of criticism and zealotry, casts about for answers.

“What’s the point of God giving me life / if I can’t live it as my own?” she writes. “Why does listening to his commandments / so often mean I need to shut down my own voice?”

Meanwhile, she falls for a guy in her school, Aman, who recognizes her intellect and loves to hear her poems. Their relationship provides some of the sweetest, keenest lines:

“Every time I think about Aman / poems build inside me / like I’ve been gifted a box of metaphor Legos / that I stack and stack and stack. / I keep waiting for someone to knock them over,” she swoons, despite Mami’s voice in her head screaming sin, lust, devil, whore, unholy.

And later, she thinks, “I wanted to tell her [X’s best friend] that if Aman were a poem / he’d be written slumped across the page, / sharp lines, and a witty punch line / written on a bodega brown paper bag.”

“The Poet X” has its share of heavy stuff, to be sure. (There’s also a fair amount of lovely PG-13 content.) But in every devastating moment, every existential wrestle, Acevedo sows seeds of beauty and growth. Xiomara digs deep to reclaim her identity and her voice, in spite of her rough circumstances.

“Maybe,” she ponders, “the only thing that has to make sense / about being somebody’s friend / is that you help them be their best selves / on any given day. That you give them a home / when they don’t want to be in their own.”

Within the verses of “The Poet X,” by turns lean and lush, Acevedo builds that home for her readers. Don’t miss this one.

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