Book Review: Elizabeth Acevedo's "The Poet X"

Abhilipsa Sahoo reflects on her experience reading the "abundant and healing" novel-in-verse.

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The Poet X by the slam poet, Elizabeth Acevedo, is a compelling coming of age story, chronicled in verse from the perspective of the protagonist, Xiomara Batista, about her blossoming poetic career while living in Harlem which ultimately leads to her liberation and acceptance. Born to Dominican parents, Xiomara Batista perches on the edge of a street in Harlem lively with the sounds of Dominican Spanish.


This is the kind of book that begins with "I will just do 50 pages," but ends up with "finished it in two and a half reads." When I came across the audio book, it absolutely blew me away. It was abundant and healing.


A powerful gut punch, that feels equally powerful even when you’ve seen it coming.


Xiomara struggles with the way her parents’ devout Catholicism hinders her own growth as a woman and feminist, and frequently feels judged by the people in her community because of her desire to speak out against the cultural norms, that she finds dangerous and unhealthy. Her body is consistently scrutinized, commented on and preyed upon, by the young men of her neighborhood, and her freedom is often threatened. At home, she is forced to do the housekeeping and bear the strictness of her parents.


Elizabeth Acevedo uses the subsequent poems to focus not only on the protagonist of our story, but also on the major settings that impact Xiomara’s life, such as the eventual development in the overview of the relationships and roles in the Batista family. Xiomara’s constant rebellious nature comes from her confinement, which instantly makes her the main focus of Mami's harsh criticism. Xiomara's twin, Xavier, is an altar boy living up to his reputation of a dutiful sibling; he represents the challenges that come with homosexuality and religion, whilst breaking the macho stereotype thrust upon many young men. Xiomara’s best friend Caridad, completes the tight group of three; a symbolism of undying love and fidelity, in spite of the differences in ideals.


Acevedo then shifts the attention of the readers to a big, inner city school, Chisolm High, where Xiomara is exposed to several cases of sexual harassment daily. In further poems, such as "Games" and "After," Acevedo details the effect of the harassment on Xiomara’s life and how she begins using her fist to defend herself. Shamed by her mother for these brutal advances, nobody seems particularly inclined to put the blame on the boys – a problem that Xiomara finds appalling. On top of the difficult situation at school, Xiomara has to contend with increasing pressure to complete her confirmation as a Catholic. Acevedo uses poems about moments in the church and confirmation class to establish that Xiomara feels uncomfortable in the church because it does not reflect who she is and makes her feel a sense of shame about her body, which, unsurprisingly, leads to one of her earliest rebellions.


Xiomara finds some solace at school when she joins an after school slam poetry club, where her words and ideas are taken seriously. She begins to realize that poetry is a medium through which she can discover herself, an important aid to reclaim her identity. Having an outlet for the fear, frustration, and confusion that she feels every day is healing for Xiomara, though, initially, her parents are skeptical of her writing and the way she is putting herself on display through performance. At school we meet Xiomara’s main influence in pursuing poetry. Ms. Galiano is Xiomara’s enthusiastic English teacher who runs the poetry class and eventually persuades Xiomara to join. There, Xiomara meets her romantic interest, Aman, who provides many difficulties both internally and externally, due to conflict with Mami’s religious beliefs, but is very respectful of Xiomara’s boundaries. He also encourages Xiomara to continue her work in poetry.


The Poet X demonstrates Acevedo’s skill in storytelling as well as in poetry as she brings the events of the story to a close in the final poetry slam, where Xiomara is cheered on by all the important people in her life. The novel comes to an end with the celebration of this successful outing and an essay in which Xiomara uses a verse from Psalms to describe how poetry has made her feel powerful.


It is essential to share stories like Xiomara's in order to explore sensitive subjects with the delicacy and poignancy exhibited by Acevedo's work. Many women, especially those belonging to the young adult demographic, are able to resonate strongly with Xiomara, who truly lives up to the meaning of her name: “someone who is always ready for a battle.”

 

Abhilipsa Sahoo is a Foyle Commended Young Poet 2019 from Odisha, India. Her poems have previously appeared in The Heritage Review, Teen Ink, The Metaworker, Genre: Urban Arts, The Soapbox Press, and several anthologies. She has also shared space with Tishani Doshi and Rudy Fransisco in the Airplane Poetry Movement's anthology, "A Letter A Poem A Home." She is an avid reader and ice-cream scooper and occasionally reviews books. You can find more of her work at www.abhilipsasahoo.carrd.co.

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