You can trace the verse novel’s roots to epics such as Gilgamesh and the Odyssey. Although a clear narrative form, the epic still favors poetics. The modern verse novel attempts a stronger balance between those two strains of this hybrid genre. We’ve seen permutations as diverse as Vikram Seth’s The Golden Gate (inspired by Pushkin’s nineteenth century verse novel, Eugene Onegin) to Nabokov’s brilliant, Pale Fire. Recently, the form has become popular, especially in young adult literature. Latinx writers have contributed greatly to YA fiction titles featuring verse. Among the stand-outs are Juan Felipe Herrera’s Downtown Boy, Guadalupe Garcia McCall’s Under the Mesquite, and the many written by Margarita Engle. It’s not surprising to find Elizabeth Acevedo’s award-winning contribution, The Poet X, added to this growing literary legacy.
The story in The Poet X is not a new one, especially to Latinx literature. Fifteen year old Xiomara Batista struggles to navigate growing into her body within a machista, over-protective cultural environment. Her religiously fanatical mother monitors every move she makes and intends to keep her daughter pure in body and spirit. She does this by having her attend church and confirmation classes regularly.
In what has become almost a standard trope in Latinx literature, her father is ‘absent,’ although in this case not physically. He inhabits space in the house but it’s mami who raises the kids. So, the brunt of the tyrannical maternal parenting mainly falls on Xiomara. Her twin brother is obedient, a good student, and male (later we learn he’s closeted). Xiomara, on the other hand, is rebellious, questioning and views the world askance. She is also a young woman trying to fit comfortably into her “unhide-able” body. One her mother says is “a little too much body for such a young girl.”
What makes this story uniquely different is that Xiomara is a spoken word poet. This verse novel is therefore not your typical bildungsroman. It is, in fact, a künstlerroman: a writer’s coming of age story. Xiomara’s journey is not only about navigating through the confusion and variable emotions of adolescence. She is also contending with trying to find her voice as a poet. This theme makes the poetry in the book organic and central to the story.
Acevedo was a National Spoken Word Champion whose performance I’ve had the pleasure to experience. She is an exceptional spoken word poet whose voice and confidence are at their peak. The connection between writer’s life and the narrative is evident, although it’s hard to imagine that Acevedo could have ever been as shy and timid as Xiomara. That connection, however, gives genuine power to the storytelling. That is the sad irony of the journey narrated in The Poet X. Here is a young, talented woman whose culture and family operate to silence her even as they nurture her in other ways.
The titles of the three parts of the novel are revealing. They outline the progression of the story and its most important themes: Part I, In the Beginning Was the Word; Part II, And the Word Was Made Flesh; Part III, The Voice of One Crying in the Wilderness. Clearly, this book is about “the word.” How a poet discovers the power of the word and how that power resides within her body. How the poet eventually manifests that power through the written word. Finally, how the poet transforms that word into voice and discovers the sense of loneliness that every creative person experiences in the act of creating.
Like all good novels there are subtexts, of course. Acevedo deftly interweaves these other layers within the main künstlerroman motif. So, we follow Xiomara as her attraction to Aman develops into something deeper. Their prohibited (and sinful to her mother) rendezvous are rendered lovingly through Xiomara’s poems. These are the most touching poems in the novel as they combine an adolescent innocence with an emerging sensuality. She pours these feelings into her journal, which the mother finds, with explosive and dire consequences.
At the novel’s crucial moment, the mother, with all her religious wrath, squares up to a daughter who has found her voice and is no longer afraid to use it, or willing to relinquish it. What follows are a series of events that to this reviewer felt rushed, especially the transformation of the mother, who is such an intractable character that the resolution seems too pat. But perhaps the problem lies with the genre rather than Acevedo’s obvious talent.
The challenge in writing a verse novel is to maintain a balance between the qualities inherent in both poetics and narrative. Not an easy feat. In a standard novel, Acevedo might have had more space to flesh out the mother. She wrote over two hundred poems to bring coherence and structure to the story. It’s a challenge to write so many poems and have each one be a poetic gem when some of them have a specific narrative function. For that reason, some of the poems are powerful and sensuous, while others simply fulfill a need.
The Poet X is an enjoyable, riveting story that needed telling. This is a book deserving of its recognition and praise. Acevedo has written an award-winning verse novel that contributes a different perspective and voice to the genre and to YA literature.
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