“White Blood” Dives into Personal and Public History and Injustice in Virginia

In her new collection White Blood, Kiki Petrosino concludes the poem “Instructions for Time Travel” with the lines “the dead are always saying / what they always say: / Write about me.” The dead are present throughout this superb book, Petrosino’s fourth, whether they are ancestors whose lives she has researched, the ghosts of Sally Hemmings and the many other slaves from Thomas Jefferson’s plantation, or the writers preceding her whose echoes can be heard throughout White Blood. Petrosino shows impressive range, including stand-alone and blackout poems and even a double crown of modified sonnets. Regardless of form, she depicts the complexity of race relations and racial identity in Virginia from Jefferson’s time to the contemporary moment.

The sonnet cycle tells the story of a young woman’s experiences in college, including the “prized letter they let me / in with,” accusations on behalf of “those white kids / whose turn (some said) I took,” and confrontations with doubt: “How was I the dream, the hope, of the slave?” It’s difficult to decide on a stand-out or two from this cycle, but sonnets 3 and 4, with their references to potential touchstones, demand praise. “She seeks that middle / note some never reach,” the speaker of sonnet 3 explains, considering, “How / to write, with only thick white ink / & not be thought a cheat?

Reading these lines, I recall Langston Hughes’s “Theme for English B,” whose student-speaker wonders, “So will my page be colored that I write? / Being me, it will not be white.” Hughes conveys the challenge of writing an essay expressing one’s true self without writing something that a white teacher will view exclusively through race. Petrosino writes from the perspective of a Black writer faced with “distinguished men / [who] appear in battalions of charm. / They will not speak to thee.” What to do, then? Should she put on “thick white ink,” risking being called a mimic? Or should she write from her own perspective, one lacking in role models, based on the “battalions” of presumably white writers she is presented with?

While she does not reach a resolution within that poem, she pushes onward with that line of thought in sonnet 4, which invokes W.E.B. DuBois’ concept of double consciousness:

I ate
the beautiful books I bought
with borrowed funds
& swallowed down
that two-ness one ever feels.
My body’s debt: silent slab.
I knew I was a living lab.

While even “those white kids / whose turn (some said) I took” often experience college as an experiment in self-identity formulation, DuBois’ two-ness makes this territory even more fraught. Sonnet 15, composed of lines from the previous fourteen, concludes with Petrosino’s speaker persisting despite the historic pressures: “Camelot will not stay, or let me, either. / How am I the one they dreamed? / I go dreadful, seeking an inland light.”

“Farm Book” considers Jefferson’s legacy in light of the speaker’s own past. While “At sixteen, [slaves] went / to the ground if Mr. Jefferson thought they couldn’t learn to make nails or spin,” the speaker, at that age, “couldn’t / describe the route to my own home, couldn’t pilot / a vehicle, could hardly tell the hour on an analog / clock.” Still, the speaker develops into a professor who “rush[es] to class beneath a bronze / Confederate” — a tangible, and timely, reminder of how far we still have to come. The veneration of the Confederacy continues throughout the South, and though such an attitude is receiving more and more pushback, monuments such as the one mentioned above continue to be on display. The speaker of this poem, however, “live[s] in language / on land they left. I have no language to describe this.” Jefferson’s name, like those of so many plantation owners, may be on the land, but it is the slaves who cultivated it, who made it what it is. Petrosino urges us not to forget them and their contributions, just as she notes the importance of her ancestors for her privileged position as one who “live[s] in language.”

Petrosino is a marvelous poet, capable of mining Jefferson’s writings for impressive blackout poems, of deftly conveying her research into her ancestry, not to mention writing the far-ranging sonnets described above. No matter the form or subject matter, each poem demonstrates her mastery as a poet. White Blood is a timely reminder of the importance of acknowledging the past, whether so as not to repeat it, in some cases, or to celebrate those who came before.

White Blood: A Lyric of Virginia
Kiki Petrosino
Sarabande Books
Published May 5, 2020