Reviewed by Christopher Gonzalez
Nichole Perkins’s poetry collection, Lilith, But Dark, begins and ends with childhood memories. In the opening poem, “Sylvan Park Elementary,” we’re introduced to a black girl whose intelligence is both questioned and envied by the “red-headed, freckled girls” in class. We see her on the school yard where “bussed in girls” like her roughhouse with boys down hills—“real live Jacks and Jills, broken crowns and stinging pink-white knees.” Right here, in the very beginning, Perkins plants her overarching themes—misogynoir, classism, gender roles, love and sex, the visibility of certain bodies over others—on the school playground, in the interactions between the speaker and her schoolmates.
It’s a bold choice, and an effective one, to open with childhood. After all, it is in those early years that we are first made aware of our differences. Once, I was playing with my brother and some of our cousins in a gravel-covered lot. Across the street lived an elderly white man. He shouted at us from behind his screen door when he saw us picking up the gravel; he threatened to shoot us if we hit his van, said all of us Puerto Ricans needed to take our asses back to the island. I was maybe seven or eight at the time. Though the scenes Perkins lays out for us aren’t as explosive in tone like the one from my memory is, they serve similarly—as formative events for the speaker, providing a foundation on which the collection is built.
Indeed, during my first full read of Lilith, But Dark, on an hour-long subway ride from Brooklyn to the Bronx (perhaps this is not how one should read a collection this rich, but I highly recommend it: fully immersed, eyes glued to the pages, invisible to surrounding straphangers), I needed to pause on a number of occasions to connect later moments in the collection back to this opening. It’s my way of understanding everything from my own memories to the books I read: how can I find my way back to the start?
There is, for example, the recurrence of color: red hair and freckles, attributes of classroom enemies, become attractive features on future crushes and lovers, like a boy whose “name was a kiss to say” in “The Boy with the Freckles”:
The freckles against his lips were
evidence of Cupid’s strings,
that trickster making this boy’s mouth
a distraction, a constant target.
Even more significant is the violence that occurs between the girls and boys on that hill, their scars and scrapes a product of a childhood game, which feels like foreshadowing of more violence to come. In “Harvard,” an awkward kid in class becomes the victim of a motorcycle accident. In “berserker,” the speaker witnesses her father, drunk and angry, abusing her mother. To that end, there’s something else set in motion by the hill game—a toxic dynamic in which boys channel their frustrations into acts of similar abuse. In “Tamara,” for example, the boys detest the poem’s titular classmate because she’s the fastest runner and always beats them in races. Her abilities make her a target, too, but not at all like the lips of the aforementioned freckled lover.
When she beats them all,
there was always one who’d yell in her face
and try to push her down,
but Tamara knew how to deal with that, too.
The fact that Tamara needs to know how to deal with these boys is a seed of survival that sprouts into other areas of life. Lilith, But Dark builds in this way, the passage of time within the chronology working to postmark how rules change, and roles shift. In poems centered on a moment in the speaker’s adult life, new battlegrounds are created. Dating and relationships are the extension of the hill game. In one of my favorites, the aptly titled, “White Boy Hunting,” we see how flirtation becomes a weapon, perhaps another form of survival and self defense:
We lacquer ourselves in
pussy pinks and rent-paying reds
fluff our hair to maximum ‘fro.
They want to touch it—kinky and soft.
We keep our dancing simple
but our hair isn’t the only thing
soft with tricks.
This poem, like so many in the collection, including the opening poem, presents an example of our speaker navigating an interaction with whiteness, specifically white men. It is no longer a classroom of skeptical girls, but a new space with rules of its own. A later poem, “#ebony,” which Perkins cleverly presents as a single wall of statements from white guys desperately seeking to pick up a black women (“I love the contrast of our skin,” “I’ve always loved black women,” etc.), reveals the predictable nature of these interactions, how they can be broken down into a list, how palpable the fetishism and desperation of the men is. “#ebony” is a fascinating callback; it works as a great poem on its own, then made even better in its ability to enhance and expand the snapshot offered in “White Boy Hunting.”
But that is just one aspect of Perkins’s style that makes the poems in Lilith, But Dark sing together so beautifully. The way meaning builds on images or colors, the callbacks, how poems earlier in the collection are illuminated by the later poems, and then re-illuminated when read again from beginning to end. It works very much like life—the wisdom Perkins gains is used to reflect back on those earlier experiences, giving them their meaning. She takes us from a series of childhood memories through an adulthood bubbling with joy and love and heartache and loss and pain, and then, in the end, we’re brought back to that little girl again, in “Avon for Life,” the final poem. A moment of play, this time her mother’s makeup and perfumes her tools; she is taking in all their wonders, mysteries. But she is no longer confused or naïve about the world.
I read this ending again, now, and feel hopeful—that looking back is a gift. That maybe there are treasures even I might discover about myself.
And as for Perkins, in her cool and confident voice, she leaves us with this self-reflection: “There is a woman,” she writes, “heady and blooming.” There is, yes, and she wrote a hell of a debut.
Christopher Gonzalez grew up in Cleveland and now lives and writes in New York. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Third Point Press, Cosmonauts Avenue, jmww, Split Lip Magazine, Pithead Chapel, The Acentos Review, and elsewhere. In addition to his role as a fiction editor at Barrelhouse, he currently works in book publishing and serves as a contributing editor at Split Lip. You can find him online at www.chris-gonzalez.com or on Twitter @livesinpages.