The title of Jo Reyes-Boitel’s chapbook (though not their first book overall) mouth (Neon Hemlock, 2021) fits the work perfectly since the poems within not only have a taste—yes, they leave you with sensations, and not always pleasurable ones (that would be too simple)—but, in a sense, this work is a warm and welcoming darkness; something not-quite-formed that both ingests and expels and is slippery to get hold of. Something hot.
The book begins with two quotations, one from the iconic American lesbian poet Adrienne Rich and one from brilliant queer and Chicana theorist, Gloria Anzaldúa—who, like Reyes-Boitel, was born in the American Southwest. The quotations talk about women, monsters, and magic, which is exactly what follows. The poems in mouth exist like compatriots, standing side-by-side on facing pages, as if sheltering the narrator from the outside. They stress that this is a work about queer love, self-love, but also about queer intimate partner violence. In “what you say in your own head,” the peacefulness of a domestic setting is shattered not just by violence but by the narrator’s ambivalence: “her hand, wrapped tight around the back of your neck, is for your own safety,” they say. Like the narrator of the latter poem, the poems in this book oscillate between silence and screams, reflection and action. In “what is required in survival,” the narrator urges: “find the gentle within you. circle it with a fire. then molten glass. chains. a moat. that dream you had of a quiet moment.” You can feel the tension in the speaker, coiled like a spring, raw nerves ready to jump at any action or word except their own. They take us into the tension familiar to so many survivors of domestic violence, between being silent and alone or speaking and constantly measuring the words you say.
In the middle of the book, the poems expand to prose poetry before once again becoming slender. The center of this expansion is the understated, quietly heartbreaking “The Contradictive Nature of a Queer Mother Trying to Get Laid.” While this is the collection’s most straightforward narrative, it is also the most deeply personal, weaving together the pain of displacement—whether because one is queer, an immigrant, or displaced from the self they used to be and the community they inhabited. “I deserve it and need to be silent because I’m the mother and so I should be the one who takes it all. That is what every mother does. That is what every queer femme does. We soothe. We acquiesce,” explains the narrator. At this point in the book, the narrator is still tamping down their own needs for those of others’ and struggling with how to reconcile being an empty, needless creature with the visceral, desiring person they feel themselves to be.
In Queer Phenomenology, Sara Ahmed asks readers to rethink queer in terms of spatial orientation. According to her, “bodies take shape through tending toward objects that are reachable, which are available within the bodily horizon.” That is, bodies orient themselves towards what they desire. But Ahmed’s title has another inflection: what if queerness was a way to shift dominant perspectives and hegemonic narratives into new, joyful orientations? Desire is a prevailing theme in mouth, which the narrator explores using commonly embodied experience like hunger, cold, and descriptions of food being eaten and made: peanut butter and jelly, and particularly figs. Desire is complex, and the narrator is surprised at their own experience of an inversion of food from sensual and nurturing to threatening, tasteless, a metaphor for dreams lost or maybe for the encroachment of reality: “each word a wasp becoming a flower. A death drum leading the wasp on. A cadence that must be released or it risks becoming anger. The child to hunger, to anger. A parent who begins to fear they cannot hold this thing back. A parent now filled with their own fear of desire.”
In one poem, the narrator asks, “what will the moon be called after the last conqueror has died?” Yet in the next poem, “attachment style,” they assert that “the moon will never belong to anyone but herself.” The burdens and scars created by both men and mankind cut through both a narrated literal landscape and the topography of the narrator’s body, crossed by many overlapping histories. “And that one chance room where you made me mounted deer to your huntered heart.” To escape the narrator remakes themselves into a deer, a dead woman, a swipe of lipstick… but reminds us in the bloated middle that they always remain a mother, a queer person, a person at the borderlands. Ultimately, the narrator comes out victorious, the sole inhabitant of their body and their stories, against those who would gaslight, hurt, and erase both. The mouth in mouth takes panicky breaths, is full of blisters, learns to live in uncomfortable silence, is not willing, smiles, stretches, and ultimately sings and transcends or maybe burrows deeper into its rooted body.
Anna Mirzayan is an arts writer, poet, researcher, and doctoral candidate in Theory and Criticism. She is currently based in Pittsburgh, where she is the editor-in-chief of the Bunker Review at Bunker Projects. Her poetry chapbook, Donkey-girl and Other Hybrids, was published in 2021 by Really Serious Literature. You can find some of her writing at art-agenda, Square Cylinder, and Hyperallergic. She is the current social media/graphic design intern at Sundress Publications.