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Review: Kimberly Ann Southwick Brings Us Ineffable Vibes in ‘Orchid Alpha’

By Tomas Maldonado


It’s a rainy, grey Saturday morning and I’m up early at the butt crack of dawn, watching a documentary on YouTube about James Joyce’s Ulysses. The window of my simple apartment is slightly ajar, enough to let in the misty smell outside. I’m simultaneously multitasking with breakfast while also beginning a collection of poetry for a book review, this book review.


Photo: Trembling Pillow Press

I feel as curious and flabbergasted as Leopold Bloom walking through Dublin, only my wanderings are sedentary and literary in nature. I’m starting to realize that there’s something almost Joycian about Dr. Kimberly Ann Southwick’s debut collection of poetry, Orchid Alpha, published by Trembling Pillow Press in April of this year. A few weeks back, I was scrolling through X world when I came across Southwick posting about its release. After a quick repost and an expressed interest in a review, I received a DM with instructions on how to get a digital copy for my very eager poetic curiosity.


Twenty poems in, and I get lost in the whole shebang - its musicality, its rhythm and syncopation, its enjambment, its free verse. I think about the first poem Sigmund Freud & I Are Blackout Drunk with its reference to a popular drink named after Joyce, “it might be the language I normally understand / but I had too many James Joyces at the blues bar / & my face is a cracked mask, my brain underwater.” Something powerful about the brain being underwater resonates with my own mental reckoning except, at the moment, I’m drunk off of life and high on anxiety. I don’t know where this is going or how to explain it, but I think I like it. So, onward I read.


Maybe it’s the stream of consciousness and sexuality interwoven throughout the verses perpetuated in poems such as Venus Isn’t Even Retrograde Yet where the speaker has us wondering if they are cheating or merely fantasizing, “I imagine 88 cocks, black & white, / lined up like piano keys, all erect obviously & big as my husband’s, / but one of them is yours. when I play the right song, my fingers / pressing notes from the shafts, they shoot off, but no mess. I learned the song / from my mother who learned it from hers who learned it from hers who…” After a second read, I think, “who cares if it’s real cheating or fantasizing?” because this is poetry, damnit! Deep down what lives rent free in the brain doesn’t really harm anyone, or does it?


Or maybe it’s the politically charged call to reflect on the injustices in our country like we find in Edward Crawford Is Dead, Sheila Abdus-Salaam Is Dead, both recounting the questionable suicides of Edward Crawford – iconically known for being photographed protesting the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and then ironically found dead allegedly self-inflicted – and Sheila Abdus-Salaam – associate judge of the New York Court of Appeals who was found floating face down in the Hudson River allegedly a suicide, “…Edward Crawford is dead, & they say / suicide. Sheila Abdus-Salaam is dead, & they say suicide. we don’t call the police / when our schizophrenic neighbor hits my car with a stick. we don’t want to, we won’t.” The repetition of the wegotism is an inclusive one, it’s not the royal ‘we’ but the ‘we-need-to-get-it-together we.’


Perhaps it’s the complexity of recounting priceless art such as is found in the ekphrastic poem The Birds, The Birds an ode of sorts to Bosch’s triptych masterpiece ‘The Earthly Delights.’ In describing Adam and Eve bonding with God, Southwick outlines, “…not Eve staring / down, her god’s eyes meeting our own, Adam / looking up at his god. Eve’s pubic hair runs golden, invisible, / gathered at the tip of her cunt like a hint or an invitation. / she doesn’t reach for god, instead allows him to grasp her arm / like so many have allowed themselves to be grasped.” When I google Bosch’s painting, my eyes eagerly scan Adam, Eve, and God in the ensuing chaos of the piece. I find them. The rendering is immaculate. And hands down, Southwick has reenacted, in playful and considerate words, my exact sentiments.


As I near the end of the collection, I think, maybe it’s all of the above. But what really strikes me is the balanced brevity of each poem, fifty-nine in total, yet each deeper in meaning than the depths of Bosch’s imagined version of Hell. I don’t know about you, but I rather enjoy my poetry short and sweet. I never have time for a ginormous Walt Whitman twenty-page whopper of a poem unless it’s Coleridge or Shelley expectedly served with a dollar wine glass and a dark bottle of cheap Merlot.


When I think more about it, these are poems ideal for a graduate creative writing activity in practicing mimesis or the kind to assign in an intro to creative writing for undergrads still wet behind the ears. Beyond that, they’re a set of poems that can be enjoyed just for their pure aesthetic purpose and brilliant wordplay. I make up my mind that I must purchase a hard copy to add to my personal library of poetry collections right next to Bukowski and Warsan Shire. Or maybe closer to Olds and Forche? Decisions! Decisions!


It takes me an hour to read Orchid Alpha in its entirety. Suddenly, I notice everything is over. The James Joyce documentary. My breakfast. The grey skies have cleared. Sun rays rudely beam into the apart bringing along those uninvited dust particles no one but scientists know the name of. I feel a sense of sadness whenever I come to the end of a poetry collection. But then, I think of Southwick’s poem Reminders, “everyone needs a friend who speaks so many languages. everyone / needs to remember how many languages there are on earth, how / the trees speak a language, how the hyacinths speak a language, / how the rain speaks a language. we are at war.”


That phrase “we are at war” finds itself in almost every other line. It rhythmically repeats itself in my mind. It’s anaphoric to the point of being prophetic. It reminds me of Sista Soulja’s battle cry, what we now call ‘a Sista Soulja moment.’ It reminds me of the current wars surrounding us. It reminds me, like Joyce’s Ulysses, that human expression is beyond the effable. It reminds me that sometimes some human beings can convey the ineffable. It reminds me why we need poetry now more than ever.


Check out Kimberly Ann Southwick

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About the Writer:

Tomas Maldonado is a Mexican-American creative nonfiction writer and poet who teaches English for Academic Purposes, Intensive English and English Composition at his local community college and university in South Central Minnesota. He uniquely blends creative writing in his TESL courses while mentoring his multilingual students as they journal their writing experiences via poetry and creative nonfiction. When he’s not taking long walks through Kampala, he’s making snow angels in Mankato.



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