By Joanna Acevedo
stemmy things by imogen xtian smith.
Nightboat Books, 2022.
imogen xtian smith’s new collection, stemmy things, is sexy—rooted in the body, rooted in the heart. Forthcoming from Nightboat Books in October, 2022, the collection is a lush, expansive exploration of the trans body and all of the iterations it can take. “its okay to be this gay / bae / soaked in gender / tender w want—” smith says early in the collection, in the poem “wild geese with transsexuals and acid” (23), and for just a few brief moments in their magic universe, it is. The collection is transformative in the best way, allowing each and every reader to be their best self through smith’s words, finding themselves in between the skip-stops of their girldom and queenhood. smith doesn’t hold anything back, cussing frequently and creating their own words out of conjunctions and abbreviated words, but the result is a tapestry of language that beguiles, tricks, and teases. This is a collection which will be meaningful for every young person just starting to find what it means to create their own sense of personhood and a collection revolutionary for every adult who has already done so and never had the language to explain what it felt like.
smith constantly experiments with form. Each poem is a new entity, words marching across the page with abandon. Early in the collection, smith opens the door to the most important of questions: “How to make a poem that helps, that’s not just a shiny thing, forthcoming, / a degree? Maybe the oracle knows” (31). This poem leaps and springs across the page, but its message is even more important. What is the poet’s role in society? We are more than just mouthpieces, we are communicators and excavators, we are the mirror that reflects society. smith struggles with all of this and more, and their poems are far more than just shiny things. They are war cries.
In “here,” smith says, “You notice everything & want to live / in that noticing” (35). This is such a poetic notion, for poetry is the science of noticing; that is precisely what writing is. Here, smith reveals themself as a writer of the highest kind, the kind who is aware of the machinations of writing itself. To conclude “here,” smith says, “You notice / this & want to live in that noticing— / how everyone’s already saying / everything there is to say” (36). In this, we see a more technical poem from smith, a more traditional poem: measured, rhythmic stanzas, no flagrant experimentation or made-up words. It’s refreshing to see such a poem from smith, whose exuberance borders on exhausting, but their revelations about the world are no less exciting in this form. smith is saying something new, however, which is the power of this poem and the power of their work overall.
smith takes on colonialism in other poems, like in “year of the rat,” in which they question Germany, Europe, and the whole history of colonization, what it means to be in a body, and whose body goes where. “Who & what survives a colony, a diaspora, a so-called global community? Who & what survives the 15th, 16th, 17th, 18th, 19th, 20th, 21st centuries? Birds? Bees? What must we become in order to?”(52). Here they are in sheer prose poetry, the directness of the writing belying the complexity of the ideas. Then they quickly pivot in a way that is uniquely theirs, moving to: “Every day awake i wanna be a flapper girl, wanna get fucked tonight by one, maybe two pplx of indeterminate gender…” (53), the sheer gender euphoria of the poetry shining through. “i love being alive—is that crass of me” (54)? smith quips. No, it’s not crass. It’s beautiful.
Hot emotion runs throughout the collection. In “desire goes nowhere but somewhere sometimes,” smith says,
What would it feel like not to hoard anxiously over
tomorrow? Is your heart okay, dearest? Is your heart
a pumping, fisty, blood-plumb thing? Now is always
the time for crying. Our tears make us look like
the fierce-ass femmes we are. (79)
smith’s tender concern over the state of not only their heart, but our hearts, is touching. This is characteristic of smith, who frequently references the reader, checks in with them, asks them if they’re all right, if they’re moving along with the collection in a meaningful way. This interactive experience with a poetry collection is refreshing, and the breaking of the fourth wall bleeds into every poem, bringing the reader deeper into the collection and making them a part of its universe.
“Look at all us making poems at the end of the world. / Some things bear repeating—like how’s your heart?” says smith in “a dream is a want at its wildest,” one of the final poems in the collection, which explores poem-making at its core. Poem-making is at the depths of this collection—the rampant, urgent need to communicate, which is both a right and a privilege. smith repeats themselves—“how’s your heart?” (125) bringing the reader in for a final brush, a final hug, a final check-in. Then they excuse themselves, and we’re left wondering what we will do without stemmy things holding our hands, explaining it all away, making the world a magical, beautiful place. Through stemmy things, the reader makes a friend.
Joanna Acevedo (she/they) is the Pushcart nominated author of the poetry collection The Pathophysiology of Longing (Black Centipede Press, 2020) and the short story collection Unsaid Things (Flexible Press, 2021). Her work has been seen across the web and in print, including in Hobart Pulp, The Bookends Review, and the Write Launch. She is a Guest Editor at the Masters Review, Associate Poetry Editor at West Trade Review, Reviews Editor for the Great Lakes Review, and received her MFA in Fiction from New York University in 2021. She is supported by Creatives Rebuild New York: Guaranteed Income For Artists.