Author: Jonterri Gadson
Sipping Espresso with Pepper Girl
“To all the men I’ve loved before: // Keep the poems.” Jonterri Gadson’s Pepper Girl walks us through an understanding of the self as a woman and a survivor—not necessarily of assault, but of a life lived hard. Gadson’s chapbook comes with love and insight, a realization that to be of color in a world that may not love you back requires that much more care. Despite its brevity, Gadson’s chapbook lives up to its title—savory, necessary, just enough.
A walk through Pepper Girl is a lesson in how to sip espresso: one does not chug it; one must enjoy it slowly with small sips. Just twenty-two poems, this collection invites us to take each poem as a small sip, to savor its language and content as a separate space in time. At the same time, the poems speak to one another, calling back. For example, “Finding Idaho” possesses a line that becomes an image in “Idaho Primer” (“that slow-setting sun”), and later the title of a poem, “Symptoms of a Slow-Setting Sun.” This call and response links the pieces and asks a question—when a sun won’t just fall behind the horizon, are we grateful? Is a longer day better, safer? Even in the poem, “Symptoms of a Slow-Setting Sun,” the answers are clear.
The poems have a sense of settling, opening and ending on a scene or line that grounds us in a space of reflection. In “Cardinal Sin,” the speaker describes her son taking a dead bird to school and lying about its relationship to him in order to get attention. But it’s not the typical attention the son wants—it’s the desire for emotional and physical contact with a father figure. “See him,” she says, “giving a man a reason / good enough to hold him.” She laments not loving her son “the way [she] thought / [her] mother should love [her];” not because she thinks her mother didn’t love her enough, but because she believes loving a son is different than loving a daughter. And maybe it is, especially when loving a son bold enough to tell the principal that “this cold puff // of field bird / had been his pet.” She understands, however, just as the other poems state, that children are hard to teach when they’ve already decided who they are—a pepper girl, a feral woman, a mother.
As the book continues, the body of our speaker discusses its use. We are introduced to these tiny moments where the body is worshipped as in “Sound Off,” where the body is mistaken for another as in “Doppelganger,” and where the body is a place to leave as in “Instructions for Leaving Your Body.” Within this last referenced poem, the speaker seems to talk softer. There is no capitalization or hard punctuation. The poem uses negative space and indents. It’s wholly imperative with no indication of the speaker shouting. Rather, the speaker is almost whispering:
……….alive in the pause
……….after your own scream
Such a statement—“be rupture”—should be shouted, it feels. To rupture something is to break or burst, to come apart with a sort of violence. To be such a violence—why isn’t this shouted at the reader? And that’s precisely the point: why shout the experience of leaving one’s body when we already know that the act itself requires an implied intensity? The speaker knows this, speaking low, almost calming, as the reader prepares to leave. Be delicate in your departure, the speaker says, for the departure itself is automatically explosive.
The poems of Pepper Girl rise up to meet the spice of pepper. One knows pepper as a staple ingredient. How else can we bring about the flavors of our favorite foods? Moreover, Gadson’s pepper girl is an examination of her speaker’s self—being black in a world that wants you to be anything but. The chapbook and the title poem bring the issue of colorism to an audience that may not consider it initially. When the girls bicker over who is the lightest, it seems like neither wants to be with their “[f]ingertips tickling boundaries, / becoming gods.” Colorism in communities of color contributes to self-loathing and the worship of white skin that break people apart. What it comes down to as a theme in the book is the necessity of pepper, not just as a spice, but as a building block to life’s recipes: food, family, and future.
Though the poems are rarely more than a page long, and frequently the language is so brief as to be opaque, the collection begs to be considered. It’s impossible to rush through Pepper Girl. Like a spicy espresso, it’s necessary to sip slowly and work through each piece individually. It’s the kind of book that inspires one to write, using the lines to lead new pieces. The taste left in the reader’s mouth is strong, a lingering sense of heat and prayer.
Reviewed by Monica Prince for The Quarterly.
Monica Prince recently received her MFA in Creative Writing with a focus in poetry from Georgia College & State University. Her work has been featured in The Rain, Party & Disaster Society, MadCap Review and the Sula Collective, and her choreopoem, Testify, was performed by the Cutout Theater in Brooklyn, NY this past December. She currently writes, performs, and works in Denver, Colorado with her pug, Otis. You can find her on Facebook here, on her Twitter @poetic_moni, and at her website www.monicaprince.com.