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Andrea Gibson, author of Take Me With You and editor of We Will Be Shelter: Poems for Survival, continues to make their mark in the contemporary poetry scene with Lord of the Butterflies, an arresting companion to Gibson’s most recent spoken word album, Hey Galaxy. The collection features several of the love poems which readers of the author’s work have come to expect, but its exploration of gender and identity is where Lord of the Butterflies excels. Gibson expertly walks the line between grief and hope, giving readers a deeply layered collection of poems.
Like Hey Galaxy , Gibson opens Lord of the Butterflies with “Your Life,” a poem which introduces numerous themes that run throughout the book. The speaker confesses:
You spend hours blinking in the mirror, wishing you could be a star like him.
Mary Levine calls you a dyke
and you don’t have the words to tell her she’s wrong
These lines center the question of gender identity and the confusion that often accompanies those who lack the language or, by proxy, the understanding to express themselves. Gibson further explores the potential for human experience to encompass multiple versions of the self in a stunningly vulnerable in “Photoshopping My Sister’s Mugshot.” Throughout the poem, Gibson offers a unique twist on the notion of using Photoshop to perpetuate a certain set of beauty standards:
I crop out the trailer and the splintered remains of the front
door. I crop out your name all over the news. I crop out the
sawed-off shotgun they found hidden in the yard. I crop out
the blood-vacant faces of every soul sold to. I crop out their
family’s hunted hearts.
In this first round of edits, the speaker removes elements of the background in order to focus attention on their sister’s face, ultimately filling the negative space with images from their bloodline. The speaker acknowledges that “[t]here is a thin line between skewing the truth/and giving a panoramic view,” a wonderful moment of insight about the fullness of human experience.
“Thankstaking” perfectly reinforces this concept, the speaker recounting how:
before I heard the preacher’s wife scold a
man without a home for not being grateful
enough, before I was queer enough to
notice my name left out of the prayer,
before I got the scoop on what really
happened at Plymouth Rock, before I
learned the word genocide, before I knew
enough to be devastated that I’d once
asked my friend how her family celebrated
Thanksgiving on the reservation…
was my favorite holiday…
Through the first part of the poem, the reader is lulled into believing that Thanksgiving has become, for the speaker, a problematic holiday because they have learned the horrific history behind the celebration. The repetition of the word before compounds the weight of the things the speaker has learned, giving weight to these new versions of truth. Midway through the poem, however, the speaker turns the lens onto their family. The speaker reminisces about how “Thanksgiving, it was the best day ”
[…] when my mother, casually, like it was nothing,
said her father–who I knew she’d
loved more than life, who I knew had died when she was still a kid–had died on Thanksgiving, a fact I’d never known all those
_______have I ever since and will I ever
again know a generosity so wide as her smile
Here, the reader learns that truth of Thanksgiving is not just in its traditions, is not just in its history, is not just in the naive celebration of a day when the speaker is not forced to eat beets, is not just in the grief the speaker’s mother masks for the sake of her child; rather, the truth is in the messy wholeness of all these things.
Perhaps the strongest indication that Lord of the Butterflies is dedicated to the complete, unruly truth of human experience is that the collection offers a closer look at Gibson’s physical health and struggle with Lyme disease than previous books. In “Gender in the Key of Lyme Disease,” the speaker, in heartbreaking honesty, concedes: “I fill my backpack/with crumpled paper/so it looks like I can carry heavy things./I tell myself I couldn’t lift my backpack/if my heart was in it.”
In “Tincture,” a wrenching prose poem, the speaker argues that,
The soul misses every single day the body was sick, the now it forced, the here it built from the fever. Fever is how the body prays, how it burns and begs for another average day. The soul misses the legs creaking up the stairs, misses the fear that climbed up the vocal cords to curse the wheelchair. The soul misses what the body could not let go–what else could hold on that tightly to everything? What else could hear the chain of a swing set fall and fall to its knees? What else could touch a screen door and taste lemonade? What else could come back from a war and not come back? But still try to live? Still try to lullaby? When a human dies, the soul moves through the universe trying to describe how a body trembles when it’s lost, softens when it’s safe, how a wound would heal given nothing but time.
Gibson makes peace with the disease that has, as they acknowledge in the collection, killed their hero. With all the grace and hope that fans of Gibson’s work have come to expect, the author finds beauty even in the most painful moments of their life. But these lines from “Tincture” are not just about making peace with physical pain; the poem suggests that, while the soul transcends physical experience, it is the body which gives context and meaning to life. The body, for all its faults and vulnerabilities and juxtapositions, is the only part of us truly capable of life.
This is a collection which will undoubtedly appeal to long-time fans of Gibson’s work and newcomers to poetry alike. With its willingness to tackle all manner of trauma and social issues and still center optimism, these poems will prove most appealing and most vital to readers in need of the proverbial silver lining. As an added bonus, a number of the poems appear on Hey Galaxy , so readers who enjoy hearing the author’s voice echoing as they read will be able to get a feel for the cadence with which Gibson speaks and writes.
Lord of the Butterflies
By Andrea Gibson
Button Poetry/Exploding Pinecone Press
Paperback, 9781943735426, 98 pp.