Xandria Phillips’s debut collection of poems, Hull, explores the vulnerability of Black people under white supremacy. The collection spans four centuries, criss-crossing the channels of history, to examine how systems of racial subordination and domination have undone Black lives.
In the title poem, “hull” doubles as a reference to the belly of a slave ship, where enslaved people were turned into cargo and robbed of their humanity, as well as to the body as a container for life, where “every exhale … is audacity.” With Hull, which recently won the Lambda Literary Award for Trans Poetry, Phillips produces an account of Black existence, while also summoning breath, touch, and taste as tools of emancipation and resistance. It’s an honest, unsentimental look at the stakes of precarious living, especially for women and gender and sexual minorities.
No singular world
Alongside this history, Phillips also presents a more intimate look at queer love and desire. Longing is manifold and inclusive. The sight of girls “in track pants and navel rings” sends the speaker “in fond pursuit.” The “throbbing” sound of a vibrator left on all night inspires the speaker to imagine a “reciprocal and tender invasion” of self and object. In a poem addressed to Dominique, the speaker dreams of “a lavish life” filled with tender offerings and altars to their beloved. The effect is less an alternative to the historical violence that fills so many of Phillips’s poems. Instead, Phillips depicts how Black queer folks survive in and through their intimate relations with one another.
For Phillips, Black and queer being is a “predicament,” which is the word they use in the poem “Social Death, An Address” to describe what it’s like to exist when you have been robbed of all other alternatives. “I am only here because I am ineligible / to exist otherwise,” Phillips writes. “I write to you as / the American version of me.” This “version” is the one who experiences the lasting conditions of slavery and its aftermaths, including institutionalized racism (the “high-interest loan” that is offered to Black homebuyers) and misogynoir (the ineluctable tangle of racism and gender discrimination against Black women). In the opening poem “You and I,” Phillips describes domestic life within two opposing states of being: the “No Colonial” and the “Post-Colonial.” The poem works to show how these two states are penetrated by a “colonial reality.” At the same time, there is no singular world that can contain all of Black, queer being. Just as the poem can be read in many directions, so, too, do many “versions” proliferate in the act of reading.
Many of Phillips’s poems are addressed to historical Black figures, such as Anarcha Westcott, Michelle Obama, Edmonia Lewis, Sara Baartman, and Vester Flanagan. As a white, cis male reader, I have to acknowledge how my familiarity with some of these Black subjects is either limited or absent. But Phillips’s project is not about educating the white reader. Instead, their poems explore mutual intimacy and care among Black subjects. In “Michelle Obama and I Self-Medicate,” the former First Lady serves the speaker a chamomile tea. In exchange, the speaker acknowledges the First Lady’s request to close their eyes, and in that darkness sees her as no one else does. In these poems, Phillips presents historical remembrance as something cumulative, an active project of caring for figures from the past whose lives, struggles, and desires mirror the speaker’s own in the present.
The longest poem, “Intimate Archives,” tells the story of Black life in modern history, from the journey of enslaved people across the Atlantic to the Tulsa bombing of 1921 to the mass incarceration of Black Americans. The poem is composed of discrete units, each of which inhabits the voice of someone with intimate knowledge of that history. In “Tuskegee Experiments,” the speaker cares for someone dying from untreated syphilis. In “Norplant,” the speaker cuts a contraceptive implant from the arm of a woman who was made to be sterile as an alternative to prison. Throughout “Intimate Archives,” the speaker traces how the foundations of our modern institutions—hospitals, prisons, finance, government—were laid through the violence done to Black bodies.
Breathing and relating
Hull suggests that, for Black lives, violence and intimacy are inextricable. Breathing emerges as a powerful trope for these competing forces; the lungs, like the speaker, expanding outward only to be compressed back again. Breathing is as laborious as it is essential. In “Hull,” the speaker proclaims, “Let’s deflate something monstrous, / and take its air inside us.” They fill their lungs with an “uprising … a cacophony of inverted sound.” As the speaker explains in “They Want Black Music and They Don’t Want Black People,” the mouth from which the Black subject speaks, sings, and breaths is detested because it is so vital: “the mouth is a most hated negro / attribute and somehow it births / a coveted forte so searing.”
Throughout Hull, Phillips suggests that they are interested in poetry less as a technology of interiority than of relation. In the last few years, poetry has been revivified by marginalized writers, including Philadelphia’s own former Poet Laureate, Raquel Salas Rivera, who won the Lambda Literary Award for Trans Poetry the year before Phillips. Using techniques of metaphor and defamiliarization, poets confront discomforting truths within history. At the same time, for trans and queer writers, poetry is also a way to surrender to the sustaining forces of living and desiring alongside another: “your hands come down / on top of me and I flinch, remembering, / before I indulge your gentleness.”
What, When, Where
Hull. By Xandria Phillips. New York: Nightboat Books, October 8, 2019. 80 pages, softcover; $16.95. Get it here.