Xandria Phillips’s debut collection, Hull (Nightboat Books), is vast in both ambition and scope, striving to capture the depths and complexity of queer diasporic African identity in verse that is as fierce as it is tender and searing as it is celebratory. And, like the oceanic waters of the Middle Passage that serve as its fulcrum, Hull has immeasurable depths and dangers swirling beneath its surface.
Phillips writes into the immense gulf between the beauty of who black people are and the horror of what they’ve been subjected to in poems like “I Never Used to Write About Birds,” where the speaker admits, “this is the closest I’ll get to grabbing / our unjust god by the pearls / strung across his throat so I can ask / why he sat back in luster / all these millennia / watching my people die.” Phillips returns to the forced journey of the Middle Passage throughout the collection and is especially fixated on the image of sharks “who swam / and fed until they too / lived in diaspora” (“Stress Dream in the Key of Prozac”).
Amidst this horror, however, there are moments of tenderness, as in the title poem, where, “I learn my skin on hers won’t liberate us, / and I begin / to touch her / as though it will.” Through these flashes of interconnection, “The objects / approach personhood.” This line is striking example of Phillips’s lyrical dexterity, simultaneously rebuking the idea that enslaved people are anything less than human, while highlighting the brutality and the mundanity of that concept. Phillips highlights the fact that “every volta America wrote / for me had teeth,” then asks, “won’t you allow me now / to lift my lip and show you mine” (“Nature Poem with a Compulsion to the Shark”).
Many poems are predicated on famous black figures—from Sarah Baartman to Edmonia Lewis—sharing moments of sexuality, suffering, or repose with the speaker. Phillips’s emotionally intimate verse plucks these individuals from their historical context so they can be momentarily reanimated. In “Intimate Archive: Monticello,” we meet Sally Hemings: “the man never did smile in his portraits, / but by the pitch of your cries, by the perse / abrasions on your throat, Sally, I knew / he had a set of teeth.” And, in “Anarcha and I Negotiate Trauma,” Anarcha asks, “Why don’t you spit those out . . . so I can hear the yes that’s under all that need?”
Contemporary figures appear too: In “Vester Flanagan and I Escape Virginia,” “He asks me to imagine a future awaiting our starved mouths before it is bitten / into.” And, in “Michelle Obama and I Self-Medicate,” Michelle tells the speaker “how He doesn’t close his eyes anymore when they make love, how no one closes their eyes around her anymore.” By welcoming in all these individuals into the collection, Phillips gestures toward the rich expansiveness of diasporic black experience—a vast web that extends back into the past and forward into the future—to conjure a space in which this particular poet, in all their complexity, can speak.
One of the many complexities Phillips is then able to speak to is queerness, in terms of gender as well as of sexuality. In “A Poem Where I Refuse to Talk About [ ],” the speaker asserts, “I want the sweat of boyhood / its ease and virtue on my neck.” Later in the collection, poems like “Nativity” articulate an understanding of gender as a performance: “to partake in a / gender to fashion one’s self a living process of it, casting a net of postures, adornment objects, and / grooming techniques into a future tense.” “Girl Crush” expresses the confusion often inherent in early experiences of queer desire—“if she’s me I can always hold her,” yet, there’s a lushness to the adult speaker’s queerness, so they want “a lavish life / us in the crook / of a hammock” and “to buy you / a cobalt velvet couch / all your haters’ teeth / strung up like pearls” (“What Could Kill Me”).
Hull isn’t interested in charting a tidy journey toward realization, healing, or legibility; instead, it maps an in-between space of questions and contradictions, a territory that Phillips occupies simply by being black, queer, and gender nonconforming in America, as the speaker says, “I am only here because I am ineligible / to exist otherwise” (“Social Death, an Address”). And Hull—an often-beautiful account of persistence at multiple axes of oppression—asks its readers to witness how the speaker is “made everyday like a bed / like a person makes another / and nothing ever asks to be made” (“A Poem Where I Refuse to Talk About [ ]”).