Reviewer: Jessica Drake-Thomas
Katerina Canyon’s Surviving Home, explores familial relationships within black families, in particular the speaker’s toxic relationship with her father. “My father is a shark / with a hope chest / clenched between his teeth,” she writes in the title poem, “It holds my heart and brain perfectly.” This image encapsulates their relationship – how the predatory father still has a grip on his daughter, years after the original abuse occurred. Trauma, even old trauma, is hard to shake. Being harmed by someone who is supposed to take care of you has a deep effect, cognitively and emotionally.
In “No More Poems About My Father,” the speaker addresses a man with whom she’s relationally involved: “While you have / always been faithful, I wonder how long before / you are not.” There’s lingering dread behind the speaker’s words. No matter how much time has passed, the old scars remain. She continues, “I / cannot help but believe that all men must be like / my father, who had to have every woman’s mind, // which included mine pressed under his big toe.” Repressed trauma echoes; the speaker remains vigilant. She has had to survive a toxic situation before, and she’s cautious, aware that the past repeats itself.
In “Donald Trump Is My Father,” Canyon expands on this motif when she writes, “Despise his primitive morning’s / Glance, your face, your breasts, you’re // Gone now. Just a body.” This focus on the male gaze, and how it objectifies femininity, is central to the collection, as is Canyon’s delineation of men who use their power to dominate others, particularly women. The speaker in “At 13, I Found a Bra” similarly says, “I already knew / long before he / called me a whore / where I stood / in his bloodshot mind / before his crooked eyes.” This again recalls the toxic weight of the male gaze, how it exploits the feminine and warps female self-worth. The man in the poem, presumably the speaker’s father, tries to hold her back from embracing herself. He would rather have her hate her body.
In “Uses of the Erotic,” Audre Lorde writes, “In order to perpetuate itself, every oppression must corrupt or distort those various sources of power within the culture of the oppressed that can provide energy for change. For women, this has meant a suppression of the erotic as a considered source of power and information within our lives.” Women have been told to deny themselves. They have been taught not to enjoy their own bodies, and as such, feminine eroticism has been made into something dirty and unnatural.
“At 13, I Found a Bra” also includes one of the more memorable metaphors in the book: “The bullfrog that beats beneath / my pectoral muscle // cannot fit into a second-hand mold.” Canyon compares the heart to a bullfrog, something that is bold and unapologetic. The heart, too, she suggests, is misunderstood, much as a bullfrog is often considered repugnant. In this way, Canyon loosely alludes to “The Frog Prince,” the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tale. In that story, the frog is changed back into his pleasing prince-form by a princess. However, unlike that story, this bullfrog heart can’t be fit into a different form, not for anyone, not for any reason.
“I am the harlot— / Christ’s final temptation / binding the mind to cause,” the speaker concludes, pointing out the way in which men blame women for their own bad behavior. The reference to “binding” has several layers: it echoes the way in which the bra binds the body, it references the patriarchal oppressions that attempt to suppress women intellectually, and it alludes to the ways in which patriarchal values demean and commodify female bodies. Though Christ is the one tempted, the speaker, the woman, takes the blame for it.
In “While Dreaming of Harvey Weinstein,” the speaker is more forceful than in other pieces. “You peer at the top / of my epidermal layers // in search of an opening / I will never give you,” she says. “Nor will I supplicate myself / to your playmate desires.” The bold, scornful tone of this piece is captivating. “Tell me why / I should drop to my knees?” the speaker further demands, disdain dripping from every syllable. Rather than complying with the sexual act requested by Weinstein, the speaker throws it in his face, no longer powerless. Though Weinstein is trying to bully her, she stands her ground, which marks a reversal from earlier poems and an indication of the speaker’s growing sense of empowerment. It also completes a character arc that is present throughout the book. The speaker becomes stronger, more independent, and uses her voice to confront abusive men.
Surviving Home celebrates survival and the process of embracing one’s inner power and sense of self. The poems ask us to stare into the abyss of what going home is like when home is not safe, what it’s like to be repeatedly harmed by someone whom you trust. And what it’s like to be oppressed within the country where you live. Surviving Home is about black families in America – the treatment and exploitation of black women – and explores black femininity in a way that is honest and direct. Canyon’s poetry is spellbinding: a testament to strength and endurance.