Gorgeous, Fiery Words and Skillful, Clever Use of Poetic Devices Equal Only to Each Other: A Review of Jillian Christmas’s Poetry Collection THE GOSPEL OF BREAKING

There were many times when I gasped out loud and just sat in awe as I was reading Jillian Christmas’s debut poetry collection The Gospel of Breaking. The poems are alternately sad, sexy, funny, and angry; I found myself—very willingly—riding a vicarious emotional roller coaster alongside them. Christmas’s inventive lyricism and images went straight to my heart and gut, sometimes at the same time. Such as lines like: “how will we know it [what is a body] / unless we go searching through the roughness of being alive.”

Many of the poems very much feel like their roots are in slam poetry with a careful attention to sound. They also shine on the page. Like when Christmas plays with the alliteration of the “d” sound when she writes: “What dainty fish-hooks have danced in your heart / dangling the whimpering shadow of which sadness.”  In “Monday Morning Made Delicious,” Christmas employs delightfully unexpected mid stanza rhymes and near homonyms, telling us

I captured every teary smile like tonic for new worries

tomorrow will surely bring    perhaps that is a surly thing to say

perhaps this is distastefully fictitious    but day is beating down my door

tossing threats across my floor and calling you ‘delicious’

 

I am tired      this much is true   and sleep   she is a fair-weather friend

and black sky blusters into blue and my thoughts go on and on

without an end   and sun is rising like flare through a fog and everything

is quiet and everything is hard and you are lovely   and soon I will be too

 

and good morning   I made this for you

In addition to experimentation with image and sound, Christmas also plays with form on the page. In “Casting,” the structure of the poem is a never ending circle. Writing in two long stanzas, one aligned left and the other aligned right, Christmas constructs two poems within a poem that each begin and end with the first line of the other. Each stanza then continues to repeat the same lines as the other stanz, in reverse order. It’s one of those poems whose first reading experience is very different from subsequent ones, as you admire the craft of explicitly creating diverse meanings with the same lines by placing them in different contexts. WOW.

In the collection’s titular poem, “The Gospel of Breaking,” Christmas addresses being “birthed in a church too comfortable / with a God who would make closets into coffins.” But she doesn’t reject god; rather, she remakes her beliefs into a “religion of lost souls” where she can see god

in every busted lip

and back room hand-job

my god    who has been so quiet

this must be your work

as baffling as all of your

other mercies

In addition to reclaiming spirituality as a queer person, Christmas writes about the pain of living in a racist, sexist, homophobic world:

this world wants to scrape the bottom of me

wants to line its garbage cans

with the things that I call                           holy

Addressing what she might have time and energy for if she didn’t have to carry the burden of these oppressions every day, she mentions “poems about black joy” and “an herb garden / worthy of attention.” Instead, she guards against:

this world [that] tears strips clean off me

complains about the toughness of the meat

the wild flare of my nostrils

circles a crooked tooth in the photographs

asks why I look so mean

Two poems especially resonant for me were ones that dealt with themes of suicide and depression: “It’s Only a Good Ride If You Can Choose to Get Off (or: To People Who Would Call Robin Williams a Coward” and “In My Mind There is a Place Where We are Both Whole.” Depression, Christmas writes, “is the gift you never wanted that keeps on giving.” She asks

do you know what it is to think of the thing a hundred times before coffee

to make the bed anyway …

 

what do you know of rest

or the needing of it

 

what do I know

Jillian-Christmas-The-Gospel-of-Breaking

Jillian Christmas; image via roommagazine.com

One of my favourites was a gorgeous poetic take on the frequent meme “But have you tried.” Uh, everyone else can stop doing this now, Jillian Christmas has clearly won.

have you

wedded

yourself

to the edge

of a knife

braided

your names

together

like a promise

wrung your

sweet voice

until all of

the valleys

echo echo

hollow

have you

swam beneath

possibility

carried

the cross of

an ending

found

the bottom

of your own

seeking

drank the

false venom

of delight

climbed

back up

the drain

made your

way out

dripped in

the sacred

filthy as

all human

and alive

Among other themes the collection addresses that I haven’t written about in detail here are break ups, home and place, love, ancestry, blackness, white feminism, writing, Christmas’s mother, Internet and social media culture, and more. Also, there is a killer, hilarious poem addressed to the person who stole Christmas’s bike! I don’t want to quote the whole thing as it is best experienced as a delightful surprise near the end of the book, but I will quote perhaps my favourite stanza where Christmas writes

I assume you have no parents at all

but then I picture you

cowering in the womb of your mother’s basement

masturbating to the classic bike poetry of johnny macrae

using the tears of the bikeless as lube

In case it wasn’t already clear, The Gospel of Breaking is an amazing and beautiful collection of poems. If you’re a fan of Kai Cheng Thom and Amber Dawn’s poetry, I would heartily recommend Jillian Christmas’s work. While her voice is obviously unique, her poetry pulls a similar powerful lyricism and passion out of specific experiences. Her gorgeous, fiery words on essential topics and skillful, clever use of poetic devices are equal only to each other.

About CaseytheCanadianLesbrarian

Known in some internet circles as Casey the Canadian Lesbrarian, Casey Stepaniuk is a writer and librarian who holds an MA in English literature. She lives and works in the unceded territory of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations (Vancouver, BC). Topics and activities dear to her heart include cats, bisexuality, libraries, queer (Canadian) literature, running, and drinking tea. She runs the website Casey the Canadian Lesbrarian, where you can find reviews of LGBTQ2IA+ Canadian books, archives of the book advice column Ask Your Friendly Neighbourhood Lesbrarian, and some other queer, bookish stuff. She also writes for Autostraddle, Book Riot and Inside Vancouver. Find her on Twitter: @canlesbrarian. Some of her old reviews, especially the non-Canadian variety, can be found at the Lesbrary.
This entry was posted in Black, Canadian, Caribbean, Poetry, Queer. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Gorgeous, Fiery Words and Skillful, Clever Use of Poetic Devices Equal Only to Each Other: A Review of Jillian Christmas’s Poetry Collection THE GOSPEL OF BREAKING

  1. Pingback: On The Go – Megan Butcher

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