Kiki Petrosino’s Bright

A Uniquely American Vision in Kiki Petrosino's Bright: A Review by Ayaat Ismail

Kiki Petrosino's new hybrid collection, Bright: A Memoir (Sarabande, 2022), challenges readers to take a deep look in the mirror and see a version of themselves that, while perhaps initially unsettling, they may eventually come to accept; it's the journey there, of course, that gives readers time to reflect and Petrosino generously supplies the answers to many of our questions. We understand the dismantling of the self as absolutely necessary when Petrosino poses provocative questions of herself: When I look in the mirror, who do I see? How do others perceive me? With both images in play, how do I exist? Isn't this the sort of question all Americans should be asking themselves today? 

Petrosino is an American poet and professor of poetry at the University of Virginia. She's the author of White Blood: a Lyric of Virginia (2020) and three other poetry books. She holds graduate degrees from the University of Chicago and the University of Iowa Writer's Workshop. Petrosino is the recipient of a Pushcart Prize, a Fellowship in Creative Writing from the National Endowment for the Arts, an Al Smith Fellowship Award from the Kentucky Arts Council, and the UNT Rilke Prize. Her work has appeared in Ploughshares, Poetry Magazine, Iowa Review, Best American Poetry, Tin House, and many other publications. Read her poem, BLACK GENEALOGY, in Issue 9 of Miracle Monocle. 

When I first started reading this collection, I found that I could identify with the idea of straddling two realities, the feeling that I never truly have a strong foothold, and the idea of becoming content with the strategy of embracing both those worlds as a way to move forward. Yet, perhaps even more evocative than these meditations in the book, was the invitation to pause in our lives to reflect on the potential effects that various social behaviors, attitudes, and the expectations of others may have on us in the past, the future, and the now. This work examines the pervasive, highly personal repercussions of slavery and racial prejudice in Shrewsbury, Pennsylvania, through shifting narrative snapshots, archival research, conversations with Thomas Jefferson, and reflections on Petrosino's life as braided conversations. 

I was mesmerized by this technique, by how adaptable Petrosino made the shape of these lyric essays, and by how multilayered her collection was. In her initial pieces in the first section, "Mirror," we can see how the development of her multiracial identity has many facets and intricacies that must be appropriately conveyed in terms of how others perceive her. The first piece reads, “You don’t need white people’s approval to be happy, the mirror said. But if you want anything from their world, they have to like you.” Through past encounters, epiphanies, self-reflection, dialogue with history, her stories, and other stories that are interwoven with hers, we see a coming-of-age story. We witness the growth of the speaker's self and her brightness.

“Bright,” according to Petrosino, “is an American slang term for light-skinned people of Black & white ancestry. It’s not a compliment.” And yet the word becomes something more in Petrosino's use; it evolves with her as she evolves within herself. In this way, Bright is the vehicle for the conversation Petrosino attempts to have about how she is seen by others: “those who don’t like bright don’t like me.” With this in mind, we begin to see how the writer experiences difficult-to-absorb situations, like the microaggressions, invalidations, exclusion, and isolation she encounters, and which prevent her from feeling a sense of social belonging.

For example, moments in the section “The Garden” had me screaming at the desperateness of her as a child, hoping that the teachers would treat her equally to the other young girls on picture day and fix her hair, but instead, she was met with the cruelty of one telling her "I'm afraid to even touch this," further excluding her from a community she longs to be a part of. However, she also experiences positive environments and communities—like those spent with her family, those fleeting moments of vulnerability and togetherness, which appear to support her on a social and intellectual level.

I smiled to myself as I read one piece in this section, "The Garden," wherein this togetherness, sisterhood, and family bonding made me connect more with this piece than others. This assortment of fragments forced me to strike a balance between times of pure delight and eye-opening revelations as I felt the weight of the writer's suffering, joy, and loneliness. I was moved by the process of fitting together all of the puzzle pieces so that I might come to see the whole picture of Petrosino's brilliance; the truthfulness of her words shouts out in each and every piece.

The ultimate picture of the self that Petrosino unveils demands a long overdue shift in discourse—one that recognizes the viewpoints and experiences of women, especially women of color, who battle with two identities and must eventually choose which image they will be left with. In Petrosino's section, “The Departure,” we start to see her growth and acceptance of her brightness as a way of being and strength as the image of herself emerges more clearly. The previous sentence "disappears" from the page, but not completely. In "The Prince" we're presented with a blossoming story of continuance; the past is never completely forgotten, but doesn't hold us as tightly as it once did. The font's darkness fades.

Petrosino doesn't let her readers down with the frankness of her words nor with the world she has captured in her collection. Whether it's tales of her Italian grandfather escorting her home from the bus stop to protect her, or her mother and sister coloring books together, her shared experiences allowed readers like myself to take some part in her story. Petrosino envelops us in these lovely moments, but simultaneously reminds us of the heartbreaking ones yet to come. Both will continue to play out in my mind long after I've turned the final page and Petrosino's brilliance has found its way back upon my shelf.

Pick up your copy of Bright today.

AYAAT ISMAIL is an assistant editor of Miracle Monocle.