Perennial by Kelly Forsythe
Coffee House Press, 2018; 61 pp
Reviewed by Michael Levan
Though the events of Columbine High School figure in the collection, the power of Kelly Forsythe’s Perennial lies more in how these young female speakers navigate the shadows the tragedy has cast on their lives. They question how fair it is to ask that they blossom into adulthood when their childhoods have been stripped from them. They demand explanation for why each generation of girls must be more concerned with the violence surrounding them than sharing all the good inside them or being able, without worry, to discover the world on their own terms.
The speaker of “Moral Panic” goes out of her way to understand her male counterparts’ mentality. She works to empathize with them as she imagines how they think, how they “dream under / a poster of Jenny McCarthy, teen / dream.” And yet, the poem turns as the line continues: “There were hundreds // of abandoned backpacks, / more than ninety bombs, match / strikers taped to your forearm.” As quickly as she notes these boys’ sexual awakening, she begins too to understand that she must now tiptoe around them as they are also unearthing their budding ferocity and can now be set off
as if you [were] struck
& from the moment
the match warned us
of your burning, we couldn’t
contend. We had to bide.
This balance between compassion and caution carries throughout the book, as in “Colony Collapse”: “the tether / of our cells to her cells or his: // we can’t help the connections.” Because these speakers can’t avoid the impulse to feel connected, to want to reach out, they are put in a bind and left with
an inevitability. That
the very act of confronting,
of the face-off, leads to
something much darker—
a painted nail breaking
at the cuticle. Pink flower,
say goodbye: goodbye! Right
from the stem & gone.
The worry of having her life plucked away has become part of her daily routine. “Someone pull[ing] a white / sheet over [me]” is not so farfetched; the speaker of “Before and After Peril” knows “we are so small & red, red, collapsing.”
These speakers occupy a world full of what was before seen largely as impossible, unthinkable. In “Homeroom,” they sit in an assembly after the shooting, after the media attention and countless viewings of that day’s events, and are confronted by their new reality:
toward our windows to measure
the drop, we felt our bodies hum
touching shoulders during fire drills,
we mentioned metal detectors, we
noticed boys’ hair, we noticed the color
black, we noticed each other’s
hands, we noticed each other
The sad fact is violence endures; it is perennial. But so too are the girls who have to face it, who have to live through it, who have to find ways to behave that will not make them targets of this rage. Forsythe’s book offers us the chance to be devastated into awareness and awareness into action, if only we will listen and let it go to seed.