Wednesday, May 2, 2018

The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo

"...I dress my thoughts in the clothing of a poem."

The Poet X is about a young girl's struggle with faith and identity and trying to find her own voice. Fifteen-year-old Xiomara Batista lives in Harlem, N.Y. Xiomara means "One who is ready for war."  Unlike her older twin brother Xavier, Xiomara had to be delivered by Caesarean because she tried to enter the world feet first.

Xiomara is struggling with her Catholic faith and this is complicated by her strained relationship with her mother. After managing to dodge confirmation classes for the past two years, this year she has been signed up along with her best friend Caridad. But Xiomara doesn't really want to be confirmed. She doesn't believe she needs Jesus in her life and she feels that the church doesn't value her and that God doesn't seem to be watching out for her. However, when Xiomara objects, her mother tells her she will send her to the Dominican Republic "where the priests and nuns know how to elicit true piety."

Xiomara's mother is overly pious. This began after their birth. Her parents had given up  hope for children. Their conception and birth was considered miraculous by their friends and changed her parents; her father became more serious and her mother began to attend Mass daily. Xiomara's mother had wanted to be a nun. Instead she was forced to marry Xiomara's father in the hopes they would eventually travel to the United States.

The first confirmation class finds Xiomara more interested in talking to Caridad about boys and struggling to accept the idea of accepting Christ into her life. Caridad is the exact opposite of Xiomara; she recites Bible verses, wants to wait for marriage for sex, respects her parents. However, she's accepting of Xiomara and "tells me that she knows ...I'll figure it all out."

The first day of high school finds Xiomara liking Ms. Galiano her first period English teacher.  She's young and she pronounces Xiomara's name correctly on the first try. Xiomara is impressed with Ms. Galiano because although she is petite, she "carries herself big ...Like she's used to shouldering her way through any assumptions made about her." Their first assignment is to "write about the most impactful day of your life."  What Xiomara wants to write about is how her period came in fifth grade and she did not know what to use nor how to use the tampons. When her mother learned that she was using tampons she scolded her, telling her to skip church and to use pads. What Xiomara actually writes about is her brother gifting her a leather bound journal which she records her thoughts.

At Mass on Sunday, Xiomara doesn't want to receive Holy Communion but her mother forces her. Xiomara feels that girls are given a list of rules they cannot break. She's told to have faith in men but men harass her and make her feel small. As punishment for refusing to receive Communion, Xiomara is made to attend Mass with her mother every evening of the week. After receiving Holy Communion from Father Sean, Xiomara sacrilegiously spits out the host and hides it beneath the pew. commits a sacrilege by spitting out the host and hiding it beneath the bench.

On September 17, Xiomara discovers a poster at school for the Spoken Word Poetry Club. It is run by Ms. Galiano on Tuesdays after school, which unfortunately conflicts with her confirmation class. Xiomara knows her mother will never let her skip the class. However, that night her twin brother encourages Xiomara to join. The next day Xiomara questions Ms. Galiano before class about the club. Watching a video of a poet reciting thrills Xiomara. 

Xiomara's life begins to change when a classmate, Aman is assigned as her lab partner.  She is immediately attracted to Aman and decides she wants to get to know him. Eventually Xiomara agrees to spend time at the park with Aman listening to music even though she knows her parents will not approve.As their friendship blossoms Xiomara finds ways to spend time with Aman, sneaking to a Halloween dance and going skating. But when she's seen kissing Aman on the train Xiomara's world comes crashing down. Her mother brutally punishes her by making her kneel on rice in front of the Virgin Mary and forces her to talk to Father Sean. But Xiomara is not sorry and Father Sean believes that she should wait to be confirmed.

As the crisis between Xiomara and her mother deepens, she realizes she must either find her voice or lose herself completely.


Slam poet, Elizabeth Acevedo has crafted a powerful novel about the importance of words and finding your own voice. Her debut novel, The Poet X tackles a wide range of themes about coming of age that include identity, the role of faith, first love and independence.

In the novel the main character, fifteen-year-old Xiomara Batista is struggling to figure out who she is, what she believes and to give a voice to her feelings and beliefs. Because her parents consider Xiomara and her twin brother to be a miracle, her mother zealously attends daily Mass. However, unlike her best friend Caridad and her twin brother Xavier, Xiomara feels marginalized by the Catholic faith, the church and God. Forced to attend Mass nightly in preparation for her confirmation, Xiomara repeatedly commits an act of sacrilege by receiving Holy Communion and discarding it beneath the pew, her "hands shaking less and less everytime..."

All her doubts and anger lead her to publicly confront Father Sean in confirmation class about the creation account in Genesis. Father Sean's failure to answer Xiomara simply deepens her rebellion, misunderstanding, her loss of faith and encourage her to respect him. Father Sean however does seem to understand that Xiomara's conflict is not so much one of faith but of identity. And it is Father Sean who helps Xiomara and her mother Altagracia put their broken relationship back together.

Xiomara is shown to be a deeply conflicted young woman. She is conflicted about her body which she considers a source of trouble based on how men react to her. She is by her own description, tall and well built and men are attracted to her. Her mother tells her that she'll "have to pray extra so my body didn't get me into trouble."

"And I knew the what I'd known since my period came:
my body was trouble. I had to pray the trouble out
of the body God gave me. My body was a problem.
And I didn't want any of these boys to be the ones to solve it.
I wanted to forget I had this body at all."

Xiomara's solution is to hide her body in big sweaters, "trying to turn this body into an invisible equation." Xiomara's view of her body is merely reinforced by her mother's violent over-reaction when she sees her kissing Aman. Her mother hits her, calls Xiomara a "cuero" (slut) and makes her kneel on rice in front of the Virgin Mary statue while she mother prays. Xiomara is forced to go to confession to Father Sean, whom she tells that she is not sorry. Father Sean understands some of the conflict between Xiomara and her mother and her struggle with her Catholic faith. At this point in time he is Xiomara's voice, telling her mother that she is not quite ready to be confirmed yet. It is a message Xiomara cannot tell her mother.

Xiomara's journey towards finding her own voice is gradual and painful. At first she is not even remotely interested in taking part in the poetry club even though a poetry video makes her realize that others have the same thoughts she has. Xiomara thinks
"she can't think that I,
who sits silently in her classroom,
who only speaks to get someone off my back,
will ever get onstage
and say any of the things I've written,
out loud, to anybody else."

However, Xiomara's feelings about Aman lead her to write pages of poetry, "writing pages and pages about a boy and reciting them to myself like a song, like a prayer." Still she pretends to forget about the Spoken Word Poetry Club but Ms. Galiano isn't fooled; she considers Xiomara a poet based on her assignments submitted for English and continues to encourage her to attend.

During this time, Xiomara doesn't write what she really wants to say for her English assignments, but instead gives Ms. Galiano what might be considered more acceptable. For example when she has to write the last paragraph of her biography she wants to write about becoming "the warrior she wanted to be" but instead writes about what she might be expected to accomplish; creating a nonprofit organization that helps first-generation girls date, go away to college and move out when they turn eighteen and buying her parents a house in the Dominican Republic.

At first when Xiomara is brutally punished for kissing Aman she withdraws into herself, speaking to no one. With many of her privileges withdrawn and despite the fact that her mother still expects her at confirmation class, she decides she will attend the poetry club because she now feels ready.
"...I have so much bursting to be said,
and I think I'm ready to be listened to."
It turns out Ms. Galiano was right - Xiomara finds her groove in the club. After reading her poem  she feels validated.
"I can't remember
the last time people were silent
while I spoke, actually listening...

My little words
feel important, for just a moment.
This is a feeling I could get used to."

For Xiomara, " feels like an adult has finally heard me." The poetry club changes Xiomara's attitude towards everything. She begins to answer questions in English class. Xiomara agrees to Caridad's suggestion and participates in an open mic night at the legendary Nuyorican Poets Cafe, impressing the host who invites Xiomara to the poetry competition. Attending poetry club and reading her poems to Ms. Galiano results in Xiomara "blossoming"; she's proud of her poetry, proud how the words "connect with people" and "how they build community." Over the Christmas holidays Xiomara fills her journal with poetry about her mom, Aman and her twin brother.

The crisis between Xiomara and her mother pushes Xiomara to finally speak up.  Xiomara's mother reads her journal and angered by her daughter's poems tries to burn it. Xiomara's first reaction is to runaway from home but Ms. Galiano tells her she must talk to her mother and work out their relationship. With the help of  Father Sean Xiomara finds her voice to work with her mother "to break down some of the things that have built up between us." and to accept that this relationship will not be a typical mother-daughter relationship. With the help of Ms. Galiano, Xiomara performs at the poetry competition. Xiomara is reluctant at first because her poems are personal, but Ms. Galiano tells her that
"words give people permission
to be their fullest self. And aren't those the poems
I've most needed to hear?"

In the end Xiomara discovers that "learning to believe in the power of my own words has been the most freeing experience of my life. It has brought me the most light."

The Poet X - the title being a reference to the name Xiomara gives herself, is a well written novel that hits the mark. There are plenty of nuances to explore in Xiomara's relationship with mother, her brother and her friend Aman. Readers will easily identify with at least some of Xiomara's struggles. Acevedo is a National Slam Champion who placed 8th in the 2016 Women of the World Poetry Slam.

Book Details:

The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo
New York: Harper Teen    2018
361 pp.

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