ORCHID ALPHA, by Kimberly Ann Southwick
(2023, Trembling Pillow Press, New Orleans, LA, 101 pages, $16.99, 978-1-7374768-1-8)
Reviewed by Evelyn Berry
Orchid Alpha Dares Us to Know Kimberly Ann Southwick
“The body is sick with knowing.” This line, in the poem ALETHIA, captures so much about the project of Kimberly Ann Southwick’s debut collection Orchid Alpha. “I mistake a hummingbird pausing at the empty basin for a big green buzzing insect. I’ve never seen one but then another. the body knows too much.” Published by Trembling Pillow Press, Orchid Alpha careens through the poet’s playfully sensual psyche, crammed with dirty jokes, science facts, internet memes (“I can’t even, can you even,” CURSE), mourning songs, and a lush stampede of not-cicadas and “molten pink” orchids overflowing the page, a book of poems concerned with both knowing and not knowing the universe, the relationships, and the bodies in which we make our lives.
It is impossible to know, reading these poems, what to make of knowledge, whether that be the carnal knowledge between lovers or an encyclopedia of facts about plants and animals. To know is finite (“It can only rain so much before we know nothing / but rain,” VENUS MECURY STATION DIRECT); knowing might evoke death, or birth, or both at once (“webMD is of course saying all your symptoms together are a sign of pregnancy or death,” IMMACULATE RECEPTION). In Alpha Orchid, Southwick sings against and in tune with, as described in PHLOX MOON, CLOUDCOVER, “that big nothing that’s so loud, filling ears with noise.”
“Name me, just try,” reads the epigraph by Alice Notley from her poem “After Ligeia.” Southwick’s collection is, in a sense, a failed attempt at naming– at naming enough flowers, enough insects, enough human beings to convince us she knows enough of this world to translate it into poems. “Who can dispute the name of a thing,” she asks in THE HEART OF THE MATTER, as if daring the reader to do just that. When I use the word “failed,” I do not mean this to imply that Southwick’s poems are a failure, but rather that Southwick evokes the inevitable fallibility of language to make of our material world something tangible on the page, instead celebrating, as she does in her delightfully dirty poem SILCOCK, “not knowing the names of all the things you touch.” The slipperiness of language is evident in SILCOCK, an ode to how even names for mechanical parts can be morphed into a language evoking sex. How Southwick writes about sex is refreshing and genuinely fun, often tongue-in-cheek, including a guffaw-worthy description of cocks “lined up like piano keys, all erect obviously & big as my husband’s.”
Her impulse to defy the imperative of naming is perhaps most clear in her poem INVERTEBRAE ORAGAMI, BREAUX BRIDGE: “with my phone I record the sound of a new bug, a here bug, and text it to you. you can only hear the static of me alone in this house of mostly walls. I try to explain the way its call rises and falls, how it sounds like a loud circle, concentric. a cicada, you suggest. I say, no, no, I know what a cicada sounds like.” In this passage, Southwick describes a speaker desperate to share her human experience with someone over the phone, failing at first to record the bug’s sound, then failing to replicate it with her own human noise, and finally rejecting the theory of what it might be, so uncertain about what knows of insects that she, later in the poem, describes, giving them names, as if to reclassify them and pin them down with her knowing: “write a reference book, alphabetical by sound.”
The relationship between knowing and language is, in Southwick’s syntax, under mischievous scrutiny. In this collection, readers will not find a dull sentence or a familiar phrase. She suberts syntax (“how small can a world, how melt, how green, how stretch,” Kettle’s Cracked); she pokes fun at homonyms (“the day of wrest,” CATACHRESIS); she shatters grammar’s frivolous expectations. Southwick insistently reimagines language into something startling and evocative, as if we’re being escorted through the secret back entrance of lexicon
At its core, as well as in its periphery, Orchid Alpha offers us exemption from the burden of trying to understand the world, encouraging us instead to prescribe our own meaning. “When there’s nothing left to remember, there’s always something to imagine,” she writes in LITHIUM BATTERIES, PERFUME. What else is there to do with a life during which, “your weekend is planned out for you already in increments of checking your mobile device” (FIELD OF PAUSE)? How we navigate those in-between moments, how we choose to live in an unknowable world brimming with love and hurt, matters. In Orchid Alpha, Southwick thrusts the world toward us and asks, doesn’t this matter? And if it matters, does it have to make sense?
Evelyn Berry (she/her) is the trans, southern author of the forthcoming poetry collection GRIEF SLUT (Sundress Publications, 2024) and the poetry chapbook BUGGERY (Bateau Press, 2020), winner of the 2020 BOOM Chapbook Prize. She is the recipient of a 2023 National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, 2022 Dr. Linda Veldheer Memorial Prize, 2019 Broad River Prize for Prose, and 2018 Emrys Poetry Prize, among other honors. Her recent work has appeared in GASHER, Beloit Poetry Journal, Raleigh Review, Gigantic Sequins, Anti-Heroin Chic, petrichor, beestung, Taco Bell Quarterly, Underblong, and elsewhere. She lives in South Carolina, where she works as a museum educational specialist and freelance editor.
Kimberly Ann Southwick is an Aries with a Capricorn Moon & Ascendant. She is the founder & editor in chief of the literary arts journal GIGANTIC SEQUINS, which has been in print since 2009. Her debut full-length poetry collection, ORCHID ALPHA, is out via Trembling Pillow Press as of April 2023. May of 2020 she earned her doctorate in English & Creative Writing at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, and her dissertation was titled “Aletheia: An original collection of poems and a play, with an essay exploring hybridity in works by contemporary American women poets via hybrid utterance.” Previously Kimberly received her MA in English from NYU & her BFA in Writing, Literature, & Publishing from Emerson College. She is currently working on a series of decoupage poetry and collage as well as circulating the manuscript for her second full-length poetry collection. Kimberly has been a featured reader at the Open Mouth Poetry Festival, Splice Reading Series, and Dogfish New Orleans Reading series, amongst others. She currently lives in Saks, Alabama, with her daughter, Esmé, and their dog Nova (most of the time). She is an Assistant Professor specializing in Poetry and Creative Writing at Jacksonville State University and a member of the Emily Dickinson International Society, where she serves on their Web Committee. She won’t waste your time if you don’t waste hers.