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December 12, 2017

Book Notes - Kiki Petrosino "Witch Wife"

Witch Wife

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Lauren Groff, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

The visceral poems in Kiki Petrosino's collection Witch Wife brilliantly explore themes of race, gender, and motherhood.

Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:

"Cosmic images blend with the familiar and domestic to create an all-encompassing reading experience. Petrosino situates the body as a vessel for stories of both being and becoming."

In her own words, here is Kiki Petrosino's Book Notes music playlist for her poetry collection Witch Wife:

Every playlist is about love. So is this:

In the spring of 2000, I left my country for the first time, taking with me a Discman, one pair of headphones, and a red leather CD case. Those months in Florence transformed me into someone who reveled in learning a new language while thirsting for English with a vehemence that surprised me. My memories of that time are montages-under-pop-music; I listened to CDs on my long walks to the Centro Linguistico at the University of Florence, on the autobus that delivered me to my then-boyfriend’s home in the Scandicci neighborhood, and finally on the plane ride back to Virginia, my red CD case now filled with a mixture of the '90s college rock I’d brought from Charlottesville and the Italian pop my boyfriend liked. My new book of poetry, Witch Wife, recollects some of that ecstatic and unrepeatable study abroad time, when I was twenty-turning-twenty-one, seeing my first cathedrals, and sobbing before stone fountains while songs by U2 and REM spun in my pocket.

After my breakup with the Florentine—my first broken heart—I stopped listening to Italian music, but I didn’t throw out the CDs. They lived in the red case, complete with the liner notes I’d carefully folded into the sleeves. When I revisit this music, I join the two halves of an amulet preserving that exact spring. In Witch Wife, the speaker finds herself at a turning point; she’s married and perhaps ready to have a child. That future isn’t settled yet, only imagined, though she senses the rim of possible-motherhood slipping beyond her orbit. In the early sections of the book, the speaker reflects on her youthful heart, which had to break in order to be filled with the good life she has now. If her meditation had a soundtrack, it would surely be guitar-heavy, with melodic pop vocals and the occasional violin thrown in.

"I Try" by Macy Gray
I would like, always, to dress as Macy Gray in the video for this song: the thick orange boatneck blouse, the maxi skirt. Most of all, I want the turquoise trenchcoat she never unbuttons, not even in the third minute of the video, when Gray’s longing creates a phantom of her lost beau, standing to greet her in the park. I love how Gray’s sunburst of curly hair contrasts with her lover’s neat bundle of dreads, and how the camera rotates around the two of them, three hundred and sixty degrees of imaginary reunion. At twenty, this is what I thought true love would be like: vibrant, eclectic, a little unreal.

"Wild Honey" by U2
About halfway through my semester in Florence, I got a fever. At its height, the smallest tasks, like taking a shower, required so much effort that I had to go back to sleep. This lasted for a couple of weeks, an eternity in study-abroad time. Eventually, I went alone to the English-speaking doctor in the historic center of the city. He was, literally, an English doctor, tall and narrow, with floppy brown hair like Hugh Grant. He didn’t know what was wrong with me; maybe a mild case of mono. I recuperated in the dorm as few days as I dared, finally powering through the last of my symptoms by sheer will. My greatest fear was having to go home, so I resolved, resolved, resolved—to stay. It worked, though the world got brighter, sizzled. My dreams lingered long after waking. That spring, my boyfriend burned me a copy of U2’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind, drawing a suitcase on the slippery surface of the CD. I listened to "Wild Honey" on repeat, imagining doors, suitcases, and books spilling open to reveal technicolor flowers.

"50 Special" by Lunapop
Can you claim to have truly lived if you’ve never been picked up from school by a boy in a leather jacket? If you’ve never boarded the back of his motorino or worn his helmet, his oversized goggles with amber lenses? If, in front of the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale, you’ve never fitted his shearling gloves over your own, thumb-ringed fingers, so that, on the long, late winter ride from campus, your body divides into territories of hot and cold: your legs, wind-frozen in blue jeans, your hands, burning in their borrowed gloves? Lunapop says that riding a Vespa 50 Special is like having "wings under your feet," but it’s also like every teen movie you’ve ever seen, a kind of prom-colored joy that winks at itself while it’s still happening, already a dream, distantly-smiled-at, disappearing.

"Francesco" by Irene Grandi
The young man I dated in Florence smelled like fresh laundry. I remember how many layers of clothing he always wore: T-shirt, button-down, sweater vest, white puffer coat. All of it clean, as if it had just been taken down from the line. In "Francesco," Irene Grandi wishes for "a switch to shut off her brain," which dreams, exhaustingly, of fantastical, unattainable lovers. "I’d rather live in my ordinary dream," she sings to the boy next door. She envisions herself waking up with her very own Francesco (in Italian, a common, even humdrum name) and saying "Buongiorno, amore" as a long morning stretches before them. The familiar hand, the ordinary dream, the fragrance of clean shirts in a real home. These are just some of the things I could not have then.

"Il Mio Corpo Che Cambia" by Piero Pelù
In videos from this era, Piero Pelù is a treasure box of sartorial overstatement. He wears gold chains. And burgundy leather jackets, studded with countless zippers. On his feet: jewel-toned cowboy boots with lengthy toe boxes. Once the frontman for Litfiba, a Florence-based pop group, Pelù’s debut solo album, Né Buoni Né Cattivi (Neither Good Nor Evil) is a surreal mash-up of East-meets-West, complete with scorching guitar riffs, tribal album art, and the occasional pan flute. His lyrics are just general enough to encompass a range of philosophies—the body as a container for something more eternal is a repeated motif—without completely rejecting the Roman Catholicism of his country. The sheer multiplicity of symbols and references Pelù manages to stack into one song are enough to buy my forever fascination. His music makes me laugh in a pure, bubbling way. "I’m traveling without a ticket, no limits," he sings. I believe him.

"Otherside" by The Red Hot Chili Peppers
My Italian boyfriend had a motorino. He also drove a white convertible Peugeot, small enough to slip down the narrow cobblestoned streets of the city, and up winding traces into the mountains of Fiesole. When he picked me up for one of our first dates, this song, from Californication, spilled from the door he opened for me. I’d brought my own copy of the CD to Florence, having guessed, inaccurately, that no one in Italy would love The Red Hot Chili Peppers as much as I did. As it happens, the Chili Peppers are one of the most popular bands in Italy, and Californication became our shared soundtrack that spring. "I heard your voice through a photograph," Anthony Kiedis sings. "I thought it up and brought up the past." In Witch Wife, the poem "Europe" loops the speaker back, similarly, to the ghostly crossroads of a past love. "I’ll never be so lonely again," my speaker claims, and then: "Every night, I go back to your house."

"Babylon" by David Gray
After the plane ride, after the breakup, after my return to Charlottesville and the final slog of undergraduate classes, after winter weight, and thesis hours, and waking up in the slow, boyfriend-less world of what I thought of as my "old" life, I turned on the radio in my bedroom on University Circle and this song was playing. "The love that I was giving you was never in doubt," David Gray proclaims at the song’s zenith, and those syllables went down my throat like burning cough drops, in a way no other post-breakup song ever has, perhaps because you can have but one true breakup song in a lifetime. There’s something pure about the heartbreak of youth, and something supremely indulgent, too. It’s too much honey on the spoon. It’s "climbing on the stair, I turn around to see you smiling there in front of me," as if our loves, once lost, are nonetheless obliged to reappear forever, exhausted angels, on staircases, in memories, in dreams.

"The Great Beyond" by REM
There is a dream-Florence. I go there a few times a month to pace its streets. Sometimes, I am "permitted to return" to a certain piazza at twilight. I’ve even materialized inside a familiar apartment, "as if it were a given property of the mind/that certain bounds hold against chaos," as Robert Duncan taught us. Other times, I have to be satisfied with the outskirts of the city, places I don’t really remember visiting in real life. In these dreams, I understand, without words, that I must note the glowing bricks at sunset, or the look of a rain puddle in the middle of an empty road. Something—wind or rain—has washed the city clean and revealed an inner glow to everything. There are more bridges in my dream-Florence than the six historic ones in the real city, and though I have not yet crossed them all, I know that I will. "I’m breaking through/I’m bending spoons/I’m keeping flowers in full bloom."

Kiki Petrosino and Witch Wife links:

the author's website
audio excerpt from the book

Publishers Weekly review

also at Largehearted Boy:

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