By Greg Bem
Akwaeke Emezi’s Content Warning: Everything is both deceptive and illuminating. It begins with the appearance of a typical poetry collection but grows through its breadth into so much more. Unfolding like a quilt, the book’s patterns and stories develop with each new layer, each new title, each new line, each new image. That does not make it an easy book or necessarily an enjoyable book, as its title might suggest, but it one of surprise and utter engagement.
Many of the poems investigate the horror and trauma of human experience across gender, race, family, and religious history. The poems contribute to a milieu of both pain and catharsis, often with intense and intricate images serving as foundational markers intellectually jaw-dropping and capable of carrying awe within the otherwise morose silences. The breath and its absence is amazingly intricate in all of the poems. Form occupies attention throughout the book, with the anticipated short length of the collection (39 poems) expanding in size like an accordion through dense poems that can be read in multiple ways. The effect of subtle and effective innovations in structure leave us with questions and the urge to dive deeper.
Emezi’s stanzas often make use of splicing by way of the forward slash (“/”), affording the reader with an outstanding degree of complexity that makes a single read of the poem barely an introduction to its fullness. I was particularly affected structurally by the poem “Self-Portrait as an Abuser,” which takes the form in question and duplicates it into two columns. The poem is like two voices speaking to one another, or two cameras positioned away from one another, documenting multiple spaces on conjunction. The power of such an approach is that additional interpretations and readings are both imperative and guaranteed.
A favorite sequence in the aforementioned poem pairs the following, difficult to display here and worth viewing in its original visualization within the book:
|she trusted me / i am fresh water /
dark instinct / against abandoning /
i choose when it’s over / i have to choose
|she won’t release you / while you’re useful
you’re so useful / my love, i remember /
what it was like / how easy it is
Emezi’s works are halting. Their works are often electrifyingly photographic and deal with the exquisite nature of combining multiple perspectives, images and internal reflections, often starting in one position and actively moving through a scene or snapshot of an experience to a new position. The active movement of the image in this way vibrates with energy and only adds to the curious captivation of the line. Poems like “What if My Father Called Jesus a Bastard” exemplify this method:
he looks at me with those eyes / they scared my mother / almost as much as the
dead bird beating / its wings under his hand
As the title of this poem suggests, the book as a whole connects the poet’s life experiences to biblical themes, stories, and characters. While not overtly critical of Christianity, biblical motifs and their implications are deconstructed through a complex lens bringing together both the poet’s experiences and feelings. Often these come through the speaker’s voice in the context of religious structures and literary relationships. “Christening” opens with priests who “spat” the speaker’s name back and closes with a self-affirming embodiment: “but my throat is a river / full of the holiest water” (page 5). Juxtapositions like this are both helpful and quizzical. In other poems, Emezi’s poetry displaces the speaker’s point of view with a more abstract voice. For example, in “Healing,” Christ is examined through exaggerated and enveloping language:
the son of god says / imagine your chest as a soapy bubble / your collarbone as
a landscape / a horizon stretching [. . .]
The movement between the characterization of the speaker(s) within the book is yet another quality of the complexities the poet brings to the table. Each poem is stunning, and often feels uproarious immediately upon its completion, demanding another read, another look, a step or two back or to the side, to second guess, question, and feel. Occasionally this process carries additional mesmerizing effects when their writing is even more astounding. In “Scraps,” a poem that references Toni Morrison and Freddie Gray in nearly the same breath, the speaker’s lines close with a figurative ellipses indicative of our irresolute world:
there is a story somewhere here,
lost in blood and ash. i don’t have
enough air to dig it out.
The book’s title directly implies the traumatic difficulties faced by those under systemic oppression both past and present. Emezi writes through multiple lineages and of multiple identities, which further solidifies this book as a must-read for anyone who cares about the crossroads of poetics and social justice. The poetry blends difficult subjects into the fold, often flipping the pace of the book through an embedded presence of racism, gender oppression, and sexual violence. The appearance of “everything” is not formulaic; it often reflects reality in that it is both sporadic and universal in appearance and tone, and the poetry reflects the persistence of violence and horror in a matter-of-fact way, again reflective of the systemic reality so many face.
And the book foils horror with hope. “Salvation” opens with some of my favorite lines from the book:
i believe in new skins, even nightmares
can be maps, the space between existence
and function, between performance and effect
“Salvation” in my mind is not a poem of absolution as much as it is possibility, the possibility of individuality and the possibility of process. It is one of critical existence, just as all the poems speak to the possibility for growth; illumination as a result of difficulty and complexity. Like an awakening, the newness that arrives with the beginning and end, and the rereading, of each poem affords not only new experiences but new possibilities. It is an outlook of the perpetual and exponential, with roots of autonomy and self-control.
Content Warning: Everything arrives to the world as books are continued to be banned, Black folks are continued to be murdered, and the world continues to deny Trans people their presence and livelihood. It is a book that confronts these brutal circumstances while also offering the reader a glimpse into Emezi’s unique experiences (and storytelling) by way of diverse, rapidly-shifting points of view in accelerated sequences of events. It is a book you must read but it is a book you should read, and it is a book we can all benefit from reading more than once.
You can find the book here: https://www.coppercanyonpress.org/books/content-warning-everything-by-akwaeke-emezi/
Greg Bem is a poet and librarian living on unceded Duwamish territory, specifically Seattle, Washington. He writes book reviews for Rain Taxi, Yellow Rabbits, and more. His current literary efforts mostly concern water and often include elements of video. Learn more at gregbem.com.