PANSY by Andrea Gibson

Becoming Bolder

reviewed by Doe Parker

(Trigger warning: rape, self harm, disordered eating mention)

Andrea Gibson is an incredible page and performance poet who has been writing and touring for over a decade. Their newest collection, PANSY (Write Bloody, 2015), is a gorgeously honest and brutal set of work with poems that both deconstruct themself and the world we live in.

As a reader of a large body of their work, I've noticed that with each collection poems they've published, the font size—especially on the side binding—has gotten bigger, darker, and transitioned into caps. Gibson is becoming bolder in addressing the topics they’ve always been passionate about. The title PANSY conjures up a juvenile school yard boy insult of "the feminine" as a negative thing. Gibson reclaims this as a statement about the bravery in being vulnerable. One of their recent merch shirts is a simple pattern with the words “FEELINGS ARE NOT THE ENEMY.” The last time I saw them perform, they mentioned that they very often argue with this shirt. This argument within themselves of facing and unpacking what is difficult to write about is very apparent in their collection, but they do seem to always win the fight.  

Earlier collections such as Pole Dancing to Gospel Hymns and The Madness Vase (Write Bloody, 2008, 2011) hint at an experience of the speaker of being raped. The poem “Trellis” seems to vaguely point to a rape that happened early on in life and discusses the guilt they feel for not speaking about it. There is a violent contrast, even in the transparency of title alone, in a parallel poem in PANSY called “Upon Discovering my Therapist Willingly Shares an Office Space with a Male Therapist Who is an Accused Sex Offender Supposedly Recovered from his Urge to Rape 13-Year-Old Girls.” The speaker uses a narrative poem to describe an instance of arguing with their therapist who is cohabitating an office space with a sex offender and asks,

do you understand how certain I am

that I could have torn my nails into his wrist

pulled out his pulse

deactivating a bomb?

and describes the rape in graphic detail. In “Trellis,” the speaker excuses their silence on the topic and the guilt they feel because they are taking blame for the fact that their rapist “moved onto the hemorrhage of another perfect thing” with the statement, “everything would’ve broken, everything but you.”

Gibson takes on talking about misogyny, patriarchy, rape, race and police brutality, mental health, and suicide. This collection never backs away from those topics and still admits to being human and imperfect in handling them. In “A Letter to White Queers, a Letter to Myself,” Gibson analyzes how they’ve been performing too long without voicing their support for people of color and deeply express their shame, while also calling out white queers for their racism because “no matter how queer you are…. we have Eric Garner’s air in our lungs tonight.”

Gibson is still playful with how they approach some of their poems. In "On Being the Blowjob Queen of My High School,” they write,

there are

a thousand ways

to stay in the closet

all of them suck

again referencing their title in a new way with colloquial schoolyard language.

The heart-wrenching range of emotions, from guilt to forgiveness and love, is very broad and striking. They write about suicide and struggling with chronic illness and how guilt and shame have weighed them down. In “The Madness Vase,” which is the title poem of their last collection, they start with a list of ways they tried to reach out to healers for their mental illness. They get advice from “the nutritionist [who] said I should eat root vegetables, said . . . I would be grounded” then turn to

the first psychotherapist [who] said I should spend 3 hours a day

sitting in a dark closet with my eyes closed, with my ears plugged

I tried it once but I couldn’t stop thinking

about how gay it was to be sitting in the closet.

Here, they show the frustrating and comical search for peace from their mental illnesses. While The Madness Vase shows a struggle with mental illness and a determination to overcome it, PANSY comes at the same topics again with more experience. Gibson has a poem in PANSY called “An Insider’s Guide on How to Be Sick” that seems to make fun of some self-help book title they would’ve read earlier in life, as it advises,

Say fuck you to everyone who asks you

if you do not eat enough.

Say how do you not know

that is so fucking rude.

In this poem the speaker, reveals they have Lyme disease, telling of how that was a harder closet to come out of than being gay and transgender.

This collection will not be easily put down, standing up to what Buddy Wakefield said about them after their last collection, "Andrea will not just show up to pluck at your heartstrings. They will stick around to tune them." Gibson takes topics of mental illness and rape and social justice that they have arguably hinted at before and delves deeper into how all of those affect their life more personally than ever before. They call out themselves and everyone else to join them in “plant[ing] my fear in the raised bed in your bedroom” and to see that “pansies bloom all night.”