Hull, by Xandria Phillips, is an adroit, time traveling poetic structure that gracefully scoops the dead out of history and carries them forward. Phillips (they/them) dips a textured tongue back and forth between their own Black queerness and a historical larceny of Black bodies, excavating names that have otherwise been archived amongst majority. Through subversive, playful prose, Phillips synchronizes a profession of names by affirming identities, thus declaring Black and queer experiences are knitted together as one, and that the same sufferings, infringements, and racisms hang suspended in every generation.
Phillips’ poems begin with bones and repeated shark imagery, both counterpoised with birds. The sharks swim with mouths wide open, symbolizing a voracious and incessant prefeeding. Yet the disquietude lies more with lackluster phoenixes struggling to climb out of ashes, or small birds that lack trajectory as they ponder their own condition in midair. In the poem “I Never Used to Write About Birds”, Phillips writes about freedom as something more cursory and up for questioning: this is the closest I’ll get to grabbing/our unjust god by the pearls/strung across his throat so I can ask why he sat back in luster/all these millennia/watching my people die (3). In “Nature Poem with Compulsive Attraction to the Shark”, the line, “every volta America wrote for me had teeth” suggests every point in history that granted Black people more agency came with significant barriers.
Phillips partners their poems idly with a particular sub group of disenfranchised POC, most of whom are women, and victims of horrors inflicted by white men credited for societal modernizations. We see Phillips weathering a storm with Edmonia Lewis, folding laundry with Sara Baartman, and examining trauma with Anarcha Westcott—an enslaved woman subjected to forced experimental procedures aimed at curing vaginal conditions. Phillips’ intentional arrangement for the placement of their poems is obvious early in their book. “Anarcha and I Negotiate Trauma”, follows the poem “Black Body As Told by Stirrups”. Events recounted here were considered a milestone in the advancement of modern gynecology, but what must also be recognized is that this leap toward modern healthcare emanated from the violent violation of the unconsenting body of Anarcha Westcott. The poem before Westcott’s begins with the disconcerting and agonizingly telling line, Thank you for your cooperation (26).
There’s a preamble of queerness that happens during Phillips’ interactions with these names flecked out in subversive jolts. Sometimes exhibited as playful sex dreams, these appropriately occurring interjections are another example of Phillips’ deliberate placement of their work, as if to remind us how and why Blackness and queerness are linked together. Abuse of a body can occur with a frequency just as powerful as a vibrator’s hum. Bodily autonomy exists too, in Hull, and often comes demonstrated as sexual mischief. There’s a sort of repossession of one’s own body, which could look like an intimate sex dream with Michelle Obama, or deliverance of an affectionate ode to a sex toy…so as to never consider the sentience /Of a pleasure machine. /How her trembling must have lullabied/My drunk tongue the intricacies…(16).
Phillips’ sexuality poems read with a hard, celebratory exhale; one that comes when remembering how queerness is incongruous with historical man-made rigid trajectories. Phillips reminds us that acts of loving can be acts of defiance. Sex, my choice/harness for affection, I falter before unreining curiosity./Trans time and space/I follow the russet roads inside myself/Accra lanced into my neural system still/My intra-continent sweats through shirts, and drinks stout/though it tastes of displacement (41).
Phillips’ book is a hand carved hull. A collection of wet darkness holding celestial, limitless Black bodies, which exist repeatedly between history’s most nefarious building blocks of white supremacy and 21st century diaspora. Philips explains what it means to live and own a body that breathes each ocean, and was once ripped away from itself. They tell us how queerness, in its full and nuanced significance, is a form of resuscitated freedom. Hull is not a balm or teaching tool, rather it’s a territory that Phillips establishes and then asks us to look upon. If you see a sister/walk through walls or survive the un-survivable, sip your/drink and learn to forget or love the taxed apparition before you (13).
Laura Jeanne K is a queer Chicago-based writer most recently published in Papeachu Press. She is a past contributor to Maudlin House and Honeysuckle Press, a sister magazine to Winter Tangerine. Laura is currently studying manuscript editing at the University of Berkeley.