Evan J. Hoskins Reviews Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha’s Tonguebreaker

Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha.  Tonguebreaker.  Aresenal Pulp Press. $18.95. 142 pp., ISBN: 9781551527574

Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha. Tonguebreaker. Aresenal Pulp Press. $18.95. 142 pp., ISBN: 9781551527574

Who can out-stubborn you, stubbornest femme

cunty hippo bitch warrior?

The answer: no one.

(“Tonguebreaker: Taueret”)

Prepare yourself. It’s the short blunt sentences that “like a ton of bricks just hit you.” Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha’s Tonguebreaker is socially heavy poetry and performance pieces written by a “crip fairy godmother” for people like her: queer, disabled, femme, POC, survivor, and social-warrior. Of course, anyone can read this book, and everyone should, but Piepzna-Samarasinha writes specifically, and unapologetically, for her community:

I tell her that when I am friends with friends

not femme, not survivor, they’re from a different planet I don’t speak the language
of
That all my friends are femme survivors and it’s a gift going on twenty years

(“birth day”)

Piepzna-Samarasinha writes these poems for the family of which she is a member. But to say that she has emerged from this community as a leader would be misleading. To say that she has repurposed the word “crippled” into a socially acceptable slang word “crip” would be lazy analysis. To say that she has made it as a writer with these poems is a lie. “Leader” implies a hierarchy. “Crip” removes the belittling connotation of “‘dis-’abled,” but the social othering between abled and crip cultures still exists. And “made it” implies that artists are supported enough, and, of course, we are not. Socio-cultural hierarchies, language misuse, and artist abuse are some of the issues Piepzna-Samarasinha is fighting against. She criticizes these issues from within her poetry, and without a doubt, Tonguebreaker is one of the most important poetry collections of 2019 as a result.

It is also an important book because of its honesty and blatancy. While the general public still rebuffs poetry for its inaccessibility and highfalutin vocabulary, the popular poets and critics of late have worked to address this issue, and the most touted and awarded poetry collections of the past few years have garnered their deserved attention because of their simple but precise and evocative language. These collections use minimal but piercing words to elicit intense emotion from a broad audience. Piepzna-Samarasinha’s book succeeds by doing so throughout its pages:

My mom started raping me as a baby, and maybe that is why

I love a shark’s mouth glittering with teeth

My cunt is a cracked-open geode

spilling with a million bladed gems.

A hole that grins, ripped open,

(“Shark’s mouth”)

Tonguebreaker is saturated with the theme of discomfort, and in the repetitive accounts about physical pain, persistent mental illness, ableist barriers, sexual trauma, and other plights, Piepzna-Samarasinha invites the reader to feel the confusing specificities of her struggles, and to even feel physically uncomfortable by reading about these intense problems over and over again. But it is also a book presenting the opportunities that family (meaning friends, culture, community) has to support one another during these struggles, and how extraordinarily strong that family can become under the social pressures of today’s world. So, maybe this book will make you feel an outsider to the situations Piepzna-Samarasinha presents, or maybe you’ll find the family you need within her words. Regardless of how you might personally connect with the book, it must be realized that Piepzna-Samarasinha is an incredibly important voice, and this book ought to be acknowledged for its contemporary value.

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Evan J. Hoskins’ homeplace is Manitoba. His cockapoo's name is Kara. He lives in Sioux Lookout. He won the Vallum Award for Poetry. Some now label him a poet. Please call him Evan J.