Andrea Gibson, author of the award-winning Lord of the Butterflies, returns with a powerful collection concerned with legacy and the human condition. Known for their sociopolitical writing and long history of activism, it is no surprise that Gibson’s newest book incorporates themes like gender identity, climate change, and sexual assault. They even explore the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on social interactions. But what stands out most in You Better Be Lightning is grace, for themselves and, often, for those who have harmed them.
Many of the poems in this collection center the impact that daily interactions can have, especially when we approach others from a place of compassion. “Neighbors,” for example, recalls a woman who lived across the street from the speaker. Though their relationship was predicated on difference, the two come together while watching the aftermath of 9/11 on the neighbor’s television, highlighting how trauma can push us, literally and figuratively, to cross perceived borders and connect with others.
Gibson uses epistolary and direct address throughout the collection, speaking from a place of empathy and grace rather than anger. In “Love Letter to the Tick that Got Me Sick,” the speaker comes to terms with chronic illness and grief through the memory of caring for their baby niece while their sister faces personal struggles, concluding with the revelation:
You are my blood now.
Which is another word for family—
which is the least tiny gift
my life has known.
The poems that most struck me, though, were those that acknowledged the inevitability of death and what we leave behind. “The Test of Time” is a heart wrenching reflection on the impact of learning that the speaker’s mother has a genetic illness that will cause increasingly severe paralysis. Throughout the poem, the speaker acknowledges the things they have learned since then, ultimately concluding:
but there is a test we can all take to find out the future.
It’s called the test of time. And what you do is you live
until you die. And you refuse to let the hands of your clock
curl into fists to fight the lessons off. Even if the lessons
are brutally hard…
In “What Love Is,” Gibson recalls a performance with their former lover. Known for their activism, some members of the audience approach Gibson and ask them to announce details about a protest. To complicate things, Gibson also learns that their lover’s conservative family will attend the show. The protest itself, Gibson learns, targets the same thing their lover’s father does for a living. It’s an impossible situation and, before going on stage, Gibson tells themselves, “you better be lightning.” And while the performance is electric, Gibson decides not to announce the protest. The lover’s family is deeply moved, but Gibson fails to be the advocate they promised to be. The final lines of the poem are jarringly honest:
There is no moral of this story,
there is only light and sadness.
There is no moral of this story.
It’s just a moment in my life
when I did something wrong
and the earth,
who has never not known
what love is, held me
You Better Be Lightning is a collection that carries a sense of finality. Gibson closes the book with “The Last Hours,” about their lover’s grandfather passing away. The poem, a compilation of several vignettes, closes with perhaps the most explicit consideration of legacy:
I’ve written so many poems in my life. And every single one of them was just trying to find a better way to say what one soul said to another soul with one word. Isn’t it amazing that I came up so short? Isn’t it everything that I tried so hard and failed to write a single thing more beautiful than
Fans of Gibson will recognize some of the memories, and the themes will be familiar; what sets You Better Be Lightning apart from the author’s previous work is the maturity and depth with which they consider the lasting impact of their writing. When I read these poems as a critic, I am impressed by their technical prowess and intrigued by the author’s ability to balance socio-political commentary with personal anecdote. As a friend, the experience is more haunting, but also calming.
It’s impossible to ignore that Gibson approaches the collection through the lens of legacy and what we leave behind. I have not often approached trauma from a place of solace or grace. I turn first to grief. I don’t want to think of my friend in terms of mortality. But that’s the magic of You Better Be Lightning: it reminds us that we can’t think of ourselves in human terms unless we allow ourselves to be fragile, to experience trauma and to acknowledge the possibility of our last days. It reminds me that mortality is not an inherently frightening thing. It takes me back to the brilliant revelation in “Tincture,” from Gibson’s book Lord of the Butterflies, where the speaker comes to terms with how, to feel all the wonderful moments of our lives, we must also feel the worst of our experiences.
I imagine that, if we take anything from You Better Be Lightning, Gibson would want us to remember that last syllable of the collection: love. And with love, wild and immeasurable hope.