This is what teaches me love. Your streets, their wailing
for their dead. The way a siren becomes a mother
too. How my parents hold me like some frail thing…
From “South Side (I)”
Award-winning poet Taylor Byas offers one of the summer’s best collections with her full-length debut, I Done Clicked My Heels Three Times, from Soft Skull Press. Byas, who has quickly established herself as one of the most prolific and technically skilled living poets in America, continues to demonstrate her deftness with form and her ability to unpack deeply intense emotions with jarring efficiency. Readers familiar with Byas will be right at home with her frequent use of form, including the crown sonnet, pantoum and villanelle. What resonates most in the collection, though, is how Byas grounds her work in introspection without ever losing sight of the reader. These poems echo for days at a time, demanding to be revisited and shared again and again.
Byas most directly engages the title of I Done Clicked My Heels Three Times by spreading “Southside,” winner of the 2020 Frontier Prize for New Poets, across each of its seven sections. The poem, a seven-part crown sonnet, layers two distinct narrative arcs as it unpacks masculinity, nostalgia and womanhood in the Black community. One arc centers the first-person speaker, whom readers first meet as a girl remembering a boy and their “brownstones, side by side–/so there’s nowhere to run, nowhere for us to cry.” This first section also introduces the boy, a love interest whom the speaker explains “looks like a thug/in darkness” but “softens into a boy in the gold–//glow of a bedside lamp.”
As the sonnet progresses through each section of the book, the girl shifts to a woman living away from her childhood home, Chicago, and working to heal from the brief and passionate relationship of her girlhood. Readers watch the boy grow, too, who “was only taught the game.” The game, of course, is how to be a man in the eyes of his father and peers. Readers watch as he internalizes misogynoir and takes his place in a disheartening cycle of coldness and violence too often aligned with masculinity. By the time readers reach the seventh and final section, the boy has been replaced by the speaker’s complicated love for Chicago. Evoking the frustration of the collection’s title, the speaker laments her inability to return home while also explaining, “I learn/to find you everywhere I look, to glean/your shadow from Cincinnati’s light and turn//it into home when I feel lost…”
Each section of the book mirrors the revelations afforded in the accompanying section of “Southside.” One of the most gut-wrenching sections is the third, wherein Byas unpacks sexual assault and the numerous ways in which Black women’s bodies are used against them. The third section of “Southside,” appropriately, chronicles the memory of a time when the boy “trying to ply/[her] open in the backseat,” only to shift his attentions to her friend “after a week of this.” Speakers in the poems throughout this section grapple with the expectations of others, including the silent desire not to have children in “A Diagram With Hands” and body dysmorphia in “How to Pray.” One of the most powerful poems in the section, “Cloud Watching,” invokes the pantoum form to describe sexual assault.
Byas leans into the repetitiveness of the form with brilliant precision. The first and last line of the poem, “It started out innocent enough,” is at once remarkably familiar and devastatingly haunting. Other lines in the poem work to combat the ways in which the speaker is gaslit by the man who assaults her. In the third stanza, for example, the speaker tells him, “I’m not ready, don’t/touch me here.” This line gains a new layer of meaning in the following stanza as Byas utilizes both form and line break expertly, shifting the sentence to, “I’m not ready, don’t/hurt me. The fifth stanza again compounds on this image, the man rejecting the speaker’s memory and violently demanding that she explain how he has hurt her.
It is impossible to understate the breadth and skill that Byas demonstrates throughout I Done Clicked My Heels Three Times. Working to encompass the totality of the collection here feels impossible, too. In addition to the underlying narrative of self-actualization, Byas invokes the history of systemic racism and slavery in “Blackberrying,” the subtle ways that Black women support one another in “Tender-Headed,” and toxic masculinity in “Men Really Be Menning: On Dating.” Byas is equally comfortable writing both within and against form, invoking complex histories and singular moments of grace. This collection is further proof that Byas is one of the most important voices in American poetry. Settle in, readers. We are experiencing a legend in the making.