Poetry Wonk: Fort Red Border by Kiki Petrosino

Fort Red Border looking pretty unfh.

Fort Red Border looking pretty unfh.

If you just asked me to give up my horses
I’d give up my horses”

Kiki Petrosino, Fort Red Border, “Sense-Certainty”

I love anagrams. One anagram of my full legal name is so terribly, awkwardly dirty that I regularly use it as an expletive and it is more satisfying than any of the other legitimate swears that I know or can possibly imagine.

An anagram reveals something hidden that was there all along.

Kiki Petrosino, in her 2009 collection of poems FORT RED BORDER, opens her book with a series of deeply intimate lyric poems voiced by a narrator engaged in a romance with Robert Redford.

Washing her afro with shampoo and a jar of water warmed by the sun, he leans over her, flashing a hole in the armpit of his workshirt and

I glimpse the long curve of Redford’s body through the hole.
There’s his arm, stretched above me.
Then a smooth triangle of torso disappearing into the shadows.
His shadows are grey & brown as grass.

So from this opening poem, “Wash,” we are inside another country. One where the craggy face and ginger waves of Robert Redford are familiar, but also one where his most private and unfamiliar moments with a lover are revealed, previously hidden, in fact, entirely fictional, but no less truthful, for that.

We’re in Fort Red Border, and what was inside his name—just arranged another way, and what he would do, and not do, for the love of a woman who could never comfortably live inside the culture he inhabits:

Redford watches as I gather my afro
into a plain elastic hoop. This is how I pull it back: both hands, a ballet
circle of turned elbows, my own putting-off crown. Is this he asks how
your mother wears it? He traces a soft cross at my nape. I tilt my head to
look at him. Not even close I grin. She doesn’t keep it natural. I take my
hands down. Redford’s face goes coltish and aware. Is that how you say it,

from “Dread,” Fort Red Border

Redford takes her to dinner, to exotic locations, seats her in first class accommodations. She alternately basks and bristles under his attentions:

I lean back & Redford traces my spine
with his thumb. I feel as though I’ve done well on something—
my Algebra exam, the fragile zipper on my tightest
dress, my federal taxes.

from “Coffee,” Fort Red Border

Or after an uncomfortable ski trip that underscores their differences in everything from athleticism to what constitutes fun on vacation:

A long time passed without speaking. Now, crumpling
the napkin in his fist, Redford asks: What were you doing out there, with
your equipment? There’s nothing to tell him. With my tongue, I draw a
secret tiger on the roof my mouth. Mostly, I am patient.

from “Crans Montana,” Fort Red Border

The Redford of these poems is as sexy as you imagine, and infinitely more tender than you could.

Ginger fox

Ginger fox

He is the dream of Redford: as commanding donning a suit and cedar cologne after leaving his lover to dream the morning away in bed as he is wrapping his arms around her while she does dishes, telling her “you float around my house all day/just like a little cloud of sweetness.”

And yet, here is a couple so achingly wonky, they live together at the very border of disturbed. Our narrator is infatuated and yet restless, and our hero is, well, Robert Redford.


We’re back, I think, to the idea of rearrangement and of what is hidden. Robert Redford, the American actor, represents an ideal that is instantly intuited by even his name. He is like, you can say, describing a hero, Robert Redford, and this is an evocative shorthand that somehow reassures your audience that the world will be in good hands. Hands, in fact, that “he slips across my waist, then along/my torso, pressing tightly” while he says “I know the secret shape/in you. It’s in the bone, burning there–/a thing I can’t call. Fine-made.”

If Robert Redford is our hero, how is he rearranged against this narrator? Against the failures of our own culture? Because this isn’t Robert Redford, this is Fort Red Border. A place of the imagination that allows us to see what it is we’ve been missing all along.

This Redford loves our unlikely heroine, but he doesn’t quite hear her, the words are scrambled, and he can never truly capture her like he thinks he should:

But what I’ve been thinking, deciding now—
If I just knew the words to still you down, some sound
to ride by. I’d find a way to keep you with me, then.

from “Sense-Certainty,” Fort Red Border

If you haven’t had the opportunity to spend time with a book of poems, I am recommending this one, and recommending it as Certified Wonktastical. Petrosino’s voice is accessible even as her language is precise and her metaphors intricate. Contemporary poetry resonates for the same reasons we love contemporary romance—we see and hear ourselves and the people we know. This is particularly true of Petrosino. This book is sexy, and heart-twisting, and true.

Fort Red Border has two other parts: “Otolaryngology,” an exploration of voice, including her award-winning poem “You Have made a Career of Not Listening;” and “Valentine,” which is a series of valentine poems that I adore that are the ultimate laugh/cry experience:

You can’t order some of the love.
It’s not scientific.

So you get the wrong love.
Or you get the wrong amount.

Chrysler Building Love when you wanted Dinner Roll Love.
Switchgrass Love instead of Foghorn Love.

Like, I’ve had:

Canyoneering Love
Espresso Love
Removable T-Top Love

None of which I ordered.

from “Valentine,” Fort Red Border

Kiki Petrosino

Kiki Petrosino

So now that all of you are clicking away, ordering this book of poems, here is the part where I also tell you that a commenter on this thread who leaves a comment by 11:59 p.m. US EST on Friday will receive their very own copy of Fort Red Border. Poems and stories about your affairs (real or imagined) with iconic celebrities, are absolutely encouraged.

Also, here is an anagram generator so that you may discover your own hidden truths. Or personal swear words.


About Mary Ann Rivers

Mary Ann Rivers writes smart and emotional contemporary romance. Read more >
This entry was posted in Certified Wonktastical, Review, Talking Wonkomance. Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to Poetry Wonk: Fort Red Border by Kiki Petrosino

  1. Shari Slade says:

    This is just to say/

    that I’d dearly love to read that wonky, disjointed, fever-dream lyric.

    Years ago, this guy gave me a copy of James Wright’s “The Branch Will Not Break” and I still have that slim volume somewhere with a yellowed note inside that reads “this reminded me of you.”

    It was such an unexpected tool for wooing. Unfortunately, I fell more in love with James Wright than “the guy”. My m.o. was always to fall in love with the least attainable person possible. And what wonkery is that, to fall in love with a poet who died the year you were born?

    My favorite poem from that collection, the one that totally undid me is The Jewel.

    There is this cave
    In the air behind my body
    That nobody is going to touch:
    A cloister, a silence
    Closing around a blossom of fire.
    When I stand upright in the wind,
    My bones turn to dark emeralds.

    It encapsulates all my FEELS for every tortured hero, every distant lover…oh to reach that cave!

    • Mary Ann Rivers says:

      James Wright is the original wonk poet. In fact, if you’re at all a reader of the wonkomance authors, and get swoony over strange insights into love and loser heros of the American midwest and longing and pining, the yes, a thousand times, James Wright. Plus, he was this kind of bear of a guy, and much beloved.

      I’m not sure why the word hasn’t gotten out about the effectiveness of pitching a woo with poetry–your own or a volume (maybe with the good parts marked, like a kind of message to the receiver). I’ve only been on the receiving end of love poetry twice, and it worked both times. Though, Shari, I like your story best. I love it, actually. To fall in love with the poet over the woo-er . . . well. I think that’s kind of the poet’s dream. To create a world that can be so passionately objectified it inspires your kind of delicious, unrequited love.

      • Shari Slade says:

        Fourteen years later and I still remember exactly how I felt the first time I read that poem, but I can barely remember his face. Poor guy, poetically cock-blocked himself.

        I sometimes wonder if this smooth operator gave every weird girl a copy of “The Branch Will Not Break” or if I was the only recipient.

        My other wonky poetic love is Louise “feelings, oh I have those” Gluck.

        I’m going to turn them into paper dolls and make them dance.

  2. Serena Bell says:

    Oh, Mary Ann Awesomeness, welcome to Wonkomance. It has been a long time since I read poetry but I am raring to go–thank you for this! This is my favorite quote:

    “I lean back & Redford traces my spine
    with his thumb. I feel as though I’ve done well on something—
    my Algebra exam, the fragile zipper on my tightest
    dress, my federal taxes.”

    • Mary Ann Rivers says:

      Thank you Serena Gorgeousness!

      Isn’t that snippet amazing? And her book is just one amazement after the next. The world she builds between them is the best kind of romance–intimate and yet expansive. Oh, and her voice is so accessible and wry and get it maintains gravitas–what’s going on here is no joke.

      You’ll LOVE her Valentines in the third section.

  3. Ruthie Knox says:

    What I love best about the Petrosino snippets here are two things. First, the way that she turns into poetry these strange relationships we have with not-people — with celebrities whom we never meet, with authors who supplant our not-yet-boyfriends (Shari, I’m looking at you), with books we’ve encountered in some specific, particular, memorable way. What is so fascinating about these relationships when they’re yours is their specificity, but in our public narrative of them they are so often belittled rather than celebrated, made *mass* rather than personal.

    I am reminded of New Kids on the Block, the big thing of my early adolescence, and of my utter refusal to engage in any way with this band. Not because I disliked their music, but even before that, because I disliked the way my engagement with the music would be slotted into this mainstream narrative. Like a girl with Beatlemania, my individuality would be subsumed and ridiculed at the same time — just because I had affection for a song, or for Jordan Knight’s hair.

    And I remember, just a few years later, seeing A River Runs Through It, which Redford narrates. It was the first movie I’d ever seen with Brad Pitt in it. I thought he was lovely, but I was also convinced that he looked so MUCH like Robert Redford, that Redford would have to be in the latter part of the movie, playing the same character. And I was rather disappointed that Pitt never turned into Redford.

    And all of those thoughts are permanently overlaid on my thoughts about both Robert Redford and Brad Pitt. And so is the cute boy I knew in college who showed me that one Redford movie with the trains.

    My long-winded point: I have a mental relationship with Robert Redford, and it is individual and specific, and yeah, kind of wonky. So I just *love* getting a glimpse of Petrosino’s.

    The second thing I love here is that her poetry’s mental relationship with Redford is neither simple nor easy. And that it is him pursuing her, trying to understand her, rather than the other way around.

    Just fascinating. Thanks so much for sharing this gem!

    • Mary Ann Rivers says:

      I think what you said there, about Petrosino bending our expectations and positioning Redford as the narrator’s pursuer is what connects the work so movingly to these imaginary spaces in our minds where we experiment with parts of ourselves, until we feel most like ourselves.

      A celebrity infatuation, whether it’s James Wright, or Brad Pitt, or a band, seems to me like how we hone and build our own identities. Like you said, one knows if one wants to *be* a NKOTB fan, or doesn’t. One could be stumbling along and suddenly harbor some strange, private, delicious crush on a celebrity; revel in it, wonder about it, and then see an unfortunate interview with The Object and have it go up in smoke, as quickly as it arrived. But something remains.

      As Redford is trying to fix this narrator, the narrator is trying to fix herself. Pin herself down. Use a lens to describe who she is, this woman who has captured the attention of her *own* Redford inside Fort Red Border.

      It’s exactly right. It hits all the aching notes, in that way. He sees her, but it’s so she can see herself better than he ever could.

  4. Jackie Horne says:

    Thanks, Mary Ann, for this fabulous post. I was talking with a friend yesterday about crushes girls often develop on celebrities, how when we’re just pushing into adolescence we often crush on the “safe” boys, boys that look somewhat effeminate (Shaun Cassidy for me), boys that allow us to slide safely into erotic dreams without threatening us too much with full-on adult sexuality. But Petrosino’s crush is focused on an adult very sexy male, and seems to be exploring adult sexuality as well as identity issues. Makes me wonder who Petrosino crushed on as a young girl…

    • Mary Ann Rivers says:

      Yes, those first celebrity crushes are really mixed up in developing sexuality, and I feel like they are almost moderated by the media as a way to somewhat *control* the sexuality of young girls. It’s true, for example, that many young girls found Justin Bieber amazing and crushable, but it also feel true that the media packaged him a particular way to be palatable as a crush for girls *to the rest of the world.* It’s all so deeply familiar and frustrating.

      I think this is why Petrosino’s book is so satisfying, for exactly what you say–this is an adult woman’s exploration of similar themes with an adult male object. It’s a way to change the script so that the power is returned to us. It is both empowering, in that way, and subversive.

  5. Thanks for introducing me to a new poet. I’m looking forward to getting to know Petrosino a lot better. And I enjoyed Shari’s story very much!
    My all-time absolute favourite love poem, one that is definitely certifiable as Wonktastic, from the title onwards, is “Sick Love”, by Robert Graves. It goes like this:
    O Love, be fed with apples while you may,
    And feel the sun and go in royal array,
    A smiling innocent on the heavenly causeway,

    Though in what listening horror for the cry
    That soars in outer blackness dismally,
    The dumb blind beast, the paranoiac fury:

    Be warm, enjoy the season, lift your head,
    Exquisite in the pulse of tainted blood,
    That shivering glory not to be despised.

    Take your delight in momentariness,
    Walk between dark and dark—a shining space
    With the grave’s narrowness, though not its peace.

    There’s not room enough in a small comment to tell you everything I love about this poem. Like most great poems, it speaks to me personally, because of my own experience. I particularly like Graves’ exhortation to take our delight in momentariness, and his description of our transient time of love as a “shining space”. For anyone who has ever loved and lost the person they loved, for whatever reason, this poem is beautiful, moving, disturbing and comforting, all at once. It literally brings me to tears, every time.

    • Mary Ann Rivers says:

      Oh! Yay! I am so pleased that Robert Graves made an appearance in this thread. There isn’t anything better than reading about how a particular poem tattoos itself onto its reader (and how this works for you, and how it worked for Shari). I feel it says a lot about Petrosino’s work that she can speak to the same reader that Graves speaks to so deeply and so well.

      And I have always loved that line “Be warm, enjoy the season, lift your head,” and how it leads to the direction to “enjoy your momentariness.”

      Yes. We are all so very momentary. And so much more valuable, for that.

  6. Such beautiful writing! And it resonated with me so strongly, in a number of ways. The deep acceptance of an imaginary love…the focussing on it as though it’s as valid as reality. Astonishing and brave. It made me address my own feelings: I rarely fantasise or even acknowledge the real person, the real name of the person, when I have a crush in this way. I separate them from myself, in some way. It’s always really an acting role that I’m interested in, not the real deal. So it’s both challenging and alarming for me to see someone boldly talking about the real person.

    But then, even if we use the actual name…is it the real person? Or a construct that we’re just interacting with in some safe space? I’m going to say construct…and for me, an awareness of that construct is very important.

    And now I’ve no idea what I’m saying. I am having all the feelings.

    • Shari Slade says:


      This makes me wonder further…aren’t most crushes (celebrity or that-guy-who-makes-my-coffee) on the construct rather than the real person?

      The crushes on really, real people. People we *know* and interact with on an intimate level…those are the stuff made of danger.

      We’ve spoken of the contrived crush object (NKOTB, The Biebs, Shaun Cassidy) and my wonky crush on James Wright (which was really on the speaker of his poems more than on him)….and Redford is a construct too, the poet tells us so with the title.

      I think, by casting Redford as pursuer rather than object-of-obsession, Petrosino stripped away most of the creepy/stalker vibe an “adult celebrity crush” sometimes carries. The reluctance of the speaker, too.

      It’s so hard to comment on this work without having read it, I keep backspacing over assumptions.