Poetry Book Review from Issue 51: Lucia LoTempio’s Hot with the Bad Things, Reviewed by Iliana Rocha

“Everything that Ever Happens in a Place Has an Edge”: Lucia LoTempio’s Hot with the Bad Things

Alice James Books, 2020

71 pages, $17.95 (paperback)

In her full-length debut, Lucia LoTempio’s Hot with the Bad Things intensely examines the personal and political implications of sexual assault and violence against women, as the collection throbs in a sense—expanding and contracting around a center. One of the opening epigraphs from Anne Carson references “a place composed entirely of entries[,]” perhaps a characterization for such a center, one whose grief and trauma have neither beginning nor end. Additionally, LoTempio identifies the book as a “lyric,” writing in “missals” loosely tied to their Catholic origins—teetering between prose, poetry, autobiography, as well as holding fast to the intertextual quality of their religious precedent. The effect of such an approach is that the idea of “entry” is destabilized, as the center is anywhere and everywhere. When LoTempio writes about a murdered woman, stabbed to death, in Geneseo, New York, it could be any woman in any town:

When a girl is killed     When we say
her murderer as if it’s a sweet
slow burn of possession          When the girl
was killed in Geneseo      When her ex
killed her          When the man killed her
When he stabbed her        When he killed
her lover          When he killed a man    When he
killed himself. (9)

Anonymity is the placeholder for the ordinary. If there were specificity here—a name—a murdered woman might feel like a rarity, but she is not. Here is a place where the poem’s engine keeps stalling, each “When” an attempt to move forward, generate momentum. But there can be no progress because of the grim repetition of violence against women: “In the bad dream the knife is infinite and repeating.//In the bad dream the knife is an instance of his body, another thing to go in and out” (11). A knife, phallic representation of toxic masculinity; the girl’s murder, the physical manifestation of it. The vague and abstract qualities of “girl” have implications that, in too many instances, women never move into three-dimensional subjecthood; instead, they stay stalled at object. “When he,” a finger pointing in every direction, the resulting topography composed of the jagged, irregular cliffs of the poem. “The murder was national news. You can understand that. Viral, like a virus, like/violence as contagious, patient zero from one location” (50), LoTempio writes.

Throughout the collection, the act of poetic repetition is a parallel to external violence, made possible by the consciousness of this book that is “[n]ot a line but a loop” (15). “It feels like I’m repeating myself because I’m repeating myself,” the speaker admits (61). When a word is repeated, meaning slightly shifts. When we recall a memory, we remember the last time we remembered it, not the original moment. Memory lacks precision, degrades over time. There is no objectivity there, but perhaps a new entryway emerges: “When I think of · and how he did the bad things it’s never on purpose or even in the same way” (61). Assailant’s name obliterated by a dark circle, the black bull’s eye functions not as a potential for possibility, but as a palimpsest where the name of every perpetrator throughout history has been written—so much so that all meaning is obscured. There is only darkness left, and no light can pass through: “When other poets read this they suggest I take it out. It humanizes · . But/humans do terrible things, and they do them all the time” (68). A direct confirmation of the vicious cycle.

The reader identifies one center as a woman. Another center as violence. Another as a poem:

Why is there a delicious doe under all these poems,
so sweet and glowing, like
the blue fire of a dead star too far away to even
fathom, gorgeous as a knife sponged
into sugar-dusted yellow cake?

Once after · raped you, he did not call for three
days so you left a litany of messages brimming with

Sometimes I am so scared. I think if I were to be
raped again at least it would
have the suggestion of an ending.

Once · hit you so hard you could not hear for hours
and when he asked why he did it, you knew.

I am an accumulation of Once; I refuse to look away. (23)

In this part of the sequence, we are at the confluence of woman, violence, and poem. If imagination is where we remember the girl, then the poem is where we can write vitality in her name: “I want her alive; point to her, be able to see this. I want to find a younger me, tell her this. I want to write a poem that says this” (69). A “delicious doe […] sweet and glowing,” the very exemplar of divine vigor. This doe seems to be an iteration of the speaker’s vulnerability, and she is also characterized as “cute in a sweet mouse way” (19). These skittish animals are the vehicle, and vulnerability is the familiar tenor, which suggests the insidious ability for misogyny to weave itself into our discourse and our poetic nostalgia. Threat of it always lurking, so if the “delicious doe” is under the poem, the knife is there too, never far from it. “Once” feels at rhetorical kinship with “When” because they both defy time while relying on it, and their replication both episteme and techne—a desire to understand with certainty through the act of making. And while the speaker proclaims this “you” possesses this knowing, it feels removed, at this moment, from the lyric “I.”

At other moments in the collection, the “you” and “I” are conflated, and the poet asks the reader to “imagine” this fluidity: “a boundary rewired; to reach back and talk to myself. I’d say: Lucia, you weren’t full, but filling” (15). LoTempio removes the arbitrary lines of demarcation between first and second person, letting intimacy be the guiding presence between poet and reader. One section of Hot with the Bad Things functions in epistolary mode, complete with a complimentary close, but void of an addressee and signature. These significant absences may be for the purposes of discretion, but they could also suggest that sender and receiver are one in the same—that these letters were not meant to travel very far away from the self. In another part of the sequence, she writes: “Once · tied your arms and legs to your throat, demanded you crawl because he made you immobile. I think a person can be there without being there” (25). And one function of the “you” is to generate some emotional distance.

How does a poet articulate trauma, the ineffable—“unclasp utterance from the dull edge of the girl’s finger”(8)? Lucia LoTempio’s Hot with the Bad Things is an example of how to interrogate language’s capabilities—by writing through it: “I would like to witness change, a quick shift more monumental than crossing the street, a wave to where I once stood waiting” (70). What could be considered a mirroring is deceptive. This is not a poetry of reflection but of prism, of women rainbowing through it.