Spilling the Tea
(or a book review)
jason b. crawford's Year of the Unicorn Kidz (Sundress Publications, 2022) Reviewed by Donna Vorreyer
Unicorns have long been the stuff of legend. Whether adorning the tapestries of medieval Europe or prancing across a Lisa Frank Trapper Keeper covered in rainbows and glitter, unicorns are usually described in two ways: magical and rare. Magic is elusive, though. It requires both belief and doubt, which makes it dangerous and sometimes disappointing. And rare things hold a different kind of worth. Their unique and singular value is something to hold on to, even if only for a brief moment. In their collection Year of the Unicorn Kidz, jason b. crawford chronicles a life infused with the magic of the sensual. As the body breaks and opens in these lines, they expose the pleasures and sins of the body as something rare and beautiful. These poems are odes to the body in all of its forms: as lover, as sacrifice, as vessel, as contrition, as repulsion, as abandon, as rebellion, as something magical and rare.
Jaws and teeth.
Spit and sweat.
Palm and fist.
In the sectioned opening poem “The Etylmology of Cruising (Before the Unicorn Kid),” desire is portrayed as both danger and longing: In the time before /Grindr and gay bars,/men would crawl into/sharp spaces/between the teeth/ of pining bark. Desire is the knowledge that each encounter could
lead to being a last one: They find his teeth/a half-mile away/hushed in a pile of leaves./I often wonder how many times/this could have been me. Desire is also the grief that comes with trusting and opening oneself to connection: Give me the park where they found him/and all of its grass/Give me the unstitching tongue/Give me back his smile/even if you have to pull it from/the cracked whistle of his throat.
Break and mend.
Gut and bleed.
Hold and release.
In several poems, crawford explores growing up in a space where the queer body was rejected, othered, called wrong. In “Boys and Dresses,” the speaker reveals We take home ones that remind us of dad. We take/abuse like it reminds us of home. In “in defense of boys being bois,” the beginnings of desire come in the most ordinary situations: When we are told to two-hand touch Johnny//in flag football and we try/not to let our hands slip//below his belt but we envision it/all later that night… In “Hide and Seek,” the act of hiding becomes one of literal survival: [...]but this cannot end/until all of the faggots/have burned—childish game/they play. Who can spill the most/blood into the firepit to watch/the flames glow neon, how to/turn a boy into a blooming field/of flames. The art of hunting/with a lit torch and palms/full of gasoline, they continue/to scour. They cannot find/the boy. He stays hidden. And in the multi-page poem“Debt:”, crawford wrestles with a lifetime of offering up the self and the body as the only path to connection. Sometimes sweet, sometimes with teeth, this offering is risk, ritual, and reconnaissance, seeking to discover how much the body can bear, how much it can render.
Rest stops and the woods.
Fraternities and dance floors.
Bedrooms and steam rooms.
crawford’s poems give the reader an unfiltered and unapologetic record of the body as a sexual vessel, in single encounters, intimacy with the self, and within the context of relationships. crawford lays bare the details of rest stop cruising, sketchy meet,-ups, the anatomy and movement of the jaw, and the slick and softness of skin. But the physical is only one part of the sexual experience. Longing, both for safety and for something beyond superficial touch, is always present. In The Art of Staying Alive,” they question the wisdom of their longing: I do not know if hurt is my birthright./If I only choose men who will offer me to/hungrier men. Who shred me to the windpipe to hear me sing./Call my voice beautiful until/my lungs collapse from being emptied. In “Unicorn Kid Loves to Worship Grief,” a new lover is simultaneously a sweetness and a loss: The way he holds my name like a knife/to my throat. And I will call this love. Name this/man I’ve known for 12 hours, via a phone app,/a new set of lungs. Surprised when he leaves and all/of a sudden I cannot breathe.
There is tenderness in this collection as well. In “Debt:”, where the lover’s mother always divides the bed with sleeping bags and blankets but does not know we share the same sheet while/we rest, your head cratered into my chest. Or that/I know the smell of you at 3 am, tongue driven up/your spine. In “On Nights I Am in New York (and my love decides to stay home),” the lover miles away bellows a tune, a song so pungent//it rots through the core of all his/bones//and still I await /to lap it up like a dog//trained to drool at the/clean smashing of a bell// [...] it is/contagious//it is a sick i/am willing to own.”And in “Friends We Love,” the tenderness of friendships: I listen as their words water me//patch the sap dripping from my quickly drying skin//I know they are the only sunlight I need//to bask in it//Alive//petals full and growing//towards them.
Glitterbomb and beast.
Masculine and masked.
Boy and boi.
crawford’s collection is a pastiche of flesh and frailty, sex and sadness, desire and danger. A seesaw of self-awareness and self-deprecation, self-acceptance and self-doubt. Most of all, it is unhibited, and alive, holding all of the allure of the titular unicorn, magical and rare.