Millennial Roost by Dustin Pearson
March 1, 2018
In Millennial Roost, Dustin Pearson excavates childhood sexual abuse through the urgent voice of his male speaker, who maps out his source of hurt and secrecy and shows us the wide-reaching effects of holding trauma close.
The poems in this incredible debut collection are unwavering in their honesty. The series of epistles especially stands out: it is through these epistles that the speaker directly addresses his childhood abuser, whom he calls Mr. Hen. The choice of putting a name to his abuser, the source of trauma, is an important one. It enables the speaker to remember, reimagine, disclose, and question, even if Mr. Hen cannot answer. The speaker refuses to let his experiences remain “locked up and archived” and instead bares his memories for us on the page, forcing us to look closely when we might look away.
As we learn more about Mr. Hen and the abuse that the speaker has endured, we also learn facts about chickens: their anatomy and lack of autonomy, the violence done to their bodies, different ways to prepare and consume them. We learn: “scientists suggest that hairs / on the human body are merely / modified scales or feathers.” We learn that the speaker has a reoccurring dream in which he grows wings and begins to resemble Mr. Hen: “the stray shreds / of my self are everywhere, and when the debris clears, / I look exactly like you.” The line between human and chicken is increasingly blurred. The speaker feels reduced to his trauma and finds it difficult to separate himself from his abuser and the abuse, the thing that happened to him and intimately belongs to him.
In his nonlinear recollections, the speaker attempts to understand his shame as well as to reclaim it in hopes of changing the past. As he tells us in one poem, “I would start from the begin- / ning, tell them about you and do my best to give them an / ending. For whatever reason, I thought that would make / it better…” Through the act of retelling, the speaker searches for a new ending that he creates and controls because, after all, people are “made by what they remember.”
But a new ending also means a new beginning. Or, perhaps, new possibilities. The speaker asks, “what happened to me? / what could I have been? / and where did I go from here?” These questions hinge on more questions, including: How to be intimate after bodily trauma? What forms of intimacy are no longer viable without some form of reconciliation? In considering these questions, Pearson gives his speaker the space to be truly vulnerable and thus establishes a sense of intimacy between speaker and reader that makes this an incredible first book – one that is hard to put down.
For the speaker, the biggest potential and therefore the greatest risk does not just lie in disclosing past abuse but in allowing himself to feel intimacy, especially now that he views his body as an object capable of physiological reactions but not of romance. Not of love. We see the speaker in physically and emotionally vulnerable and therefore threatening encounters several times in the collection. In one memory, another man asks if he can kiss the speaker, insisting “I didn’t say have sex...” but the speaker asks, “how is what he proposes any different?” Both kissing and sex are equally, alarmingly intimate.
Other close encounters come in the sharing of secrets. In a poem titled “Camaraderie,” we learn that the speaker has always hated divulging secrets because it is a cheap source of bonding. And yet much later, in a bar, the speaker and two others tell of the men “that had us, left us, that / never leave us.” When it seems that there are no words left, the three summon more, rub them “on each other’s faces, / absorbing them, / healing or beginning to.” It is in speaking that healing might begin. It is in sharing that we might open up the possibility of feeling close.
In one poem near the close of the collection, the speaker dreams he is in love. He dreams that he has sex with his lover. “I like to imagine myself that close,” he says, “And I didn’t feel scared / or guilty about it. Those are the possibilities.” At one point, he also claims that he was “lucky.” Lucky because it was not worse? Because we suffer our trauma and then consider ourselves lucky for having endured? “I survive you,” the speaker tells his abuser and us.
Millennial Roost is a fantastic debut collection. The poems are heartbreaking and generous in what they are willing to reveal.
Intimacy. Trust. Those are the possibilities, the risks. I survive you.
Dustin Pearson is a McKnight Doctoral Fellow in Creative Writing at Florida State University. The recipient of fellowships from Cave Canem and the Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing, Pearson has served as the editor of Hayden’s Ferry Review and a Director of the Clemson Literary Festival. He won the Academy of American Poets Katharine C. Turner Prize and holds an MFA from Arizona State University. His work appears in Blackbird, Vinyl Poetry, Bennington Review, and elsewhere. Millennial Roost is his first book.
Susan Nguyen hails from Virginia but currently lives and writes in the desert. She is the poetry editor for Hayden's Ferry Review. She is the recipient of several fellowships from the Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing and the Aleida Rodriguez Memorial Award in Creative Writing Her work can be found in PANK, diode, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. She was recently named one of "three women poets to watch in 2018" by PBS NewsHour.Visit her at www.girlpoet.co