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A Review of "I’m Always So Serious"

By Joanna Acevedo

I'm Always So Serious, by Karisma Price (Sarabande Books, 2023)

Karisma Price’s debut collection of poetry, I’m Always So Serious, out now from Sarabande Books, is a force. With lyric power and incredible versatility, Price has created a book which vibrates all the way from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina to the present day, from the deeply emotional and spiritual—the death of her father—to the huge and problematic impact of systemic racism. These poems are alternatively gorgeous and terrifying, with Price’s undeniable and irrepressible voice ringing through each razor-sharp line. It’s clear that Price understands not only how to be a poet—she understands how to ask the hard questions, and continuously reinvent herself into something beautiful and new with each line, phrase, and volta.

The color “red” permeates this collection—red blood, the red throat of a lizard, the red tongues of marigolds—and no other color could describe the vitality that collects in the crevices of Price’s lines. Blood runs thick through these pages—blood thicker than water, blood of the family, and blood of the fallen. It would be hard not to say that this is a violent book, but it is also a book filled with tenderness; tenderness for language especially, tenderness for poetry which clearly was the way that Price’s speaker dealt with all of these difficult emotions and experiences. Price is at times cynical: “Bless the children who are compared to the white ones. Praise the project bricks and the men inside selling white ones,” she says in “C.J. Peete, Magnolia 2004.” But cynicism is a logical reaction to grief. Her final poem, “Can’t Afford Sadness In A Time Like This,” is not hopeful. But it is true—sadness is a luxury, and perhaps it is not afforded to everyone.

In “All The Men I Love,” she says, “My father was / a soft violence / taken / by a softer violence…” Price likens her speaker’s father’s cancer to soft violence, a metaphor which perfectly encapsulates the pain and fear that comes with such a diagnosis and outcome. But the tension of the poem is in the repetition of the phrase; Price effectively raises the stakes by using the same metaphor. She is a careful and deliberate poet, but with a kind of effortlessness that makes it seem like her adjective choices are simply quickly dashed off. This ease makes the reading experience abrupt and jarring; a reader often stops simply to admire a sensory element that seems easy and obvious, yet is brilliant and lyrical.

Grief, too, is pervasive in this collection. Pain—and how much we can take—crops up again and again. In “I’m Always So Serious [and I’ve decided to be kind to Faith]” Price says, “...Every day, I feel like God / watches me through a viewfinder whispering, / It’ll be worse next time. It’ll be your mother.” Price’s simultaneous modes of mourning; for her city, New Orleans, for her father, and for America’s people of color, reverberate throughout the book. At times, Price is visibly angry, working through her grief with vicious fire. The poems that come out of this anger slice through the language. Even the title, I’m Always So Serious, displays a self-awareness and a resilience that cannot be taught, only earned from years of difficulty. This is undeniably a raw collection, and Price is violent in both her word choices and her bravery.

Formally, visually, and technically, each poem is incredibly impressive. Price seduces us with couplets, then dives into visual poetry, crafting a radio out of bold, repeated letters, and dropping words like “book” in strange angles down the page. Each poem surprises, shocks, and awes—not only because of the language but because of the variety of different forms Price has managed to explore and innovate with. Even the simpler poems are deceptively tight, the rhythms like drumbeats. Similar to Monica Youn’s forthcoming From From, as the book continues, Price gets more and more experimental—a welcome surprise for anyone who dares to follow her down the rabbit hole. Then she immediately pulls back—after a tour de force of a poem like “Ample,” Price jumps back into blocky, straight-down-the-page forms again, giving us a much-needed break from the looping, swirling language of the previous poem.

Although the title indicates seriousness, which might be interpreted as boring, Price is anything but. Instead, she is cutting, jarring, almost cruel at times—but always surprising and sure-footed. In “All Day We’ve Been Speaking In The Dark,” she says, “It’s too late for us to own the mouths of our own / darkness. We can’t be free, we live here”. And darkness is something that, like red, is laced through this collection, just like freedom. Freedom from slavery, freedom from pain; Price is looking for some kind of escape, escape through language. As she writes, the reader can see her building her own raft of words—out of the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, away from the violence of her upbringing, and through the nest of her grief. This is not a hopeful collection; as mentioned earlier, the final poem is a note of pain, not joy. But there is a sense that through writing, there will be catharsis. This may not be a book which ensures Price’s freedom, but it is undeniably necessary, nevertheless. Just that she is able to write it shows her power, her strength, and her wildness.

I’m Always So Serious breaks down what a book of poems is supposed to be. Writing in the tradition of poets like Terrance Hayes and Claudia Rankine, among many others, Price is a dynamo with a voice that will be remembered, and this debut is certainly one which will get significant attention, as it already has. Price has dismantled constructions of form, first and foremost, and then gone on to create a book which is simultaneously darkly grieving and also a complete powerhouse of language, full of color and light. Price is certainly serious; she is seriously reinventing what it means to be a young poet in our decade, and this reader cannot wait to see what comes next.

Joanna Acevedo is a writer, educator, and editor from New York City. She was nominated for a Pushcart in 2021 for her poem “self portrait if the girl is on fire” and is the author of three books and chapbooks, including Unsaid Things (Flexible Press, 2021) and List of Demands (Bottlecap Press, 2022). Her work can be found across the web and in print, including or forthcoming in Litro USA, Hobart, and the Rumpus. She is a Guest Editor at Frontier Poetry and The Masters Review, Associate Poetry Editor at West Trade Review, and a member of the Review Team at Gasher Journal, in addition to running interviews at Fauxmoir and The Great Lakes Review. As well as being a Goldwater Fellow at NYU, she was a Hospitalfield 2020 Interdisciplinary Resident. She received her MFA in Fiction from New York University in 2021, teaches writing and interviewing skills through the nonprofit system, and is supported by Creatives Rebuild New York: Guaranteed Income For Artists.

Editor: Nancy He

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