Content Warning: Everything
by Akwaeke Emezi
Copper Canyon Press, 2022
Reviewed by Jay Aja
Inherent to my culture is a superstition amongst the oldest members in my family that when a tree succumbs to a disease, it is because a jumbie (“ghost” or “spirit” in Guyanese patois) has assumed residency within. My parents’ and grandparents’ generations would fell a tree overtaken by illness and then burn the remaining stump as a method of cleansing. Only later did I learn this is a common farming technique: That implementing a controlled, slow burn reduces a stump’s integrity, sufficiently to be cleanly extricated, thus isolating the affliction from spreading further via the roots.
Personally, I prefer the explanation involving the jumbie.
I imagine the magic of its removal as tantamount to an alchemical purification. The purging of the physical of a spiritual malignancy, in order to become whole again and capable of regrowth. A transformative blossoming I recognize as akin to the reclamation of self achieved in processing through trauma. My own stints in therapy taught me that in healing, one undergoes a cyclical and (at times regressive but) ever upward progression from victim to survivor to advocate. In reading though Akwaeke Emezi’s debut poetry collection, Content Warning: Everything, I found myself circling back to these identities and the ultimate goal of regaining a sense of self.
A National Book Foundation ‘5 Under 35’ honoree and a recent feature on the cover of TIME Magazine as a 2021 Next Generation Leader, Akwaeke Emezi identifies as nonbinary and transgender, and is the author of 7 multi-genre books total as of 2022. They are no stranger to distilling aspects of their trauma into each of their bodies of work, their first poetry collection serving as a continuation informing their overall history. In Content Warning: Everything, Emezi does not hold back (in keeping with their title and titular poem), discussing themes ranging from lost family to found family, sexual trauma, suicide, faith, gender, toxic love, celebrating queer love and queerness, and embodying the truest version of oneself. As an emerging, nonbinary writer from both queer and marginalized communities, I resonated with this intent in Emezi’s poetry on acquiring this sense of home, both spiritually within the self and externally.
Recurrent throughout this poetry collection is Emezi’s motif of the “little god,” engendered from their meditations on if they had grow up alongside Jesus, their families acquainted with one another and their lives juxtaposed. Grappling with hospitalizations and recovery from illness in “sanctuary,” “healing” and “what if my family came to the hospitals,” Emezi literally interprets this concept in direct relationship to Jesus’ life, as being born to undergo suffering in order to die.
However, they go further to turn even this meaning on its head, exploring the metaphysical suffering experienced in a lifetime (specifically their own) as its own symbolic crucifixion followed by a resurrection. In “disclosure,” Emezi confronts the fall-out which occurred upon revealing to family and friends that they are queer, navigating their accompanying turmoil of pained emotion as well as a mounting sense of self-possession:
i am stubborn i wanted a better world a diving / bell made of tender glass a
better family i remembered how to be a god i give / myself what i want no one
raises their voice in my house no one lays their / fleshy hands on me no one is
In the final lines, Emezi proclaims, who knew i would survive / who knew their world meant nothing meant nothing meant nothing look / when i last came out i called myself free. Confronted with the options of either suffering or dying, Emezi unearths the alternative of transformation into a new version of living, constituted of a strength engendered from the alienation and betrayal. The poem becomes a song in defiance of the abuse meted out to the speaker as a consequence of embracing their truth.
As a free-verse block poem, “disclosure” flows like prose, discarding capitalizations and punctuation to produce undelineated sentences and fragments. Due to the justified structure of the poem, the lines appear to enjamb arbitrarily at the righthand margin. However, select sections are emphasized, indicating clear craft choices.
For example, where Emezi states, “i remembered how to be a god i give,” the reader is held suspended in “i give,” calling attention to the moment they reclaimed their resilience and in wresting it back, achieve the ability to overflow as a result of being full. When they say “who knew their world meant nothing meant nothing meant nothing look,” a soothing lull like a lullaby is created by the mantric repetition, rocking the reader into a sense of safety. Followed immediately by the arresting word “look,” there is a split second of uncertainty suggesting this peace may be a false hope. But the next line “when i last came out i called myself free.” indicates this pause was designed to affirm Emezi’s self-liberation—the decidedness of the end stop, the poem’s sole punctuation, acting as a note of finality in underscoring this resolve.
Emezi understands that the strengths intrinsic to their existence are tools assisting them in the struggle of traversing their life. And that the freedom in these acts of self-resurrection are suggestive of a deity attempting to manifest completely within the limitations of its human form. They refer to themselves as deity, not as a way of claiming superiority, but of honoring the anguish they have endured, simultaneously tying in the meaning behind their first name even as others seek to suppress its power. In the poem, “christening,” Emezi points to the irony of priests denying them the right to be christened with their first name, even as it represents their internal strength:
salvation has no other doors, they said / we can’t be seen lying down with sin /
take the honey and thick waterwine / but i know a desert when i see one / the
rippling mirage, the sweet devil / they promise me crackling skin / say i’ll scream
for them / but my throat is a river / full of the holiest water
In the Nigerian poet’s Igbo language, ‘Akwaeke,’ is defined as ‘the python’s egg’ and ‘something or someone precious.’ In Igbo ontology, this water serpent is revered, viewed as the physical manifestation of deity, but also directly tied to the Igbo goddess, Ala, serving as their messenger and is thus endowed with deity. Emezi’s allusion to Jesus as a “little god” in their poems frames Jesus as deity as a result of being the son of God. As Ala is symbolized in the python and Emezi in the python’s egg (something precious), the poet grasps their relationship to deity in this connection: as being a goddess’ child.
The priests maintain a contentious stance, maligning the snake as sinful, but Emezi recognizes their divinity in the totem. The sibilant ’s’ sounds throughout the poem create a physical slithering sound bearing the potency of the python’s energy and Emezi’s presence. In the same way that my people recognized the regenerative force behind spiritual cleansings, Emezi conceives their strength in rebuking the harm that has littered their life. Their survival is a magical act of transformation, performed with an almost uncanny and mystical prowess. They are a “little god,” and thus deity embodied.
Eresiobi, Gabriel. “The Importance Of The Python In Igbo Cosmology.” Aanaedooline, 30 Oct. 2021, https://www.anaedoonline.ng/2021/10/30/the-python/. Accessed 15 Aug. 2022.
My Igbo Name. https://www.myigboname.com/entries/akwaeke. Accessed 15 Aug. 2022.
Onyeakagbu, Adaobi. “The Python: A revered symbol of worship in Nigeria.” Pulse Nigeria, 24 Nov. 2021, https://www.pulse.ng/lifestyle/food-travel/the-python-a- revered-symbol-of-worship-in-nigeria/1w4y90r. Accessed 15 Aug. 2022.