Berkeley-based poet Mimi Tempestt (she/they) is an omnipotent force to be reckoned with. In her second poetry collection, “The Delicacy of Embracing Spirals,” Tempestt’s craft produces sheer electricity, illuminating their quest to show readers what it means to tell the truth. Released Oct. 3, the anthology catapults audiences head-on into a harrowing yet beautifully vivifying narrative detailing Tempestt’s personal experiences as a Black, queer femme — alongside sociopolitical commentary that is visceral and macrocosmic.
While similar in theme to Tempestt’s first poetry book, “The Monumental Misrememberings,” “The Delicacy of Embracing Spirals” expands on prior themes of violence and oppression faced by women and femmes by applying it to both memoir and Black identity. Written in the format of a stage production with two acts, Tempestt satirizes the mistreatment of the marginalized communities she is a part of by placing them in the context of performance.
In “Act One,” Tempestt reflects on specific sites of trauma, in which her self-assured, confident verse juxtaposes her existentialist self-doubt. Uncomfortable, raunchy and disarmingly blunt, Tempestt recounts endeavoring to overcome a multitude of obstacles including graphic sexual assault, failed relationships and the impossible expectations of family and society. In spite of this, she pays no mind to the way others view her writing. As a master of the unconventional, Tempestt stays true to herself by defying the inclination to mold her writing to be palatable to all.
While the first act of Tempestt’s anthology takes the form of poetry, “Act Two” pivots to a stage play, where the inclusion of thorough blocking, dramatic irony and character interaction with a metaphorical crowd elevate the burlesque. At one point, Heyoka, the archetypal portrayal of Black masculinity, launches into a bit where they replicate an imaginary dialogue between Emmett Till and Jesus — the two engaging in nonchalant, witty banter regarding their deified deaths. Tempestt’s aptitude for playwriting proves essential because as wildly hyperbolic onstage events occur, their script strikes with hard-hitting sociopolitical criticism when audiences least expect it.
Through the characterization and conflicting viewpoints of The Love Poet, The Life Poet and The Death Poet — a parable invented by Tempestt’s father representing the three categories of Black poets —Tempestt reflexively navigates her own warring stances on how best to convey truth through poetry. As the discourse overwhelms the fictionalized portrayal of Tempestt herself — fittingly named “Me” — they end up running away with The Heart, a supporting character whose union with “Me” represents choosing true passion over all other values the world expects them to conform to.
Tempestt ends the book with a stunning scene: the play’s fictionalized audience is shot at with a revolver pistol by a character named “The Artist as Saturn,” who has just finished painting a grotesquely elaborate portrait of the crowd. By way of the audience’s death, Tempestt equates monetary value to the painting, and by auctioning it off to enthusiastic bidders, The Artist as Saturn punishes the crowd for rendering the products of Black artistry as nothing more than flashy entertainment.
While Tempestt rejects religion and embraces their connection to spirituality and the cosmos, her capabilities take on their own god-like power. In “when there’s no one left to love, love me,” Tempestt writes, “The theology of me creates this scripture. A violent peace of a Black woman worshiping herself.”
“The Delicacy of Embracing Spirals” is a testament to Tempestt’s fearless exploration of personal and societal wounds. The book emulates its namesake, where Tempestt “spirals” from one topic to another, epitomizing visual poetry without adherence to traditional poetic devices. Although this puts the book at risk of being too esoteric at times, Tempestt thrives in her experimentalism, beckoning readers to confront uncomfortable truths and engage with the complexities of Black identity, trauma and resilience.