In What Flies Want, disaster looms in domesticity: a family grapples with its members’ mental health, a marriage falters, and a child experiments with self-harm. With its backdrop of school lockdown drills, #MeToo, and increasing political polarization, the collection asks how these private and public tensions are interconnected.
The speaker, who grew up in a bicultural family on the U.S./Mexico border, learns she must play a role in a culture that prizes whiteness, patriarchy, and chauvinism. As an adult she oscillates between performed confidence and obedience. As a wife, she bristles against the expectations of emotional labor. As a mother, she attempts to direct her white male children away from the toxic power they are positioned to inherit, only to find how deeply she is also implicated in these systems. Tangled in a family history of depression, a society fixated on guns, a rocky relationship, and her own desire to ignore and deny the problems she must face, this is a speaker who is by turns defiant, defeated, self-implicating, and hopeful.
“On one level, Emily Pérez’s What Flies Want is a broad and ambitious book well-tuned to the concerns of the present moment as it attends in smart and nuanced layers to sexual violence, constructions of gender, the complexities of race, the disappointments and redemptions of marriage, and the entwined hopes and fears of raising boys in a world where ‘every man’s a ticking bomb.’ At the same time, on the level of language, these poems are driven by an astonishing musicality: inventive wordplay, shifty and obsessive repetition, propulsive rhythm, and brilliantly deployed rhyme. The result is a book that’s even larger than its parts—both challenging and intimate, intricate and genuinely moving.”—Wayne Miller, author, We the Jury
“The poetry of Emily Pérez will not allow what is hers to be stolen. She interrogates what has power over her, even as it is in her, as it has formed and informed her. Her work takes on the forces that make womanhood something to survive—she looks hard at love and family and devotion and is not afraid to make of them a sad song, an angry anthem, an ode of vexed joy, a complex and overflowing music. Each note is hard-won, truly traveled, and Pérez is a poet who knows what we live through belongs to us: the dark fear, the radiating beauty, the intuitive and difficult paths between.”—Brenda Shaughnessy, judge, Iowa Poetry Prize
“Emily Pérez is one of my favorite poets because her work resists tidy category. Her music is crisp and weird; her backdrop is speculative, and most importantly she nimbly unpacks the intense, contorting pith of Pérez as mother/woman/artist/Latina/trickster/white-adjacent body. We want What Flies Want for its sweet howl calling out from the trenches of a home full of swords, of ticking time bombs, and stolen jewels. We want poetry to be this mythically corporeal in its excavations ‘inscribed with girls in the woods.’”—Carmen Giménez Smith, author, Be Recorder
I learned my mother’s white
tongue, her white words
in white books impressed on crisp
white pages, stories set in white countries
under soft, white snow. I’d never seen snow,
but knew enough to desire its cleansing
cold, its regions where the white-cheeked
damsel with her long, white hair could cede
space to the knight, white on his horse
who whinnied whitely. I’d never ridden a horse,
but knew to fantasize about one, as that’s what white
girls did, and even if I never got bedded
by a stable hand or CEO, some tall white man
who could explain things to me, I knew that if I learned
the white language, its syntax and rightness, then,
like a cloud pristine and drifting, I’d be lifted,
I’d look down on my dark home from that unbroken sky.