Darkmatter’s It Gets Bitter is unlike any chapbook you’ve ever read. If you need dreamy, complicated imagery which leaves you feeling like you’re missing something in life you can’t even name, this isn’t the poetry collection for you. Darkmatter is the slam poetry duo, made up of Janani Balasubramanian and Alok Vaid-Menon, which takes down the patriarchy, heteronormativity, and racism with verbal jabs and witty pummels. They are direct with their feelings and you are never unsure what they’re thinking.
Some love stories don’t end like anyone is right or wrong.
The poetry collection starts heavily with a piece by Alok on the trans experience within a conservative, straight-faced South Asian family. This family doesn’t smile for photographs and their despondence straitjackets the momentum of the rest of the collection. From here out, the weight of the message, the clashing of so many cultures and desires, is stark and sometimes suffocating.
The discussion of gender in this poem and the rest in the chapbook feels flat at times without the insulation of emotional imagery. Occasionally it’s like ‘gender’ is something so much deeper than any reader could understand and yet it is thrown into a much larger mix of tradition, culture, internal racism, etc.
What does it feel like to be a solution?
– Native Informant
But maybe because they come from a stage to paper, Darkmatter’s work doesn’t always translate effectively. At times, while reading, you can hear where you’d snap and cheer but it feels at odds with the reflective medium of the quiet book. It’s as though Alok and Janani want to talk with you directly but they can’t. The chapbook is about half and half performative and pondering, sometimes leaving you reeling between the different speeds.
I watch America invent a heart
call it New York
beat its fists against the entire world
– 9/11: a love story
Despite my classical and technical hangups on the collection, I find myself still reading it over and over. There are, simply put, some devastatingly killer lines. The poets’ deeply toxic romance with post-9/11 racial tension overwhelms much of the book’s content but it still rears up in a familiarly unsettling way like realizing that your friends too sleep with a nightlight.
We were all there when the planes hit the Twin Towers and people who looked like us were being pulled in for harsh questioning. We haven’t had a peaceful moment since. Darkmatter explores this in so much detail that you’re often, throughout the book, walking in step with them through New York as they mull over what exactly happened. Sometimes, though, 9/11 feels like an emotional crutch, as though it explains so much feeling and emotion just within its three digits. In these moments I want more from the poets.
The frustrations and exaltations in this chapbook are recognizable down to the wording — we have all been where Alok and Janani have gone. Their poetry is comforting if at times jarringly direct. There is nothing hidden in their work and they are snapping back even without sound. It Gets Bitter is dark, emotional, and strangely physical. All around an interesting first effort.