Emily Pérez’s new book of poetry, What Flies Want, is a stunning look at the peripheries of womanhood and the recipient of the 2021 Iowa Poetry Prize. Her uniquely crafted poems spark fresh ideas about the trials of marriage, being female when every man is a “ticking bomb,” sexual harm, mental health, school violence, and parenting. She isn’t afraid to examine the dark sides of everyday life in a modern family and community.
Many of these poems speak to the process of being groomed to be a wife, as if women are prepped from birth. The narrator speaks to a desire to avoid creating waves as a young girl and instead to be unremarkable, unnoticeable to men. From “How I Learned to Be a Girl”:
If the beast is unpredictable you must traverse
in postures of submission. Easier to crawl
with your face down toward the earth, nape exposed, expecting
to be struck, which may draw cold contempt, at best compassion.
Fragility may inspire a desire to protect. I learned young to dance
those careful steps around the unexploded mines
where ground was not yet gutted.
Pérez refers to men as something like bombs more than once, here and in “Every Man’s a Ticking Bomb,” which describes a scenario with “you,” who is assumedly the narrator’s husband. She writes that if he were to read this poem, he would say that she “ignored / the wall I am / the way I light / the fuse.” A reminder that so often women are blamed for men’s anger.
“Yes, All Women” is a particularly impactful portrait of the unsettling fact that every woman alive has experienced sexual violence in some form. We learn to expect it, as if it is just part of life:
one day one man can make you
a point on a graph
a number in a bleak brochure one
man says he ensures his daughters
are protected by not telling them
this day awaits instead
like a bubble burst
no one get used
These poems also examine the experience of growing up in a bicultural home, as Pérez’s upbringing straddled the U.S. and Mexico. She learned as a teenager that her last name could easily be mispronounced when white people wanted it to sound more American, making her almost invisible. “
Corrección / Correction” is a prose poem about the first time a white teacher restates her last name, correcting her: “oh, you mean PEAR-ez.” The poem ends, “you are hers, you are theirs to pronounce.”
One of the author’s sons suffers from mental illness and ponders medication. She admits she’s “relieved, or ashamed, or maybe I’m guilty, the mother who slipped these genes to another.” In this poem, entitled “Dinner Conversation,” the narrator says she has been taking antidepressants for two decades, and “it saves me.”
In this way, she influences her young to be open to outside help for internal struggles. It is one step in the right direction to foster more loving and vulnerable relationships, especially with young boys.
The theme of guilt returns in “After Watching the Vampire Movie,” when she’s trying to comfort her sons and stop a severe nosebleed. She writes: “This is the part of the poem / where I should meditate on being a mother / awake in the night / tending to two not-quite-boys / who still need her touch,” and yet, she realizes that her “husband rages alone” while she attends to them.
She ends: “I’m tired of caring / and caring for.”
How can Pérez reject much of what she learned about being a girl and a wife while still living out the roles she was taught to enter? This very conflict is not new to women, and these vulnerable revelations create a space for recognition, acceptance, and ongoing interrogations of what we teach our children and each other.
What Flies Want
by Emily Pérez
University of Iowa Press
Published May 11, 2022