Book Review: Double Portrait by Brittany Perham

Double Portrait is Brittany Perham’s prize winning second volume of poetry after The Curiosities (2012). Chosen by Claudia Rankine for the Barnard Women Poets Prize, this collection is a series of musical, introspective, and inventive two-way portraits, each bringing to life the relationship between two entities: mother and child, citizen and country, self and lover, and self with self. The poems seek to gracefully formalize the speaker’s obsessions with love, family, nation state, and loss which is at once personal as well as universal. Everyone’s writing poems for the dead/those who have gone/missing, those who have gone she writes as the opening for a portrait that examines how memories are only a visitation and very calculatedly funnels the poem down to the intimacy of the person gone For a second she was more ours/than she ever really was, entirely ours.

Through the book, Perham triumphantly finds and creates forms through which one can live, walk, and breathe through these obsessions with her. She constructs her relationship with her mother through a ghazal, paints political turmoil through erasure, and unfolds the stories of several satiations and misgivings of love through radiantly musical pantoums. Brimming with repetition, her stylistic choices keep knocking the doors of her fixations and the repeating words effortlessly take on the role of stopping as well as moving her narratives forward. I miss you mornings/ afternoon nights missing you sucks/ away the day missing you I mis-teach meter. Her trilogy of ‘repetition’ poems begin with kiss you, miss you and leads us to kill you, taking the reader on a full roller coaster on the emotion wheel of love. They compel one to examine the transformative nature of companionships, one-minute fueled by raw passion and another, pure hatred. They are at once funny, mournful, and aim to acutely probe the many possibilities of the vocabulary of togetherness.

Double Portrait

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I want to kiss you now I want to kiss you
then I want to kiss you again I want to kiss you
when your mouth is full of chocolate
& when your mouth is full of wine &
though your mouth is not always mine
for kissing I want to kiss you I want to
kiss you in the morning before you’ve eaten
one sweet bite of the apple left by the bed
in the French tradition I want to kiss you
when at night you set the apple very red
by the bed I want to kiss you & in bed
when you say this is the French tradition
of lovers I want to kiss you though I’m skeptical
I want to kiss you & when you say I want to kiss you
I want to kiss you more & while I’m kissing you
I want to kiss you again & again I’m sad
while kissing you nearly weeping
while kissing you you’re so close
to leaving & when you’re gone I kiss you
in memory & even now kissing you gone
gone even now kiss even now I’m kissing you

Read full poem here

For those of us who get intimidated by closed-form poems, the book is a great starting point as it invites us into the most accessible themes of desires and longings without once losing sight of their effortless formal constructions. The poems, as the preface states, are to be read in no set order, reminding us that life is what happens in the middle, in the non-linear and in the continuous chaotic creation, revision and destruction of memories.

Double Portrait

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Every year, in various states, I get off the plane and look for my mother.
On the other side of the security door, already waiting, is my mother.

She’s the kind of person who Windexes the table directly after dinner.
I’m the kind of person who leaves the dinner plates dirty; I am nothing like my mother.

In her house, while I do my very best to be neat, she washes my clothes.
In my house, because I can’t be very neat for very long, I long for my mother.

In her house, so that I will sleep more easily, she makes my bed with her electric blanket.
I sleep more easily because somewhere awake in the house is my mother.

In my own house, in order to sleep more easily, I sing a few lullabies.
For this to work, I have to sing with the precise intonation of my mother.

She can paint a portrait in oils and fix dinner from a can of mushroom soup.
She can fix the dishwasher’s plugged drain and go for days without calling her mother.

Read full poem here


Brittany Perham is a Jones Lecturer in Poetry at Stanford University, where she was a Wallace Stegner Fellow from 2009 to 2011. Her work may be found in the Bellevue Literary Review, Drunken Boat, Lo-Ball, Southern Poetry Review, TriQuarterly, and elsewhere. She lives in San Francisco.


Preeti Vangani is an MFA (Writing) candidate at University of San Francisco. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in BOAAT, Noble/Gas Qtrly, Juked, Lines+Stars and Knicknackery among others. She’s a spoken word poet and has been a featured performer at several San Francisco events including Voz Sin Tinta and Kearny Street Workshop. She is the winner of the RL(India) Poetry Prize 2017 and has a book forthcoming in 2019. More of her work can be read here.


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