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Poet Kayla Sargeson’s full-length debut 

In these poems, nothing is out of bounds

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The psychology of colors has been studied for centuries by the likes of Goethe, Jung and an army of marketers. With the longest wavelength, red is said to be the most physical of colors, raising pulses and stimulating “fight or flight” responses. It’s been described as stimulating, and lacking subtlety. And it works as a powerful theme in Kayla Sargeson’s debut full-length poetry collection, First Red (Main Street Rag).

Sargeson, a Western Pennsylvania native, is a graduate of Carlow University who earned her master-of-fine-arts degree in poetry from Columbia College Chicago. She’s a champion of Pittsburgh’s poetry scene, curating the MadFridays reading series and editing City Paper’s online feature “Chapter & Verse.” A poet of unblushing honesty, she pulls no punches over the book’s 75 pages, with work often centering on family dysfunction and frank discussions of sexuality.

In the rant-like “Dear World —,” her persona unfiltered, she writes, “If one more person says to me, ‘You’d be so much prettier / without all that makeup’ / I’ll scream. / I like frilly dresses and tough boots. / The name of my lipstick is Russian Red. / My lingerie matches. / I’m not afraid of sex.” Nothing is out of bounds, as those whom “I don’t forgive” get lined up in her sights, with some stanzas presented as dishes best served cold.

The color motif continues in the title poem, which opens on the speaker watching soap operas with her grandmother, commenting that “all the ‘bad’ women wore red lipstick / and I loved them.” Sargeson picks up this thread when her speaker describes time with her mother “at four-years old, playing at her vanity table / I was hungry for red — / Spanish Red, another Estee Lauder, / red like my mother’s ’94 Sunfire …” The poem ends with a tutorial on applying lipstick that effectively points to how behavior can be learned and modeled.

Perhaps the most well-crafted poem in a collection where candor reigns is the playful “My Father as the Crazy Horse Gentleman’s Club.” There, Sargeson writes, “My father was the Karma Chameleon / in white suits, long flowing hair. He came and went, / came and went. His love was easy but not free — / … He would break your heart.” The extended simile works for its gritty artfulness even as First Red reads like a kind of truth not meant for the timid.

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