Book Review: ‘Searching for Petco’ by Skylar Alexander

Searching for Petco (Forklift Books, 2022) opens like someone suddenly turned on a speaker. I felt accosted by author Skylar Alexander’s opening poems: clearly meant to be spoken, clearly friends with slam poetry. Extra-sensory and openly branded “millennial.”

Alexander brazenly powers into an image, hands her reader an archetype and disarms them on entry. “Oh,” you think, “I am reading millennial pop-culture poetry.” Pop culture is the first language or second nature of this collection of poems, and it’s also a misdirection. The reader will understand the references that freckle every poem (such as poems titled “Mick Foley Death Wish,” “Bayonetta,” “Rozengurtle Baumgartner, Untouched by Man”), but someone expecting more traditional poems might be put off. This is no matter: Alexander is telling her reader she knows what they expect and she’ll wear her generation proudly—but don’t you dare underestimate her.

Bitterly feminist and bitingly universal, Alexander has permission to speak for our generation. In “Confession,” the first poem that caught me off guard and really slowed down my reading, she says, “I want to unhinge / the cellar door / of my ribcage & reveal / my cobwebbed truths, / strategically buried / to act as the foundation / of my withheld convictions” and then “& suddenly it’s Easter dinner– /same spiral ham, same corn casserole, but / everybody’s got a Keystone and / something nice to say, & even / teetotaler grandma will put down / the Bible for a minute, unclip / her clip-on earrings, unclutch / her pearls & breathe.”

It is not easy to be caught off guard by a poet whose work I am already familiar with. These poems touch on moments from my own childhood and adolescence that I’d forgotten. They left me feeling both lonely and understood. In “Making Chloramine Gas in Grandma’s Basement,” Alexander’s narrator fades out with, “Watch: I will evaporate; / become toilet bowl / bleached clean / / Watch: I will vaporize; / become ammonia / lighter than air.”

This collection deals with sexual assault, coming of age, Neopets and Tamagotchis, beauty standards, skate parties, chloramine gas, falling in love and WWE. There is barely a moment from the last 30 years missing from this text and, in case we get lost along the way, Alexander included “Liner Notes,” for her pop culture references.

Repeatedly, Alexander’s work changes tone, reminding the reader this is a collection of searching. This is a collection built for searching. For readers in Eastern Iowa, Alexander leaves traces of her time here, such as in the poem “Driving River Drive Every Night for the Rest of My Life” and “Searching for Petco,” which take place in Davenport, or in the poem “From The Solar Plexus,” in which she says, “fine and intricate / like the boy who sells beer at John’s Grocery / who teaches me to pretend / Schlitz is champagne / Skyrim is caviar / that I wanted this.”

Alexander’s first book is somewhere between a warning shot and flare depending on the reader. Do you need a partner to get you through the dark or do you need to back down?

This article was originally published in Little Village’s October 2022 issues