Book Review

Beneath the Surface of Empathy: A Review of Not That Bad, Edited by Roxane Gay by Peter LaBerge


  Not That Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture , edited by Roxane Gay ( HarperCollins , 2018).

Not That Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture, edited by Roxane Gay (HarperCollins, 2018).



The act of beginning this book was an act of facing an experience I knew would be enlightening, painful, stomach churning, powerful and resonant. I was excited by the prospect of being able to read and talk about this book, and yet I kept stopping and starting it out of fear and knowing. I knew that listening to each story had the potential to make me feel empowered and, at the same time, dig into my own traumas and feelings that are still difficult to face.

My experience with this book has been multilayered; I chose to read it and listen to the audiobook in which each author read their essay aloud. I wanted to consider whether there was a certain power that these authors could reclaim by telling their own stories aloud. Even in her introduction to the book, hearing editor Roxane Gay deliberately and clearly reading the names of each contributing author was powerful, like saying their names conjured a protection against an erasure of their stories.

In her introduction to the book, Gay describes the stories we tell ourselves as mechanisms for coping, or simply understanding trauma, even when coping hurts us as survivors. She describes the refrain she has often told herself, that her gang rape and the subsequent assaults and mistreatments were “not that bad,” and how, because of this refrain, “the surfaces of my empathy became calloused.” This feels important to read before spending time with the testimonies of the other contributors, as Gay asks readers to consider how rape culture and misogyny have limited our own sense of empathy for survivors of trauma. To call the authors’ stories ‘testimonies’ feels important too; testimony has a legal context, but many of these authors did not and may never have the opportunity to seek out justice through a system that often dismisses or renders survivors invisible, or else subjects them to extreme scrutiny that prolongs and amplifies trauma-as the country has seen played out during Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony against Brett Kavanaugh. V.L. Seek describes this in her essay, “Utmost Resistance”: “We are trapped in a legal system that has never favored women and has never believed survivors. And we are mired in a circuitous and damning dialogue, so powerful that it invalidates our experiences, our traumas, our truths-a dialogue so powerful that we begin to doubt whether our experience was never there at all.” The act of telling these experiences is an act against erasure and for affirmation that it happened, as memory often fails survivors after traumatic events.

To call the authors’ work ‘testimonies’ is not meant to detract from the fact that each essay is carefully crafted and each one focuses on a different aspect of rape culture that largely impact women and femme peoples, though this collection spans genders and sexualities.

Some of the authors have chosen to tell their stories as linear narratives, while others have chosen to focus on a specific aspect of their experiences or their continuous path towards understanding and healing from these experiences. In Claire Schwartz’s essay, “& The Truth is, I Have No Story,” she grapples with the narratives that people have attempted to use to frame her assault, like “at least you weren’t killed.” By removing her experience from a comforting narrative structure, she disrupts these narratives of “not that bad” when she insists, “I want someone to watch me thrash and crumple because that, too, is the truth.” This is an idea that is echoed throughout the collection—that survivors do not owe the public or those hearing their testimonies a convenient or palatable narrative about their trauma. Sexual assault and harassment are pervasive and healing is work, not something that a survivor can simply achieve and move on from. Another contributor, artist Liz Rosema, has chosen to navigate the collective silence of youth impacted by an inappropriate coach in her comic, “What We Didn’t Say.” Some of the authors confine their stories to themselves, while others employ the direct address of “you” to confront a perpetrator, as AJ McKenna does in “Sixty-Three Days,” or to address other people who might have experienced something similar to their own experiences, like “The Ways We Are Taught to Be a Girl,” by xTx. The diverse ways in which the authors choose to tell their stories speaks to the divergent yet relatable ways that many survivors navigate their traumas and their understanding of what has happened since.

The contributors to this book range from well-known, professional writers to academics to celebrity actors, yet all of their stories are treated with equal respect and care. In fact, it was stories from the writers who were less well-known that I gravitated towards, as they explored important ideas, like how intergenerational trauma begets more trauma and the ways that acts of sexual assault and harassment take away a person’s autonomy over their own body.       

One contributor, Vanessa Martir, an accomplished writer and teacher of creative nonfiction, wrote a piece about her relationship with her mother’s trauma and how it affected her ability to navigate her own in her essay, “What I Told Myself,” which is from her memoir and took seven years to write. When I asked her about her experience of recording herself reading her work, she said, “When I was asked if I wanted to record the essay, my immediate answer was yes. I knew that no one could do my story justice the way I could. To say I was nervous is an understatement, but I certainly walked out of there feeling fierce and unstoppable...and yes, empowered.” Martir’s work as a community educator is to empower others to tell their most necessary and difficult stories, and so her words ring true to others: the act of telling our stories can be a part of the healing process. While the act of listening to her words and to the words of the other contributors can be difficult, it feels to me to be an act necessary to fully experience this book.

Sharisse Tracey, whose essay, “Picture Perfect,” is one of the more graphic and disturbing ones to read, spoke to me about how it felt for her to have her essay included in this collection: “I knew, should my essay be chosen, in what I knew would be thousands of entries—that said to me, you matter. Your story matters and people care. Not only do people care, but they are pissed off, hurt, outraged, angry, horrified and they want to help to secure that these stop at the source and those perpetrators be brought to justice.” Tracey continues to affirm how powerful this experience has been for her when she describes the act of recording her piece, saying how difficult it was and how her voice cracked and she fought back tears. When listening to her audio recording again, she said that, “I braced myself to listen when I first received the audio file. It was painful to hear the story of a twelve-year-old girl being raped by her father. I tried to listen as if it were not me...but that was impossible. Although I’ve lived with the story, hearing it still brought me to tears. I believe the experience of listening to stories can often be more powerful, especially when they are read by the authors. In this case, with Not That Bad, I feel that all of us had to read our own stories. We own those stories. We live and breathe our words daily. Unlike readers, we can’t put the book down when it gets too painful or turn off the volume. Each of us paid for all of our words. Most of us are still paying.”

These stories are for the authors themselves, allowing them to work through their own processes of healing. They are for other survivors who need to read these stories in order to feel seen and to feel less isolated in their own silences.

But the stories of the people in this book are also working to name that which patriarchy and rape culture seeks to make unnamable, because to name an act levies power over it. These stories are directed at a society that is sustained by survivor’s silence and fear in the face of rape culture, and that seems insurmountable. The fact that this book exists speaks to the notion that it contains only a handful of stories among countless others, and that is a statement the book is making too. As Zoe Medeiros writes in her essay, “Why I Stopped,” “The more of us who come out as survivors, the harder it gets to ignore that there is too much to survive, the harder it gets to pretend that this doesn’t happen or it only happens to certain kinds of people.”

It feels too big to assign this book the job of “fixing” something for any of the contributors or for readers. Rather, the book seeks to create a conversation that is too loud to ignore. The subtitle, “Dispatches from Rape Culture,” is very deliberate. Rape culture, as it exists across spaces and cultures, creates a battleground between those fighting to dismantle it, those unwilling to interrogate it and those actively working to uphold it. These are some of the stories from that battleground.

There are times that, as a survivor, it feels difficult to know where to channel my anger and what the next step is within growing movements towards justice like the #MeToo movement. As Lyz Lenz writes in her essay, “All The Angry Women,” “my anger still feels homeless and without a direction forward.” Not That Bad may be a way forward; it draws on the work that activists have done and engages in a conversation that I hope will not soon end.


Leticia Urieta is a proud Tejana writer from Austin, TX. She works as a teaching artist in the Austin community. She is a graduate of Agnes Scott College and holds an MFA in Fiction writing from Texas State University. Her work appears or is forthcoming in Cleaver, Chicon Street Poets Anthology, BorderSenses, Lumina, The Offing and others. She has recently completed her first mixed genre collection of poetry and prose and is currently at work completing her novel that tells the story of a Mexican soldadera caught up in the march to Texas during Texas’ war with Mexico.

Everything Almost Snaps Back: A Review of Carmen Giménez Smith’s Cruel Futures by Peter LaBerge


 Carmen Giménez Smith’s   Cruel Futures   is No. 17 in the City Lights Books Spotlight Series.

Carmen Giménez Smith’s Cruel Futures is No. 17 in the City Lights Books Spotlight Series.

Carmen Giménez Smith’s sixth collection, Cruel Futures, is an astonishingly present imagistic exploration of aging, familial bonds, and mothering in the context of late capitalism. Giménez Smith’s poems, sparkling with pop culture and gleaming with intelligence, unpretentiously welcome the reader into mortality, grief, and nurturing, while deftly highlighting how these human conditions are shaped by the race, gender, and class of those who experience them.

Giménez Smith demonstrates how the understanding of childhood shifts and evolves when someone begins to parent, addressing her “terrible childhood” in “Ravers Having Babies,” and wondering at “what tatters you made of me / though you made me a scrappy little watcher / the breaks are there and vibrate.” And, the further Giménez Smith travels from that cosseted realm, the clearer its contours become, as in “A Cascade of Feeling,” where she confides, “I was recipient of only thirty percent / of my father's wrath, and that slice / is key to my composition.” Since this collection is concerned with mothering and being mothered, Giménez Smith’s poems continually return to childhood, dipping in and out of its environs like loons on the surface of a lake.

Some of the collection’s most affecting poems grapple with the tectonic plates of middle age: children growing up as parents grow older, one generation entering the world as the other exits. In poems like “Dementia As About Me,” Giménez Smith’s language is almost painfully intimate, giving the reader the feeling of hard-won, exhausted truth: “I write / things like carved out or like guts spooned out / with a rusty spoon: my guts, her spoon.” Time is ever-present in this collection, as in “Dementia Elegy,” where “Dreaming about mothers means mortality is / bristling the hair on your neck.”

When looking at her daughter, Giménez Smith sees the predicament of possessing a female body—especially a brown one—from the clear vantage point of having inhabited it for so many decades, and this knowledge worries her in poems like “Dispatch From Midlife,” where “Past fertility, insomnia / is the new membrane / around my nights.” Her daughter is stepping into a fraught, gendered and racialized physicality, just as Giménez Smith's speaker struggles, ambivalently, to remain within it—although she eyes that struggle with humor and self-awareness, as in “Careworn Tale,” where “I pluck stray hairs from my beauty / to assert control over my beauty. / I measure out what I have left.”

Giménez Smith also knows the price society exacts on women for their physicality; in “The Hero's Journey,” she relates that, “I had learned / at a young age how mutable the female body / was, everything almost snaps back.” In “Ethos,” Giménez Smith confides that “I want to clear the dross / of misogyny, so she won’t suffer under its yoke.” However, she’s not sure that’s possible, even as she prepares to fight for it, saying, “I’ll paint my face, take off my earrings, do the inevitable.”

The common thread here is the speaker’s aging—her intimate relationship to her body’s movement through time, which “shortens our telomeres without mercy” (“Ravers Having Babies”). There’s synthesis in this collection, a clarity of vision that manages to coexist within the overwhelm of consumerism, television, and pop culture. This slim book is astonishing in scope and ambition, managing to depict society’s constant babbling chatter, while continually asserting the individual dignity of her speaker and those she loves, and leaving room for breathtaking moments of revelation, like when “a lark / breaks through my skin” (“Bipolar Objective Correlative”).


Luiza Flynn-Goodlett is the author of the chapbooks Unseasonable Weather (dancing girl press, 2018) and Congress of Mud (Finishing Line Press, 2015). Her work can be found in Third Coast, Granta, Quarterly West, DIAGRAM, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. She serves as editor-in-chief of Foglifter Journal and lives in sunny Oakland, California.

We Want What We Want: A Review of Genevieve Hudson's Pretend We Live Here by Peter LaBerge


 “5 Arguments” by Qianqian Ye, from  Issue Twenty-Five .

“5 Arguments” by Qianqian Ye, from Issue Twenty-Five.

Desire drives every story, in one way or another, but few writers capture white-hot want like Genevieve Hudson. Pretend We Live Here (Future Tense Books) features characters obsessed with obsessions: how we are always trailing them, struggling to give them names, justifying them as we go along. Each of the wide-ranging voices in these stories—vegan activists, teenage skateboarders, a patient recovering from a harrowing surgery—are seekers at heart, unified by their sticky, boundless compulsions. “Anything I’m not supposed to have I want,” confesses the lesbian narrator of “Adorno,” who has, for reasons murky even to herself, recently slept with her beloved sister’s much-older husband. Hudson’s characters can’t always explain their actions, and they rarely know what’s best for them. Perhaps this is why they feel so nuanced and relatable. The world they walk through—flooded with lust, saturated with longing—is familiar to anyone who has ever had an insatiable ache.

Articulating desire is tricky—we want who we want, mostly without knowing why. It’s elusive, a chemical dance between bodies. Still, the characters in Hudson’s collection make half-hearted attempts to justify their urges. In “Bad Dangerous” the narrator laments her astrological predisposition for fixation: “I’m a Cancer after all. I reach out my crab claw and snap someone in my pinchers…It’s compulsive. I just keep pinching the shit out of this new thing until one day I lose interest and let it go.” Though many of these characters are in deeply chaotic situations, they are off-kilter and frequently funny, sarcastic and self-deprecating. They study crystals; they visit psychics and have their feet rubbed with sage; they have their birth charts read. Each of them is looking, in their new-age-y way, for gentle answers, or at least for alternative methods of rumination.

Rather than directly interrogate her characters’ jagged impulses, Hudson shows longing at the sentence level, bakes it right into the syntax. The language is corporeal and completely unexpected: a dirty floor “sprout[s] a kind of hair” and monotonous tasks “jiggle” a janitor’s heart. A filthy van is described first as smelling like “muscles and open wounds” and later as having a “menstrual stench.” The prose itself seems full of blood, the syncopation like a pulse.

Hudson’s careful attention to detail also makes her a master of evocative setting. In “Cultural Relativism” a young professor leaves Amsterdam for a teaching job in Alabama. Hudson is as deft at describing ivy-covered buildings and Southern “monuments of horror” as she is the icy waterways of the Amstel, but she never strays far from the body—where desire lives:

Conjure something that looks Ivy League—colonial mansions, wide lawns shaved to the height of an army crew cut, phallic chimes…Now, bring in a vicious Southern sun and burn everything so it walks with a limp. There, perfect.

There’s another type of yearning that moves alongside the physical in these stories: the search for home. We’re introduced to these characters in moments of dislocation—they are running from bad decisions, making new lives in foreign places or else traveling, living in liminality. But you get the feeling that no matter where they are, no matter how moored or forgiven or how loved, these characters would still feel adrift. The title reminds us that these are characters pretending to belong. For them restlessness is constant, and desire itself—even if it is fleeting, risky, or unrequited—is the closest approximation to feeling at home.

But the stories in Pretend We Live Here are certainly not tragic. Following desire, Hudson reminds us, can be blissfully life-affirming—it makes you bold, even as it drags you through dangerous places. “The wanting was a shake that started in my toenails and moved up toward something that wasn’t my brain,” says the narrator of “Possum,” after “innocent” dirty dancing at a Halloween party leads to full-blown fascination. The narrator’s crush, known only as “the possum,” tells her that if they lived in the same city, they would get into a lot of trouble. “The way the possum said trouble made me want to have it,” she says. “It made me want to eat drugs from the palm of her hand and follow her down the interstate on a motorcycle at 4 a.m. I wanted to turn a dollar into a straw and suck the possum up my nose.” This is precisely what the stories in this collection do: they take you off guard with their certainty and their strangeness—they grab your hand and lead you to unexpected, beautifully dark places. They make you greedy for more.

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Kimberly King Parsons is the author of Black Light, a short story collection forthcoming from Vintage in 2019, and the novel The Boiling River, forthcoming from Knopf.

Geography of Translation: A Review of Francisco Cantú’s The Line Becomes a River by Peter LaBerge


 Photo credit—Beowulf Sheehan. Francisco Cantú, author of  The Line Becomes a River: Dispatches from the Border  (Penguin Random House, 2018).

Photo credit—Beowulf Sheehan. Francisco Cantú, author of The Line Becomes a River: Dispatches from the Border (Penguin Random House, 2018).

A nation’s geographical border can define its identity as much as its politics. No book is as much an examination of this idea as Francisco Cantú’s The Line Becomes a River: Dispatches from the Border. A memoir that is primarily journalistic but also deeply personal, the narrative provides a series of snapshots into Cantú’s work as a U.S. Border Patrol Agent in the deserts of Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas, while also drawing from Cantú’s own academic background in U.S.-Mexico relations.

Yet the central idea of The Line Becomes a River does not address immigration policy, but the humans that are directly impacted by it. Throughout the book, Cantú emphasizes that the border serves as a microcosm for greater economic, racial, and human issues—issues that manifest themselves in the interactions along the geographical boundary of the United States and Mexico.

A vulnerability is present in Cantú’s writing that lends itself to his setting. Cantú is struck by the almost surreal quality of the landscape, juxtaposed with the very real violence that occurs there; the duality is one that Cantú will explore throughout the memoir.

Much can be explored regarding the function of Cantú’s own character as aggressor and advocate; at first, it is revealed that he joins the border as a real-life application of his academic knowledge. Yet, as Cantú ruminates on his time at the border, it appears that the decision to become a Border Patrol Agent was motivated by a desire to reconcile with his third-generation Mexican-American identity. By bearing witness to what occurs at the border, he begins to recognize that there is an inevitable connection between himself and those he has been taught to view as “other.”

It is at this intersection of a tangible geographical border and a figurative linguistic one that Cantú starts to understand the complexity of the situation. It is not just a matter of lines, but those on each side. Life and death are as compounded by human factors as they are by political ones. Those with the most deportations, Cantú says, become criminals in the eyes of the American government. But it’s this insistence on crossing for opportunity that reveals the commitment to family values—what is perhaps the primary facet of American identity.

Throughout his time on the border, Cantú struggles with the idea that his work as a Border Patrol Agent is defeating and destroying the migrants’ hope. At the same time, he believes that he is saving them from further pain. So when the agents “slash [the migrants’] bottles and drain their water into the dry earth, dump their backpacks and pile their food and clothes to be crushed and pissed on and stepped over, strewn across the desert and set ablaze,” they are actions of love. The reader witnesses the toll this takes on Cantú’s physical and mental health; he begins to grind his teeth. His dreams consist entirely of ferocious wolves and faceless men. Cantú’s mother, a former Park Ranger, is no stranger to the implications of Cantú’s role on the border for both the migrants and himself:

You spent nearly four years on the border, she said. You weren’t just observing a reality, you were participating in it. You can’t exist within a system for that long without being implicated, without absorbing its poison. And let me tell you, it isn’t something that’s just going to slowly go away. It’s part of who you’ve become. So what will you do? All you can do is try to find a place to hold it, a way to not lose some purpose for it all.

When Cantú addresses the institution, it is through the lens of an academic. He quotes the psychologist Carl Jung, saying that it had become “a political and social duty” to perceive “the other as the very devil, so as to fascinate the outward eye and prevent it from looking at the individual life within.” What he refers to here is the transformation of all migrants into “other,” but the fact that they are the same, all of them Americans. These migrants, Cantú states, were born into different circumstances, but they are just as human.

Towards the end of the book, Cantú focuses on the specific case of his undocumented coworker José, who is deported and unable to return to the United States after visiting Mexico for his mother’s funeral. This is a moment of clarity in Cantú’s life when he realizes that what occurs at the border has a ripple effect away from it; the implications of an action on the border are far-reaching and evident in the separation of families. It is a startling reminder that deportations are not just occuring along the line between the United States and Mexico, but in our own communities.

The book does not directly seek to address the economic implications of illegal immigration, nor does it enforce a political stance. Instead, it chooses to display the raw, human side of what occurs along the border. The line is defined not so much as its geographical boundaries as the people it represents. By prioritizing stories over statistics, Cantú allows his readers to develop their own relationship with the people on the other side. It is in fact this acknowledgement of migrants as humans that creates a basis for empathy, a means of solidarity that is paradoxically both universal and specific.

For Cantú, this realization of boundaries being imaginary occurs when he stops to fully acknowledge his surroundings as not a “border” but a bridge and river. “As I swam toward a bend in the canyon, the river became increasingly shallow...I stood to walk along the adjacent shoreline, crossing the river time and time again as each bank came to an end, until finally, for one brief moment, I forgot in which country I stood,” he writes. “All around me the landscape trembled and breathed as one.”

As Cantú emphasizes, there is no textbook way to solve the issue of the border. It is not an issue of policy so much as it is the reasoning behind policy; the ability to perceive these immigrants as human beings is what informs our policies. Translation of the immigration experience does not occur through headlines and harmful rhetoric. It occurs through empathy, which speaks to all.


Valerie Wu is a high school senior in San Jose, California. She is a two-time National Gold Medalist in the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards and has presented her writing and literary research at Stanford University, the University of California-Los Angeles, and the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco. Her work has been recognized by the National YoungArts Foundation, the Manzanar Awards Committee, and the Columbia Political Review, among others.

Fighting for an Education in Bronzeville: A Review of Eve L. Ewing’s Ghosts in the Schoolyard by Peter LaBerge


 Eve L. Ewing’s  Ghosts in the Schoolyard: Racism and School Closings on Chicago’s South Side  is out from University of Chicago Press, 2018.

Eve L. Ewing’s Ghosts in the Schoolyard: Racism and School Closings on Chicago’s South Side is out from University of Chicago Press, 2018.

As a freshman at Amherst College in 2014, one of the most transformative courses I took was David Delaney’s “Race, Place, and the Law.” The seminar, cross-listed in LJST (Law, Jurisprudence, Social Thought) and Black Studies, considered how the formation of certain places, from neighborhoods to voting districts to police precincts, was not only impacted by race, but had themselves created distinctive racial geographies. Physical places such as these, Delaney argued, were never just localities. Rather, they were constructed by discriminatory policies, prejudices, and, equally important, attempts by activists and organizers to reclaim a sense of community and agency. A housing section in Bronzeville, Chicago, for example, is imbedded with histories of racial segregation. For many residents, the neighborhood also has other meanings—it is a place of shared community and history, what theorist G. Lipsitz calls the “black spatial imaginary.”  

In a new study, Ghosts in The Schoolyard: Racism and School Closings on Chicago’s South Side (2018, University of Chicago Press), Eve L. Ewing, an assistant professor at the University of Chicago School of Service Administration, carefully examines one of the most disruptive, and racially-charged, changes to Chicago’s spatial geography in recent years: the closing of public schools in the South Side’s Bronzeville neighborhood and the resilient fight by community organizers, students, and activists to keep them open.

Ewing, a former schoolteacher in Bronzeville—a neighborhood which has historically been a center of black artistic and musical life (Gwendolyn Brooks, Sam Cooke, and Lou Rawls all were either were born or grew up there) —began this project in 2013, when Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced an unprecedented closure of nearly 330 Chicago schools. Emanuel and his appointed school chief, Barbara Byrd-Bennett, argued that closures were economically motivated, a fiscal response to “underutilized schools,” and had nothing to do with race.

Ewing emphatically contests that notion. “88 percent of the students who would be affected,” she points out in her introduction, were black, while “90 percent of the schools that would be closed were majority black.”

For Ewing, two questions immediately emerge from these statistics, and they frame the stakes of her project. First, she asks “What role did race, power, and history play in what was happening in [her] hometown?”  Second, she poses a question that we might paraphrase as: Why, if the schools were underperforming, did parents and students launch campaigns to keep them open?

Working with a diverse set of methodological approaches—field observations, statistical analyses, interviews with community members, and the occasional reference to race theorists—Ewing begins to answer those questions by providing a comprehensive account of the history of housing and schooling in Chicago’s South Side, specifically in Bronzeville.

The short version of that history begins in the 1950s and ‘60s, when many of the schools that Emanuel proposed to close—such as Dyett High School and the William J. And Charles H. Mayo Elementary School—were first opened. Because of the Chicago Housing Authority’s racially-motivated building projects and draconian enforcement of restrictive covenants, Bronzeville was one of the few places black families could live. Racial makeup of the schools reflected that; schooling and housing became enmeshed in a “double-helix”-like relationship. Meanwhile, with the surge in immigration from the South to Chicago in post-War years, there were burgeoning numbers of students, and Dyett and Mayo were often at maximum capacity.

Such schools, as Chapter I (“What a School Means”) explores, quickly grew into more than just educational institutions, serving as the center of cultural and community life, preserving historical memory, and giving parents a true sense of empowerment in their children’s academic futures. Dyett High, for example, was named in 1972 after Walter Henri Dyett, a famous violinist and educator in Bronzeville, as an homage to a tradition of black excellence. The school became “a tacit way of celebrating community itself,” a “place of care, a home...its very existence... a testimony to the history of black education in Bronzeville.”

So when Chicago Public Schools (CPS) announced the closure of Dyett in 2013, and when parents received a letter saying that “Dyett has been chronically underperforming” and had too few students, community organizers immediately proclaimed moral outrage and quickly formed a Coalition to Revitalize Dyett. The school had long been a “stable institution” to the community, and parents believed that the only reason it was underperforming was because CPS itself had failed to provide adequate funding. And what was the reason for the drop in students? That was indeed a product of the racialized housing policy, which had concentrated a disproportionate number of black families in the area. By closing, rather than rehabilitating, the school, CPS seemed to participate in a long history of racial discrimination that restructured African-American spaces and institutions without the consent of residents.

Because Ewing has close connections with the community itself, and because she gained the trust of its organizers, she writes with an intimate narrative force, avoiding, as the Chicago aphorism goes, the opposition to outsiders and the sense that  “we don’t want nobody sent by nobody.” Ewing is “somebody” in the community, and we hear directly from leaders and students in the resistance movements—which involved long negotiations and a hunger strike. When we learn that the movement achieved real success, the potential of community organizing resonates with strong emotional energy. Dyett closed as a high school in 2015, but re-opened in 2016 as Dyett High School For The Arts.

Other schools in Bronzeville, such as Overton, Williams, and Mayo, were less fortunate. All of them are now closed, and those who would have been students there face perilous educational futures. Many have to bus long distances to schools where, research suggests, they face difficult environments and often perform worse.

Ewing’s fourth chapter thus takes up the topic of “Institutional Mourning,” a neologism to convey the experience communities face during the “loss of a shared institution.” That kind of mourning, Ewing argues, occupies a special place is black communities; it participates in a long history of oral storytelling and testifying that refuses to let racist, authoritarian policies eradicate one’s narrative. Mourning is a way of remembering what once was, and what might be again.

Equal parts historical narration and intimate, journalist-style engagement with the people whose lives the closings affect, Ghosts closely builds upon recent work in critical race studies, revealing how ongoing histories and patterns of racism have intersected with, and impeded, both educational opportunities and civic power. In many ways, it is reminiscent of projects like Ta-Nehisi Coates’s seminal 2014 study in The Atlantic, “The Case for Reparations,” which traces the history of Chicago’s racialized housing policy and calculates the monetary loss it caused for black families. But where Coates is looking at concrete displacement, Ewing is considering something far more abstract: the value of an education and school in one’s own community.

It is both in her probing questions of what education means to socio-economically disadvantaged racialized communities and in her incisive challenge of political rhetoric that obfuscates or deflects from racial issues that Ewing offers us not only a site-specific study of Chicago, but one pertinent to broader questions of schooling in racialized worlds.  “Across the country, at the highest levels of decision-making power,” Ewing writes, “we see education policies that value neoliberal ideologies over the lives of children—especially when the children are black.”

Her arguments throughout are hard to contest, crystallizations of both data and theories from the likes of George Lipsitz, Judith Butler, and Derrick Bell. The only area where Ghosts left me wanting further insight was in regards to the kinds of housing policies and models which might begin to supplant that employed by Chicago’s Public Schools.

If more community schools are to be kept open, for example, how can cities ensure that they thrive? How can such schools become more attractive to colleges and ensure that their students are receiving top educations without sacrificing their neighborhood or community value?

Ultimately, Ghost’s success lies in the fact that Ewing deftly and convincingly writes from myriad perspectives—as a teacher concerned for students, a researcher with an eye to statistics, and a Chicagonian devoted to bearing witness and testifying to injustice. Advocate and journalist, theorist and sociological observer, she thus creates a multi-dimensional portrait of the students and activist fighting in an ongoing struggle of injustice and resistance.

It deserves a spot on the bookshelf of any policymaker, activist, and certainly in the college classroom.


Jacob Pagano is a writer and reporter who graduated from Amherst College in 2018 with a degree in English. He has worked as an assistant producer for the In Contrast podcast at New England Public Radio, lived and reported in China, and written for publications including The Oxford Culture Review, The Oxford Review of Books, and The Mainichi Daily Newspapers. He also freelance writes on activism and social justice movements, and he currently has a Gregoy S. Call Fellowship from Amherst College to develop his thesis on James Baldwin into an article. He lives in Los Angeles and loves to travel.

A Vestigial Light in the Hiding Places: A Review of Alicia Mountain's High Ground Coward by Peter LaBerge


 Photo credit: Libbie Early. Alicia Mountain,  High Ground Coward  (University of Iowa Press, 2018).

Photo credit: Libbie Early. Alicia Mountain, High Ground Coward (University of Iowa Press, 2018).

There’s a particular invisibility to queerness between women, due not only to a lack of cultural representation, but also to the underlying conviction that anything women do without men is inherently dumb, pointless, and boring. Those of us who orient ourselves toward women know otherwise, of course, but we’re so accustomed to this lack that when something actually speaks to our experience, it takes on outsized significance, like a gold coin glinting in a handful of dirt. High Ground Coward is one of these texts, a work that delights in the rich, nuanced connections between queer women while illuminating how we negotiate society’s derision and diminishment.

This collection speaks to “a vestigial light in the hiding places” (“Deadbolt Door Syndrome”), the beautiful, bright worlds queer women build amidst society’s homophobic, heteropatriarchal darkness. Alicia Mountain beautifully illustrates the tension between wanting to be seen and needing to be hidden; her speaker will “steal a red Sharpie from Rite Aid / and write fagz run this town on walls / in plain view” (“Deadbolt Door Syndrome”), but also “never told / until someone / in the crepe paper dark / of a dorm room / sighed and said, / all your desires are sacred” (“Drive Thru”).

One way that Mountain personifies this specific queerness is through doppelgangers or twins. Of course, all marginalized people code-switch to a certain degree, especially in the rural communities where this collection takes place, but I’ve never before seen a collection so deeply engaged with this doubling and how it ruptures the self, even while keeping it safe. Mountain’s poems are full of twins, who will “press me against the kitchen counter, / borrow my shirt for an interview, / betray very little to the houseguests” (“Solitary Tasting”). These shadows are simultaneously self and other, as in “On Being Told to Do Whatever I Want,” where “the twins of us are in love / but won’t say it / and the sound of their sleeping is ice melting in a jar.”

Desire also pulses through this collection like a heartbeat. Queer folks, especially when they’re women (whose sexuality is imagined as passive, an afterthought or myth), are forced to thoroughly investigate their desire, and ultimately, come to a deeper understanding of it, given that they must weave it from whole cloth. As Mountain says in “The Book Is a Hungry Darkness,” “My desires are berries because they are small and many.” Mountain draws attention to “the growing mole on my left breast, in the way a woman / puts her hot tongue to it long enough that I forget / my grandfather’s melanoma, my Aunt Barb’s mastectomy” (“Number Love, My Taxes”). There’s an intimacy that feels exclusive to those moving through the world as women in poems like “Orange Grove and a View of the Pacific,” with “Lily in a belly shirt before / one of us took it off. / This used to be a dress, / she said, I made it.” In some ways, desire is the animating force of queerness, what first tugs us toward a different life, a new community. And there’s a language of desire spoken in our communities, alongside a language of mourning, as in “Deadbolt Door Syndrome,” wherein the speaker asks, “Who am I / to carry loss like a back pocket flag?”

One of the collection’s most affirming threads is the assertion that tenderness is an action—something we give and do—not just something we feel. As Mountain’s speaker says in “Almanac Traction,” “I am trying to show you there is nothing outcast about you.” Even lust expresses itself as tenderness in poems like “Remember Driving to Salt Lake City,” “you remember waking up in Salt Lake City / you remember me undoing your seatbelt in the driveway / how there was no undoing then.”

Ultimately, High Ground Coward reads like a survival manual, a bulwark against a society that would flatten and silence queer women and deny the connections we forge. Mountain rejoices in those connections, showing both how strong and gentle they can be, as in “Upland Honest,” where “My belly hunger-moans when / you lean your head against it— / ferocious, even the softest part of me.”

Luiza Flynn-Goodlett Photo copy.png

Luiza Flynn-Goodlett is the author of the chapbooks Unseasonable Weather (dancing girl press, 2018) and Congress of Mud (Finishing Line Press, 2015). Her work can be found in Third Coast, Granta, Quarterly West, DIAGRAM, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. She serves as editor-in-chief of Foglifter Journal and lives in sunny Oakland, California.

Born to Be Guests: A Review of Max Ritvo’s The Final Voicemails by Peter LaBerge


 Photo credit: Ashley Woo. Max Ritvo’s  The Final Voicemails  (Milkweed Editions, 2018).

Photo credit: Ashley Woo. Max Ritvo’s The Final Voicemails (Milkweed Editions, 2018).

One frequent and endlessly forgivable side effect of serious illness is an inclination to turn inward and focus on your own suffering. I’m sure in many cases that it’s even medically helpful to transform yourself into another monitoring device, paying constant attention to your symptoms, scrutinizing their ever-so-slight permutations, in the hopes of front-running any uninvited byproducts of this particular course of Doxil or Oncovin. But the risk you run—or rather, the risk you’re forced to run—is that your mind might slowly become bound inside the two bed-rails, day-by-day your awareness sliding so completely into the self that there’s (understandably) little-to-no room left for paying meaningful attention to the distress of those at your bedside, or for a wider perspective at large.

It seems to me, that among Max Ritvo’s many acts of heroism in writing the material that became The Final Voicemails, was his incredible ability to actively check this inclination. In this collection, raw meditations on death are not documentation of suffering that serve only to extract a sort of charitable sympathy from the reader. Ritvo was able to get outside of himself, somehow, and to keep an eye on how all of this would be narrativized.

And it’s not even the pain foremost, it is the story of me in pain that is paining me.

I am possessed with self-pity, and it is expressing itself out of my mouth.

[My Bathtub Pal]

And once more:

In extreme pain we leave our bodies and look down to commit the pain to memory like studious angels.

[December 29]

Relatedly, I’d say that while there are moments of profundity in The Final Voicemails—so many awe-worthy, arresting lines with phrases that feel as though they were cut with diamond saws—Ritvo always manages to step around any sort of impending-death convention or trope you might expect to find from a lesser talent. I’m sure that some adjunct friends, or distant family, or miscellaneous internet denizens who’d followed the sound-bites of Max’s story, etc., will order this collection and try to mine it for inspiring nuggets the way you might pick up Ray Dalio’s Principles or, I don’t know, Eat Pray Love, in the hopes of trimming a few lines for pasting to your whiteboard at work or for a self-explanatory meme.

Max Ritvo pulls away from this current, this market for bite-sized, summatory sentimentality. One of my very favorite iterances comes in the opening poem:

All this time, I thought my shedding would expose a core, I thought I would at least know myself…

[The Final Voicemails]

Oh, I love these lines. They remind me of Emerson’s account of himself grieving the death of his son and just waiting for an insight, his hard-wrought reward, some knowledge buried in all the suffering. Emerson wrote of the experience, “the only thing grief has taught me, is to know how shallow it is.”

Likewise, here’s Ritvo:

…my baldness is not wisdom


Ritvo manages not only to escape himself, but he holds a mirror to the rest of us with lines like that. What is it we’re hoping for out of someone else’s grave illness? Why do we lean so close and wait for a profound insight? Does that expectation put them (the sufferers) on the spot to sum up life in a brief morsel or two? I think the real question I’ve been forced to confront while locking horns with this collection: does this mining for meaning prevent us from living fully in the present, from savoring simple moments with our loved ones?

Ultimately, this question is not about grave illness, either. We’re all terminal, one way or another. Ritvo:

But we suffered and there is no pill to treat time.

[Nobody Asked Anything]

I.e., no one can be saved from time’s metastasis. Hopefully this fact isn’t staring you in the face at this exact second, but Ritvo’s work suggests to me that perhaps we ought to spend less time on anxiously examining ourselves, working up the dread that comes with such probing—what does it all mean?—and spend time on whatever it is that makes our lives feel vibrant today.

I find this thought to be tied into another powerful thread that runs through Ritvo’s last poems: there are references to (what I’ll call) a culture of high achievement, where we’re always jumping from one goal to another, and how it worms its way into our brains.

We, in the West, eat until we want   to eat something else, or want to stop eating altogether.


I.e., we’re devouring one thing and then as soon as we’ve finished, we’re onto the next thing. And that cycle of goal-setting continues right up until you’re at the end of your life. It’s gritty, it’s stated beautifully, and it’s true. Again, Ritvo:

You’re almost at the finish line. But first, you have to pick a finish line.

[The Soundscape of Life is Charred by Tiny Bonfires]

There seems to me to be an insistence here about escaping the default, competitive settings of your brain, stepping outside the finish-line-to-finish-line mentality and doing something for its own sake. Playing cards with your grandmother. Cooking a meal from scratch with your partner. Going for a bike ride in a part of town you usually don’t see. I’ve belabored the point enough, but that’s the sort thinking these poems have inspired in me.

Beyond that, I’d like to call attention to the gorgeous and abiding sense in the collection of being a guest in this life. There’s a sense that, as a guest, you’re obliged to make a humble truce with the fates. Like entering someone else’s house, you’re bound to play by their rules or pay homage to their customs.

Some people were born to be guests. Like me. Next time, I told her, you pick the spot.

[My New Friend]

It’s wonderful, and sad. Once more:

I can hear already a roaring in the distance, half salt, half horse,

I like this, I’m scared, but so’s the sound. We’ll both be guests.

[Quiet Romance]

So you’re a guest for a while, and then one day you’re no longer welcome. You’ve got to go. But that’s not necessarily all tragic. There’s a nitrogen cycle angle at work in the poems, a brutally hopeful reminder the death begets life in some ways.

And the chef is God, whose faithful want only the destruction of His prior miracles to make way for new ones.


It sounds a bit like Conservation of Mass, or like something beautifully Malthusian. Ritvo stares at his place in all of this biochemical cyclicality and contemplates what’s next after passing, what he’ll become, what he’ll be. Perhaps my absolute favorite section:

When my heart stops, it will be the end of certain things,
but not the end of things itself.

Sure, my smile is useful, but a chair is useful too. In the end, I love chairs, and I love dogs, and I’ll be chairs, and I’ll be dogs, and if I am ever a thought of my widow I’ll love being that.

[My New Friend]

I think, as a work in and of itself, the knock against this collection might be that it doesn’t feel entirely whole or fully fleshed out. It doesn’t seem endlessly sanded-down, or scrubbed, or otherwise brought to a Pinesol-slick sheen that gives you the impression of wood floors waxed ahead of a realtor’s open house. And, of course, there’s an obvious explanation—there wasn’t enough time for its author.

As a result, I do believe that the collection’s relative bareness, its sort of skeletal authenticity is fitting. Ultimately, it might make The Final Voicemails a more effective piece of art; after all, you’re only allotted so much time to leave a voicemail before you’re cut off.

Max Ritvo didn’t have the good fortune to live as long as, say, William Maxwell. Ritvo wasn’t afforded the opportunity to sit down in his later years and peck away on his typewriter, editing up something like “Nearing 90,” Maxwell’s wonderful essay, where the author reflected on his long life winding to a close, lamenting chiefly about the books he wouldn’t be able to re-read during death. Why would we hold The Final Voicemails to the same standard of pristine wholeness as So Long, See You Tomorrow, a well-scrubbed little novel that Maxwell wrote as a senior citizen? Well, we shouldn’t. But why would we even want Ritvo’s last work to be so whole? The hole itself is a huge part of this collection, a gravitational center around which the poems orbit.

Incidentally, the central device of So Long, See You Tomorrow is an unfinished house, and that’s an image that comes to me when I think about the core of The Final Voicemails. There are no walls in this house, just beams, floors, and studs. You can go room to room here without the need to open doors. You can look up and see the sky. The poems in The Final Voicemails exist as a similar sort of living blueprint of a corner of Ritvo’s mind or a set of joists, incomplete but graspable and solid.


It is generally a good deal to be a guest in this world, but the arrangement comes with a striking set of contractual terms – the most brutal of which are that you’ve got to leave one day and that the timing is not necessarily up to you. But, as Ritvo illuminated in The Final Voicemails, when you do leave, it’s not the end of your impact or your love or, maybe, your spirit. There are significant contrails left behind. There are dogs and chairs, and there are people who, in their memories, thoughts, and actions, continue to keep essential parts of you in existence.

I’m done. The last word here shouldn’t be mine:

But when you decide someone has something to say their silences speak to you too—

[December 29]


Glenn Stowell leads the breakfast shift at a center for veterans experiencing homelessness, and manages financial investments by day. He translated and edited You Jump to Another Dream, a collection of poems by Beijing-based sound artist and underground organizer Yan Jun. The collection was published by Vagabond Press in Australia. His other work has been published in the Green Mountains Review, the Tulane Review, the Berkeley Poetry Review, and elsewhere.

Nothing Is Ever Itself Only: A Review of Justin Phillip Reed’s Indecency by Peter LaBerge


  Indecency  by Justin Phillip Reed (Coffee House Press, 2018).

Indecency by Justin Phillip Reed (Coffee House Press, 2018).

Justin Phillip Reed’s debut collection, Indecency, offers a sharp, uncompromising rebuttal to a society that would like to reduce the speaker to their race, sexuality, and gender performance. Reed turns the white, heterosexual gaze back toward itself, revealing the void at the heart of those identities, while simultaneously reveling in black queerness and expounding on the vast universes contained therein.

Indecency, asks, What is sayable? Isn’t propriety just oppression with a smile? Reed then makes space for the truth white western culture asks marginalized people to keep to themselves and demonstrates how it attempts to conscript them into protecting the privileged from the reality of what is done in their name to maintain that privilege, as in “They Speak of the Body and One Sits Up Straight.”

what's black    and red        and red        all over? the public
drops    its hand    from the ear where it had    what it thought
was the decency    to whisper.

Reed illustrates how our society reduces black people to their bodies and then demeans and discards those bodies in poems like “Pushing up onto its elbows, the fable lifts itself into fact,” where “The soil is thick with hidden Black girls, the myth that only quiet Black girls are worthwhile Black girls.” Reed negates this dehumanization by grounding Indecency in physicality. His speaker, “so black my elbows / stripe their char on the carpet” (“Take It Out of the Boy”), is determined not just to survive, but to raise their voice over what seeks to silence them. This is a speaker who has “scrubbed my own maroon out of the porcelain / mouth of a pedestal sink,” in “Slough,” and relates, “I haven't swept / the welcome mat, haven’t taken advantage / of the free counseling sessions, have been / here before” in “Nothing Was Ever Itself Only.” But there’s a fierce intellect here that refuses to look away, wondering in “Paroxysm,” “why Edvard Munch’s screaming figure isn’t black as the day is long.”

One of the collection’s most exciting through-lines is its examination of whiteness—the ravenous blank of it, and how its cold, relentless spotlight throws blackness into strange relief. Reed demonstrates how whiteness obscures itself by insisting that its many violences are done by no one in poems like “A Statement from No One, Incorporated,” where faceless white voices insist, “We are so / many blades in the yard the wind / runs screaming invisibly through.” By rendering itself invisible and innocent, whiteness attempts to make itself unassailable, so it’s remarkable how Reed peers into this lack to reveal not only what whiteness imagines itself to be, but also how the construction of whiteness prefigures blackness as the repository of and direction for violence. This is especially striking in poems like “Pushing up onto its elbows, the fable lifts itself into fact.”

Unlike missing Black girls, taking black girls is a Western custom. It seems likely that such a statement will soon appear inaccurate: the white space in the new textbook editions will have nothing to say about it, if the white spaces behind those textbooks have anything to say about it.

It’s certainly not a new idea that whiteness requires blackness to serve as its shadow and foil—that’s one of many the twisted logics of white supremacy—but Reed illuminates the contours of whiteness in ways that undercut and deftly dismantle it, rather than taking existing dynamic as inevitable, describing, “A feeling in which the rest of the world is a white couple riding horses down the spine of a beach at dusk” (“Paroxysm”). Even more remarkably, Reed lets blackness speak back to the forces that demand its negation in “The Fratricide.”

How can we tell ourselves apart for you. How can
we help you to tell us apart. How can we help
you tell us apart. How can we help you to tear
us apart. How can we help you. You tear us apart.
How can we tear us. You help us apart. You help
us part. How can we tear you. How can we tear
you. How can we help us to tear you apart.

Reed highlights the paradox of living in a world that wants you dead in poems like “On Life as an Exercise in Preparing to Die,” where the speaker notes, “carnation once referred to the color of flesh: beyond the black and white meats, the bloody organs arrange a bouquet of crushed roses, paling and exhausted.” Reed also illustrates how being systemically imperiled binds black people, particularly black men, as in the previously mentioned “The Fratricide,” where the speaker “was already / wearing the skin of his skull, molding its contours / to mine.”

However, Reed calls attention to the ways in which queerness excludes his speaker from that fraternity, as in “To Every Faggot Who Pulverized Me for Being a Faggot,” where the speaker addresses “Dear fellow / gay-ass nigga,” asking, “who loves you these days? / I hope it’s Black people. I hope no one / stole the certainty of that away from you,” and later in the poem, addresses the white man who disavows their relationship in favor of the closet:

From its stubborn clay I’ve shaped
a creature, hollowed into its guts
a pair of lungs, attached appendages
that make it capable of walking
out of every room it enters at will
and willed it to love. What have you done.

That’s a radical sentiment, just as this collection is an incendiary one, a work of joy as much as suffering, of celebration as much as tragedy, and of life as much as death. Reed’s wit and formal experimentation, quicksilver and luminous, shows the world as it is, while detailing how the very people that society most devalues, demeans, and seeks to destroy are its true visionaries.


Luiza Flynn-Goodlett is the author of the chapbooks Unseasonable Weather (dancing girl press, 2018) and Congress of Mud (Finishing Line Press, 2015). Her work can be found in Third Coast, Granta, Quarterly West, DIAGRAM, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. She serves as editor-in-chief of Foglifter Journal and lives in sunny Oakland, California.

The experience of snaring: A Review of Shira Dentz’s how do i net thee by Peter LaBerge


  how do i net thee , by Shira Dentz (Salmon Poetry, 2018).

how do i net thee, by Shira Dentz (Salmon Poetry, 2018).

Shira Dentz’s third, color-studded book, how do i net thee, invites an interactive, immersive reading experience. Dentz’s iridescent language might best be described as Play-Doh, constructed to be flexible, moveable, and often flung—though unlike Play-Doh, these poems are often weightier and sticky. Mostly resisting paraphrase and defying narrative explanation, Dentz’s lines instead sprawl and twist associatively across the neural net of the poet’s consciousness. While this book can often feel elusive, Dentz’s poems are not diction-dense in the way that an Albert Goldbarth or G.C. Waldrep collection might read. Rather, a Dentz reading experience may feel more like floating, recalling to my ear, the static felt in certain Rae Armantrout poems, perhaps Jorie Graham with simpler diction, or a motion reminiscent of C.D. Wright’s Rising, Falling, Hovering; that said, this is a style that feels like Dentz’s alone.

The first poem, “wax,” opens the collection in this vein, beginning “lightmilk / a little more tea-color than yesterday— / a march date coils.” While the word “lightmilk” will not be further illuminated by any OED or Wikipedia entry, its defamiliarization of light and milk feels evocative. I imagine myself sitting at a kitchen table with the poet, stirring tea, and reflecting on my morning, “lightmilk” evoking milk being stirred, tea brightening in a cup as milk is added (maybe skim milk, I’ll allow—but here in this essay only), and the muted quality of morning light. I think I am looking at a calendar (“march”), but perhaps I am examining a date to eat? Then what “coils”? A calendar? A fruit? The lightmilk? Trying to build a narrative quickly becomes impossible; thankfully, it soon feels unnecessary. In addition to contracting and expanding spacing between words and letters—even vertically on occasion with superscript and subscript in addition to these relatively conventional methods—Dentz also plays with capitalization and punctuation, both fragmenting sentences and blurring their endings as the rhythms and visual effects of poems require. For Dentz, the page is more canvas than vehicle, and the poet uses unconventional spacing on every access to create an unconventional reading experience. (For this reason, I elected to focus more deeply on the first poem— more conventional spacing makes its citation more intelligible. To be honest, most of these spacing techniques are, while enjoyable to witness, tedious to describe; as a result, I aimed to spare my kind-hearted review-reader this onerous description.)

“wax” continues from these three short lines into longer lines that break closer to the page’s right-hand margin, using enjambment across stanza-space: “…a word rising / ahead like smoke.    wax // flowers float along water my brother a steed’s dark flank glistening back.”

 Excerpt from "wax" courtesy of Shira Dentz.

Excerpt from "wax" courtesy of Shira Dentz.

In this sentence’s numerous potential subjects, I am reminded of John Ashbery’s idea of poems that refuse to describe experience, but rather describe the “experience of experience.” In similar equine obfuscation, his poem, “Baltimore” begins “Two were alive. One came round the corner / clipclopping.” And, if like in Ashbery, in Dentz, the “experience of experience” is the subject, we may never be fully privy to what incites its impulse. Yet our palate may salivate at “…dark flank glistening back,” an effect of the percussive k’s and similar gl phonemes in tandem with the somewhat sexual imagery in uncomfortable proximity to “brother” and “steed.” Ashbery further explains what he wishes to capture, noting, “I have a feeling that everything is slipping away from me as I’m trying to talk about it….” Similarly, things seem to drift as “wax” continues. As a counterweight to the drifting, Dentz provides sound as moorings; lines continue to cluster around phrases containing assonance and consonance such as, “…a bit of thought passed.”, “bird darts // past.”, “today’s springlike // gash.”, “bird // darts past,” ending with “knife the heat breath there’s not anything more to say about the brother” the line concluding without punctuation. The transformation of “passed” into “past” and the repetition of birds darting represent similar techniques that recur throughout how do i net thee.

In reading Dentz, I am also reminded of a concept articulated in Mary Ruefle’s essay, “On Beginnings.” Ruefle describes, “I believe the poem is an act of the mind. I think it is easier to talk about the end of a poem than it is to talk about its beginning. Because the poem ends on the page, but it begins off the page, it begins in the mind.” Perhaps Dentz would agree that being hung up on the beginning of a poem is unwise. In her poem, “If you’re going to keep criticizing the beginning,” her speaker answers the title with the lines “nothing will follow; // how like an eye / nnnnnnnnnn / an oval tooth in the background.” Yet, even as the poem is an act of the mind, in Dentz’s work, a poem’s beginning and ending may shift per reader and reading. “Surfaces    fast as blood” represents one poem that blurs beginnings and endings. Here, by rotating page orientation and text layout, the poem’s lines smash against one another.

 Excerpt from "Surfaces fast as blood" courtesy of Shira Dentz.

Excerpt from "Surfaces fast as blood" courtesy of Shira Dentz.

Cathryn Hankla, a former teacher of mine, once remarked something to the effect of, a poem’s first impression on its reader is often as a visual medium—first visual, then aural, then both, as senses trade off. If so, “Surfaces…” creates a first impression of chaotic disorientation. The title, running parallel to the book’s spine, pulls its reader from the portrait orientation of the previous page to landscape orientation, and the mind must turn with the poet’s. On the right side, where the poem seems to beg us to begin, lines read, “the mother and father spreading,” and goes down the u’s spine to describe “last night / the father / drove a / black mini- / truck into a / store….” This section concludes “another night the mother. shouting / in red orange yellow //    upside down,”. At this point, the reader must flip the book again to experience two mirroring lines on the left margin. They read: “hanging like a bat . a man-flavor like a lifesaver i was alive but had no home :” Where does this poem conclude? It doesn’t seem to want to end, but to recur as often as the reader elects to flip the page. The poem is an act of the mind. “…i was alive but had no home.” Here, the home is the reader’s mind. We’re left with the chaotic image the poem first impressed.

However, the poem does not rest there, though the mind might. Rather, “Surfaces…” continues into the next page, still in landscape orientation: 

Lines continue to fold in and rebegin. The poem seems to conclude with only minor strangeness, “Leaves are falling though it’s still warm.” However, on the following page, “Surfaces…” reasserts itself yet again, back in portrait orientation, with the title reappearing in the conventional location. Here, the poem repeats the lines on the first page without the spatial manipulation. While, perhaps at their least interesting under this orientation, upon the repetition, they feel more charged.

While I cannot rightly explain the happenings of these inventive poems, as they happen, they pull me deeper, choosing not to pull me closer to the poet or speaker. It is an unexpected experience, since the poems themselves seem so closely to mirror thought without revealing the thinker. Is it necessary to feel close to the poet to feel close to their poems? I don’t think so. Yet, the closest I feel to knowing the poet’s persona is in the zen-like line that closes the collection, “Everything can be measured in fruit.” Perhaps lightmilk can also be measured in fruit. Mary Ruefle speculates in another essay, “There is a world that poets cannot seem to enter. It is the world everybody else lives in. And the only thing poets seem to have in common is their yearning to enter this world.” This collection seems to be knocking on the door to a different world. The question posed by the collection’s unpunctuated title is never answered: if “thee” is the reader, how does a poet net their audience? As Dentz writes in “The Penmanship of Trees,” “to take these lines, however flimsy / hurl them at the white shrouded sky.” Each of these poems seem hurled to snare us—and if not snare us—snare us in the experience of snaring and being snared. And it is lovely when they do.

Mike Good - Adroit headshot.jpg

Mike Good’s recent writing can be found at or is forthcoming from december, Forklift, OH, Rattle, Salamander, Sugar House Review, The Georgia Review, Tupelo Quarterly, Ploughshares Blog, 32 Poems Blog, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and elsewhere. He holds an M.F.A. from Hollins University and helps edit the After Happy Hour Review. He lives in Pittsburgh and works as a grant writer. Find more at

To Love, Despite Collapse: A Review of Brenda Hillman's Extra Hidden Life, among the Days by Peter LaBerge


  Extra Hidden Life, among the Days , by Brenda Hillman (Wesleyan University Press, 2018).

Extra Hidden Life, among the Days, by Brenda Hillman (Wesleyan University Press, 2018).

Folded among Brenda Hillman’s tenth full-length poetry collection, Extra Hidden Life, among the Days (Wesleyan University Press 2018), are explorations of grief and loss, global warming and economic crisis, protests and violence against protests, feminism, the soul and its music. This new installment in Hillman’s œuvre has much in common with her four previous collections, each dedicated to and infused by one of the four elements. Like Cascadia (2001), Pieces of Air in the Epic (2005), Practical Water (2009), and Seasonal Works with Letters on Fire (2013), Extra Hidden Life focuses on particular motifs – foremost among them, the “hidden” and necessary work of insect and plant life – which stitch each section together and lend her meditations on death and survival an imagistic unity. Through her emphasis on the microscopic or near-microscopic and its patient work of constructing and decaying, Hillman reminds us of the stakes of writing “in the twilight / of       a terrible year.” Piercing and brilliant, the collection calls on the reader not only to take action, but also to hear and “To love, despite / collapse, the life forms / reading to the wood.”

The five sections of Extra Hidden Life expand upon and echo back to one another. Hillman moves deftly from sorrow for the destruction of ecosystems and Native land, to the omnipresence of guns in the days “inside history where America is lost,” from the death of friends and family, to police violence against people of color. With her boundary-breaking forms, subtle and sudden shifts in tone and image, and startling fragmentations of her lines, Hillman pushes against an easy classification of her work. Indeed, she is not unlike the “great writers” mentioned in her poem, “Curl of Hair in a Drawer,” who are willing to “abandon their / camps & are burning the maps to stay warm.” Her poems spiral organically into and beyond themselves, grounded in the radiant physicality of body, nation, and planet.

Extra Hidden Life’s ruminations on the natural world—its embrace of wild syntax, its play of negative space, its foregrounding of activism and resistance—repeatedly put me in mind of Denise Levertov’s poetry, especially “Making Peace”: “A line of peace might appear / if we restructured the sentence our lives are making, / revoked its reaffirmation of profit and power, / questioned our needs, allowed / long pauses . . .” These poems speak to the need to restructure language and thought to better comprehend the world, to be willing to listen to what Levertov names the “syntax of mutual aid.” Frequently, Hillman incorporates color iPhone photos within the poems, so that her visual art seems to act as its own poetic line or to signify a new kind of punctuation. There is something breathing and beating and untamed in these forms, something simultaneously fluid and sharp. The speaker of “(untitled)” asserts that “The visible stands for everything, including the invisible.” The reader, plunged into the joyful, devastating world of these poems, is challenged to reconsider how they might learn to see the invisible in the visible, to love “the law  of the rock & dirt.”

In the middle section, “Metaphor & Simile,” the speaker welds together the words of Jean Toomer, Wallace Stevens, Rosa Parks, and Róża Luxemburg with images of algae, fungi, and lichen. Early in the section, which is composed of twenty-four “journal poems” inspired by the work of giovanni singleton and Robert Creeley, the speaker offers advice: “During the Can’t stand it / how to live:   skin in the yards, / life forms, species on stucco & bark.” As is true of other sections woven throughout Extra Hidden Life, the journal poems of “Metaphor & Simile” concern themselves with survival and the fight for survival, especially in spaces in which others wish to cause harm. In this way, fungi and lichen serve as a pattern for persistence, for how countless small forces can break down the destructive and the hopelessly cruel in “a cinnamon revolt...”:

          Not to despair yet to look out, to somehow chant
profound & blare each molecule existing here in
          circles at its will, something will outlast
          the scene, anthropocene, ~i~ write to you near
Xanthoparmelia here, “perhaps the most common
species” on granite, nameless energy
          till all of life seemed wrapped in it~

The study of the “hidden life” of forests and stone is thus a symbol of defiance, a hymn of gratitude, a protection spell, and an elegy for the fact that “you can’t write the names of species / Fast enough before they disappear.”   

Hillman threads themes of grieving and loss throughout each section, and the titular poem, “Extra Hidden Life, among the Days,” is particularly memorable. Dedicated to C.D. Wright, it features “extremophiles    , chemolithoautotrophs / & others with power for changing / not-life into lives,” an extended metaphor for the fierceness of Wright’s life and art:

The living prefer life    , mostly they do
              ,    they are ravenous
            ,    making shapes in groups
  as the dying grow        one thought
        until the end  , wanting more
              specifics ,     desert or delay
           until the i         drops away into
            i am not here  ,   the mineral other
pumps & vast vapors   , ridges & shadows beyond
         the single life it had not thought of–

Like the “i” that has dropped away and into extreme heat or cold, or like the heavy caesurae splitting the poem in two, Wright’s presence in the poem is also a rending absence. “Her Presence Will Live beyond Progress,” a long poem originally published as a chapbook by Albion Books (2017), is also dedicated to Wright and switches to a more confessional first-person lyric:

          i cling to her like a burr on a sock
    cling to her like a lipstick stain
cling like lichen on the live oak    breaking things down

    extra hidden life          among the days

Each line clings to the previous as the stanza drifts back toward the left-hand margin, before the next line again becomes untethered and independent. To be burr or stain or lichen is to “cling” for as long as possible to the living beloved; for the lichen in particular, “breaking things down” is both a deeply intimate and restorative act.

“The Rosewood Clauses,” an elegy for Hillman’s father, pairs grief and the looming threat of global warming with cacti and the silent industry of ants. Ants, figures of continuous work, invisible life, and decomposition, are also figures of incredible strength and endurance amidst disaster: “There is a / leaking out of everything. The ants / work underground; the invisible / is a communist.” Extra Hidden Life interrogates this unbearable sorrow from its opening section, “The Forests of Grief & Color.” Though several epigraphs headline the section, the excerpt from Judith Butler’s “On Grief and Rage” seems especially apropos: “Can we perhaps find one of the sources of nonviolence in the capacity to grieve, to stay with the unbearable loss without converting it into destruction?. . . if the grief is unbearable, is there another way to live with it that is not the same as bearing it?” Hillman offers a response, showing how grieving and living alongside the unbearable mirrors the struggle to save forests, animals, plants, and shores, democracy, and human life. At a moment in which “nothing / comes together anymore– / democracy & time, / from da: to divide–,” fighting for survival becomes a strategy for survival, itself. This collection urges the reader to not only brave the disillusionment and despair rampant in our politics and to stare down its indifference, but to also work alongside their own sorrow and fear, defiant and awake and “possessed of deep & vagrant joy.”

Author Photo 6.jpg

Cara Dees holds an MFA from Vanderbilt University and is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Cincinnati. The recipient of an Academy of American Poets Prize, a scholarship from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, and a Pushcart Prize nomination, she was named the runner-up for the 2018 Third Coast Poetry Prize and a finalist for Indiana Review’s 2016 Poetry Prize. Her work appears or is forthcoming in such journals as Beloit Poetry Journal, Best New Poets 2016, Crazyhorse, Gulf Coast, The Journal, and The Southeast Review. Her first manuscript was recently listed as a semifinalist or finalist for the Brittingham & Felix Pollak Prizes in Poetry, the Lexi Rudnitsky First Book Prize, the Saturnalia Books Poetry Prize, The Journal/Charles B. Wheeler Poetry Prize, and the St. Lawrence Book Award.

The best I can wish for you is bad luck: A Review of Myriam Gurba’s Mean by Peter LaBerge



Every so often, we encounter a memoir which voices a narrative that, though lived and told by so many, has still not been heard in its complexity, or received the recognition it deserves. Mean (Coffee House Press, 2017), Myriam Gurba’s witty, trenchant, and all too relevant account of a culture in which sexual violence exists as a frightening daily reality and is often confronted alone, marks that kind of memoir. It is urgent reading for anyone who wants to understand the hidden traumas on our high school and college campuses (and, as the #MeToo movement has shown, definitively everywhere), and an opportunity to hear directly from a survivor whose voice moves seamlessly between empathy and satire, wit and slam poetry-style conviction.

Mean tells the story of a queer Chicana (Myriam’s mother is Mexican, her father white) in the style of a feminist bildungsroman, with sharp attunement to what it means to be a mixed-race and bilingual woman growing up in Santa Maria, California. The world Myriam describes is one where sexual violencein the junior high classroom, where Myriam is molested by a male classmate, or on the town’s baseball teamis seldom punished. Gurba’s account is also deeply intersectional, addressing how cultural barriers make telling one’s story even more difficult, while at the same reveling in the joys and opportunities that come from being able to vacillate between Mexican and American cultures. Its content today would receive a trigger-warning, but Gurba gives us none, which is part of the point: this is violence we cannot afford to turn from.

The memoir opens with a vivid account of the night when Sophia Torres, an itinerant worker,  was raped and killed in 1996 by an assailant who, we soon learn, also attacked and raped several other women, as well as Gurba herself while she was attending UC Berkeley. Myriam’s narration of Torres’ murder, representative of what follows, is poetic and deeply embodied. Beginning with a lyrically rich few lines—“Let’s become that night. Let’s become that park. Let’s absorb and drip”—Gurba invites us to witness what is often unseen. She wants us to feel that we are there when “a dark-haired girl walks alone...” and is raped and killed.

The narrative that follows—tracing Myriam’s own pre-teen to college years—is at once courageous in its emotional breadth and in its ability to revel in a caustic humor that, despite all the pain, Myriam insists on preserving. At the crux of the memoir are poignant confrontations with grief: Myriam wrestles with the ghosts of those killed in acts of sexual violence and narrates the time she was raped; she accompanies her sister to an anexoria appointment, only to hear a doctor conclude “Mexicans” can’t be anorexic; and she faces a world of both adults and teens who are willfully blind to the pervasive hidden sexual violence in her California town.

The cultural climate in Mean—unfortunately one that resembles the experience of many on college campuses today—is one where administrators say, “These kinds of things happen,” to students when they report assaults. These are the words the school nurse tells Myriam when she recounts the night a man raped her, making the narrative itself, the imagined conversations between you the reader and Myriam, the place where confession, empathy, and understanding must occur.

Myriam’s words are like poetic flashlights, activists in their urgent demand for illuminating the truth: “Somewhere on this planet, a man is about to touch a woman to death,” she tells us while lying alone in her room one night and recalling her traumatic experiences at junior high. She later says, “After a stranger ambushes you and assails you… You understand that you live in a world where getting classically raped is possible and that classical rapists lurk everywhere.” Part of what Myriam does here is make us uncomfortable through language at once mocking and bitingly honest (“classical rapists”) that resists a culture where sexual violence is perpetuated in part through euphemistic diction that ignores or masquerades its effects and allows too many turn a blind eye.

And Myriam not only makes the blunt, poignant observation“When you have PTSD, things repeat themselves over and over and over”—but performs that repetition in the narrative. Traumatic memories return, again and again, regardless of where Myriam finds herself.

At the same time, almost as its own act of resistance, Mean sizzles with humor that is at once Myriam’s self-proclaimed “mean” style (“being mean,” she says “makes us feel alive”), which mocks and satirizes on a whim, but is also profoundly revealing of the way laughter can at times be the only way to express and confront despair. Part of what Myriam’s humor does is sublimate frustration and anger through imaginative fantasies. Spending the summer before she goes to college in the Mexican desert, Myriam encounters a missionary couple with a beautiful daughter (to whom she is attracted) and tell us: “I am a gringa, and since gringos are really good at exploiting Mexico as a liminal space, a shadow rose in me and eclipsed my morality. Images of violence toward the missionaries’ daughter sped through my mind.” Myriam is no real threat—she herself abhors violence—so we can laugh here, and realize the joke for what it is: a way to find laughter and to confront her own queer sexuality in a violent, discriminatory world.

And much of her humor is itself cultural commentary that points out the underlying prejudice in our culture. Recounting the irony in the fact that a white man teaches her college anthropology course, she says, “Who better to explain all the cultures and peoples of the world than he who is in charge of them?” And she doesn’t stop at anybody’s expense, telling us that, “‘Girls Just Wanna Have Fun’ was originally a kind of rapey song meant to be sung by a guy. Luckily, Cyndi Lauper saved it.” It’s this kind of biting attention to the implicitly sexualizing language in our culture that characterizes much of Gurba’s wit, and invites us to be aware of how we ourselves speak.

Following her short-story collection, Painting Their Portraits in Winter (Manic D Press, 2015), the memoir further establishes Gurba as a voice that, like writers Sandra Cisneros and Ana Castillo, fearlessly reveals the complex tensions in being queer, Chicana, and a young woman in America. Castillo, a leading academic who considers the unique experiences of Chicanas as they relate to mainstream feminist debates in America and the literature that represents those experiences, would find a poignant, revolutionary example in Gurba. And like Cisneros in her inventive vignette style in The House On Mango Street Arte Público Press, 1984), which tells the story of Esperanza Cordero growing up in Chicago, Gurba has conveyed those tensions with profound relatability, striking psychological chords in her readers through prose that unabashedly moves into modernist-style poetry on one page, and into sitcom hilarity the next.

What Mean does so brilliantly is not only narrate such traumas and questions of identity, but help reveal the psychological obstacles, the grit and resiliency, that exist behind finding the voice to share them. Mean is both readable and unforgiving in its psychological realism, the way sexual violence leads to dissociation, P.T.S.D., confusions with what is normal and what is not. In doing so, Mean is also a profoundly impactful account of how violence threatens to take away language and the incredible ways that its victims have resisted that threat and reclaimed it with force.

Without giving away the memoir’s ending, it is fair to reveal that Gurba’s voice as the narrative develops becomes something of a compelling emotional friend—she is not just speaking, but she is speaking directly to anyone who has encountered such violence and wants to know what kind of enjoyment, what kind of moving through the world, could feel real and meaningful again.

In this way, the “mean,” bitingly humorous tone the book uses so brilliantly throughout, indicated by the epigraph from Jenni Rivera’s song “Unforgettable” (“Lo mejor que te puedo desear es que te vaya mal,” or, the best I can wish for you is bad luck), also finds a convincing note in profound empathy, reading almost like a letter to women and young people everywhere. 

And though the omnipresence of violence as an ongoing possibility never departs Mean, Gurba ultimately becomes the understanding and resilient voice she herself (and every young person) surely deserves to hear. That she is a high school teacher in Long Beach, California, is no coincidence, and one can only hope that her students are good listeners.

Pagano headshot.jpeg

Jacob Pagano is a writer and reporter who graduated from Amherst College in 2018 with a degree in English. He has worked as an assistant producer for the In Contrast podcast at New England Public Radio, lived and reported in China, and written for publications including The Oxford Culture Review, The Oxford Review of Books, and The Mainichi Daily Newspapers. He also freelance writes on activism and social justice movements, and he currently has a Gregoy S. Call Fellowship from Amherst College to develop his thesis on James Baldwin into an article. He lives in Los Angeles and loves to travel.

A Path to Empathy: A Review of Wade in the Water by Tracy K. Smith by Peter LaBerge


  Wade in the Water , by Tracy K. Smith (Graywolf Press, 2018).

Wade in the Water, by Tracy K. Smith (Graywolf Press, 2018).

Tracy K. Smith’s fourth collection, Wade in the Water, surveys America and its history with an incisive, yet hopeful, honesty. By peeling back the present, Smith reveals the tendrilled roots of our nation’s grittier past. The forms of the poems range from erasures to ghazals to pantoums, but the cornerstone of the collection is the found poem, “I Will Tell You the Truth About This, I Will Tell You All About It,” which draws from the letters of African Americans in the Civil War. Detailing the injustices faced by the veterans and their families, the sequence features appeals to Abraham Lincoln, requests for due pension, and plans to reunite with separated family members. Preceding this piece is an erasure of the Declaration of Independence, reworked and recontextualized to speak directly to the racial discriminations of the past and present day. The speaker proclaims:

In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for
Redress in the most humble terms:
                                                         Our repeated
Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury.

Smith then enumerates these “repeated petitions” through the intimate, letter-based poems that follow.

Throughout the book, Smith also continues to question the relationship between the political and the personal, focusing especially on the intermediary of human connection. In the aptly named “Political Poem,” the speaker depicts a dreamscape of two individuals mowing their lawns as they communicate wordlessly across the distance. The speaker imagines that one “let[s] his arm float up, stirring / the air with that wide, slow, underwater / gesture meaning Hello! and You there!” Through the word choice of “let” and “float,” this gesture of connection is rendered instinctive, as though the released arm raises, or “floats up,” of its own accord. Optimistically, empathy and recognition are portrayed as the natural default, even in the languorous setting of suburban America. The poem ends with the admission that the mowers’ work “would take forever. / But I love how long it would last.” The word “would” reminds the reader of the fictional nature of this interaction. Despite the scene’s normalcy, it remains in the conditional tense, as though asking us to actualize these everyday gestures of connection.

Similarly, in the last section of the collection, Smith turns an observant eye to the individuals surrounding us in our daily lives. In “Charity,” an elderly woman treks persistently up a hill, “tussl[ing] with gravity.” Even from a distance, the speaker identifies with the woman:

I am you, one day out of five,
Tired, empty, hating what I carry
But afraid to lay it down, stingy,
Angry, doing violence to others
By the sheer freight of my gloom,

These moments of self-recognition thread the collection. Even when unflattering, such observations prompt the speaker and readers to hold up a mirror to their own behavior—to empathize and see themselves in others. In “Eternity,” too, the speaker recognizes this interconnection, “as though all of us must be / Buried deep within each other.”

This method of self-association is the conceit of the poem, “Refuge,” near the end of the book. It expounds the potential of empathy as the speaker addresses a refugee:

Until I can understand why you
Fled, why you are willing to bleed,
Why you deserve what I must be
Willing to cede, let me imagine
You are my mother in Montgomery,

The speaker endeavors to understand the “you” of the poem through her own lens. Avoiding a false equivalency between her experiences and the refugee’s, she aims to connect as best as she can “until [she] can understand.” Beautifully wrought, these poems offer a path to empathy. While some may contend that true empathy may never be achievable, Smith doesn’t make any grand claims, and, instead, asks readers to relate as best they can through their own experiences. As the speaker divulges, “Until / I want to give you what I myself deserve, / Let me love you by loving her.”

These themes of history and connection underpin the work, though Smith’s characteristic inquiries into religion and nature are also prevalent. Poems like “The Angels” and “Hill Country” offer modern interpretations of religious themes; angels are “Grizzled, / In leather biker gear” and God is lodged at a “cabin / Where he goes to be alone with his questions.” In the present day, angels are calloused, and even God has withdrawn to the woods for quiet contemplation. Environmentalism, too, is a recurring concern. For instance, “Watershed” discusses the pollution of DuPont chemical company and its gruesome health impact on cattle with “chemical blue eyes” and nearby individuals diagnosed with cancer. Interspersed with a prose account of a near death experience, the poem offers a fractured narrative from the perspectives of a lawyer and a dying man.

Yet, for all these varied voices and outward observations, Smith eventually shifts her gaze to her family. In the later poems “4 ½” and “Dusk,” she shares a lighter optimism as she considers her daughter’s appetite for life and development of a “solid self-centered self.” The speaker muses, “She wants a movie, or maybe / Just the tussle of her will against mine, / That scrape and crack. Horn on rock.” Through these “tussles” and references to the steadfast goat, her daughter’s tenacity is underscored, implying a hopefulness for the future. “Dusk” even ends with following scene of her daughter:

                                              The shoulders
Still so naïve as to stand squared, erect,
Impervious facing the window open
Onto the darkening dusk.

Ultimately, Smith brings all of these concerns and voices together into a powerful collection. Bolstered by an array of sources, the poems gaze outward and observe with an incredibly perceptive eye. The past presses up against the present, and empathy hums consistently below as a driving force behind the collection’s explorations of religion, history, prejudice, and environmentalism. While the future may loom like a “darkening dusk,” we are asked to watch, equipped with the past and a resoluteness of self. In Smith’s words, as it approaches, “let it slam me in the face— / The known sun setting / On the dawning century.”


Amanda Hodes is a writer and musician studying at American University in Washington, D.C. She serves as editor in chief of AmLit and has been published in Furrow Magazine, Prairie Margins, and AmLit. She was also a Folger Shakespeare Library Lannan Fellow and a 2017 Fulbright UK Summer Institute participant at the University of Sussex.

Mapping the Lunar Body: A Review of Jennifer S. Cheng's Moon: Letters, Maps, Poems by Peter LaBerge


  Moon: Letters, Maps, Poems , by Jennifer S. Cheng ( Tarpaulin Sky Press , 2018).

Moon: Letters, Maps, Poems, by Jennifer S. Cheng (Tarpaulin Sky Press, 2018).

Jennifer S. Cheng’s new hybrid collection Moon: Letters, Maps, Poems is a lyrical exploration of women’s mythology and a reimagining of feminine spaces. It is a re-weaving of ancient stories about Chinese goddesses, an exploration of the body as landscape, and a deep-dive into liminal experience. It tells a big story: a romance between body and space, a map of the undefined spaces women’s bodies inhabit. Told in fragments, Moon uses a hybrid form that combines emotional and physical cartography, narrative storytelling, and lyric poetics. It re-invents these forms just like it re-invents folklore. The central thread of the book centers on the stories of the “Lady in the Moon” and various Chinese sea goddesses, or “Women In The Sea.” These women surge and disappear throughout the book, reappearing and re-telling their stories like the tides. The collection begins:

In the story of the Lady in the Moon, there is only one ending: to live out her nights as a captive, over and over, as if some necessary penance, as if a sorrow to see a woman paper-thin against the lesser light.

While this opening sets the stage for the story that has been told, with a singular and constricting ending, the woman in the moon is released through the re-telling as the book progresses. The phrase “as if” suggests that the woman’s fate may not in fact be a “necessary penance,” and that there are many possibilities to the reality of what happened. The speaker presents these different possibilities by telling us:

The lady in the moon loved her husband, but one day she left him on the earth in order to fly into the midnight, the edges of her dress like a decaying moth’s arms. She wanted to live on the light of the moon. Or: The lady in the moon was banished from the heavens along with her husband.

Present in these poems is a fundamental contradiction, a complicated desire: the simultaneous love for a person whose affection ties you down (the husband) and the love of freedom, exploration, and vast space. Depending on the story, she may not, in fact, be trapped by a “lesser light” but may be inexplicably drawn to the “light of the moon” or to the “midnight,” two contrasting images that may not be so different at all. Or, she may be trapped in penance with her husband, after all. Can seemingly contradictory stories all be true, simultaneously? In these fragmented folktales, Cheng gives the reader options on what to believe.

In their exploration of the liminal, the shadowy spaces in between definitive narratives, these poems chart the unchartable, that which moves, the dynamic bodies we inhabit: corporeal and geographic. One of the poems, titled “Chang ‘E,” asks us: “What is the relationship between a woman’s fragments and her desire/ for wholeness?”And later: “For in a world where boundaries are slowly slipping, we begin with a map of the body in motion.”

In these poems, body and landscape are inseparable. Just as bodies of water move, the human form moves, part of  a greater whole. All are part of a narrative that is complex and immense.

Interspersed between these stories are lyric poems in which the speaker incorporates elements of folklore into her own life. While each story is distinct in its own way, a blending occurs, revealing a common experience of watery women. By writing about these stories, the speaker reclaims an identity and a complexity truer to lived experience. She blurs her own myth with the myths of others. Take the poem “Myth-Making (I)” which opens:

Let us say
I fell from the sky

Let us say one night I reached

around my back & could feel
the place where something had been
severed. I would always
try to name it.

And later in the poem:

    I do not attempt
to cover it. In the streets
of Mong Kok & Wan Chai, I wear
thin cotton dresses and shirts
with low backs. In the crowds
I blend in. Nobody notices

my round wounds.

Here, the speaker exists on Earth, but with a wound she carries with her through the streets. The wound’s round shape is reminiscent of the moon. She is displaced, but still, she blends in. In the blending there is still an aloneness, a theme that runs throughout this book. An exposure and a covering-up—an attempt to name and define and still, a blurry futility to this inclination. She is a part of the modern world and also a part of folklore. She is a walking myth. She makes it so by asserting, “Let us say,” and she invites others to share in her reality, her own walking mythology. She uses her voice to define her experience but does not seek a definitive narrative.

In these poems, the speaker provides a new voice but does not want to provide an answer or a final say. To do so would be to miss the point. They ask: “To set about infusing a voice, where do we begin? Its shadow spaces, half-obscured corners, the ellipses at the tail of its third breath.”

By looking into the overlooked places on the edges of the most overlooked places, telling stories where no one knows they exist, perhaps even the owners of the stories. “The sound that cowers is usually the one that rings deepest,” the speaker says. And later, “Perhaps I wanted to un-know a myth.” In the unknowing there is an untelling that inevitably reveals a new myth.

Cheng rewrites stories about creation and the feminine. The speaker tells us:

You will remember, above all else, how she is—motherless, childless, godless—the last girl on earth—how the story of the world begins with her, a body in the marshes, sleeping, alone.

What is the worth of a woman on her own? In a culture that says a woman’s worth is defined by her relationships to others, the speaker asserts the power of this position—everything begins with her, a re-imagining of a creation story. Again, Cheng breaks down a binary: beginnings and endings. This story contains many births and completions.

The focus of these poems is on process and unfolding. In a section of the book in which each of its prose poems are titled “CHANG ‘E:” the speaker of one such poem tells us:

A chrysalis is an envelope of earthly hues, raw green, wrinkly dried brown, seeded vessels like leguminous plants. Instead of the transformation of their wings, now the rows of sleeping pods. Instar, and I am holding a word of celestial materials, ready to make a world apart. Sky and sea, speckled with gold, and empty ones, thin layers of lip skin, translucent, slit open. Inside the envelope: decomposition, disintegration, destruction. The structures are carried in the dissolution. The body holds knowledge as if it were a horoscope, an omen, an intuition of atmospheric currents to come.

Through the symbol of the chrysalis, a temporarily static vessel created to birth movement, Cheng focuses on how bodies contain both stasis and change. She focuses on the sleeping, as well as the holding: both “sky and sea” deep fluid knowledge that is like the sea, free and unconfined. Images of the skin as paper and the body as envelope appear numerous times throughout Moon, and as a symbol of movement and communication, a thin vessel that can contain complex sentiment. For example, Part ii of Moon’s Prelude which tells us that the story of the Lady in the Moon “is immersed in a pale envelope.” From as far away as the moon, apart from others, we can still send messages rich with meaning.

What Cheng delivers us in Moon is a delicate, complexly layered letter. It is both translucent and dense, a sensual story full of texture. It asks us to get inside the envelope, hold it up to the light, peel it apart, and fold it back together again. It is an invitation to participate in the telling of her myths, our own folktales, and the common stories that we as humans are all a part of.


Ariel Kusby is a writer, editor, and bookseller based in Portland, Oregon. Her poems, stories, and reviews have previously appeared in Entropy, Bone Bouquet, Pith, 1001 Journal, Adolescent, and Hunger Mountain, amongst others. She works as a bookseller in the children’s room at Powell’s City of Books, and is the managing editor for Deep Overstock, the National Booksellers’ Journal. To read more of her work, visit

Shown to be mirrors: An omnibus review of Milk, That Which Comes After, and small siren by Peter LaBerge

Back to Issue Twenty-Six.


 Dorothea Lasky's  Milk  ( Wave Books , 2018), Alexis Pope's  That Which Comes After  ( Big Lucks , 2018), and Alexandra Mattraw's  small siren  ( The Culture Society , 2018).

Dorothea Lasky's Milk (Wave Books, 2018), Alexis Pope's That Which Comes After (Big Lucks, 2018), and Alexandra Mattraw's small siren (The Culture Society, 2018).

Some books do something new within the poetic space, while others challenge our understanding of what poetry can do. Three new collections by Dorothea Lasky, Alexis Pope, and Alexandra Mattraw are the second type, enriching and expanding our understanding of what poetry is and what it might become.

In Lasky's Milk, anything and everything is only a turn away, whether through metaphor's web of associations or simply the poet's inexhaustible imagination. It's hallucinogenic: in these pages, individual identity falls away and, in exchange, the reader is given access to something like shared consciousness. This all-encompassing, fervent voice comes into focus in poems like "Little Kingdom."

We are no better than those
Who walk the earth
And the worms we ingest will make us strong
Everybody has a patch of dirty
Where they plant their green peril
Everybody makes the sign of the star
On their forehead
To let the devil know
It's me, Lord, it's me
Come home

This pace engenders anxiety and foreboding, the poetic equivalent of glancing over a shoulder, sure someone's following, which serves its subject matter, since death (always one step behind us all) swirls through Lasky's collection like a cold wind. In "The book of stars and the universe," Lasky writes, "In the dream my father took my dog / He brought her to the other world / My dog I miss you / My father I miss you."

Pope similarly grapples with the surreal aspect of loss in That Which Comes After." "I didn't feel the passing // Of my grandmother but it happened // The same as my own" ("LET'S START ALL OUR FRIENDSHIPS"). However, while Pope's specificity gives lie to the very idea of a universal, her speaker wants to be witnessed, just in a truer and more direct way, as in "BUYING TAMPONS," where she commands, "Look at me // I'm crying don't // Look away."

Mattraw picks up this theme in poems like "The Day Before the Burial," where "Night air fills lilacs, a soon darkness / rustles in the back room." This speaker is porous; familial relations and natural landscape blur her edges until "we're all / temporary / a constellation / mind" ("Triangulation").

This is where these three collections most directly communicate—in highlighting how women (in their ability to create life, along with the monthly expelling of potential life) are in constant proximity to the stuff of creation and destruction, and therefore, have something unique and urgent to say about where life and death rub against each other. In fact, the Milk evoked by Lasky's title is the useless, painful kind that comes after a miscarriage, as detailed in "The clog."

The place
With the dead babies
But no matter what I did
How hard I yanked
She would never leave
I knocked and knocked

Miscarriage is a death that our society doesn't allow to be mourned—a primal, deeply disorienting loss that women are often isolated within, without a familiar script or way of expressing their grief. And there's little compassion for a loss that so calls into question the way we believe life should go, as in "The miscarriage."

The women of the world say
Work harder!

The men of the world say
Work harder!

Pope's speaker in That Which Comes After attempts to offer support for this same loss in poems like "ALL MY FRIENDS LIVING DIFFERENT," asserting that "There's no talking about sky // Not while S holds a belly full // Of used to be life, the swell // remains thumpless." Of course this speaker's flat-footed; there's simply no language to reach across this gulf, as in "I MEAN THERE ARE SPECIFIC": "Feel better my friend // Texts me I'm worried // About her miscarriage // Is that too blunt."

Mattraw's small siren frames these revelations by illuminating the mysterious, baffling experience that even a successful birth engenders in poems like "/ Dilation /."

                                    / swimming you emerge /

                                            forty weeks under /
                             screaming in a stranger / palm reading
                                            your first body / How

will I know it's you?

These larger thematic arguments are further bolstered by the collections' formal choices. Where Lasky minimizes punctuation, allowing lines to flow like a tide that inexorably rises to drown the reader, in That Which Comes After, Pope uses line breaks to stumble us, calling attention to the constructed nature of poetry to implicitly question and undercut it, as in "THIS IS NOT ANOTHER BIRD POEM."

What gets stuck to my fingers

When I'm half alone

In the situation call back

Unknown numbers on my phone.

Mattraw's small siren keeps the reader at a similar remove, unpacking and bursting apart poetic structure in increasingly interesting ways. For example, there's a poem that runs as a footnote across the bottom of the right, blank pages of the book's first section.

In their own ways, each collection plays with scale, turning lyric binoculars toward grand horizons and then back to the interior. And, ultimately, those vantage points are shown to be mirrors, the divisions between them constructed by individual ego. Simultaneously, concepts of time and space are revealed for their triviality as the reader is invited to move through poetic time. As Pope's speaker declares in "THERE'S A RIVER IN PENNSYLVANIA," "Take the big clock off the wall // It's too early or late for time."

On the poetic plane these collections traverse, all things are equally exalted and insignificant, beautiful and ugly, powerful and weak. In fact, those very distinctions are rendered meaningless. And, once you give yourself over to it, letting it overwhelm you, there's something like transcendence to be found in poems like Lasky's "Kill Marry Fuck."

Sixty years later
A bomb of women
An entire country of women
Two women in the countryside
A pale green tapestry
Washed white by the seashore
The world

Within this glorious cacophony, there are moments of almost uncanny lucidity, as if a delirium is briefly lifted as someone looks you in the eye with a jolt of recognition, like this moment in Pope's "BUYING TAMPONS," "Over time we // Capsize into whatever // We've been running toward" or Lasky's "Winter Plums."

She's gonna die

We all are

Until then, the weather

The cold sweet fruit

These collections articulate a radical freedom that reaffirms poetry's core promise of possibility. In Milk, Lasky's insistence on her own dream-like logic wrests the reader into an alternate state of consciousness and makes room for her poems to be—and say—almost anything. There's the searing beauty of moments like "In the morning touching the wrist you will know what life is" in "A hospital room," the self-effacing sincerity of "My friend once came over / And read me her poems so freely / I wanted to / But I couldn't abandon her" in "Ghost flight to the moon," and the surreal sadness of "My mind / A bloodhound / For oblivion" in "Floral pattern." Pope's sincerity has a similar effect, giving the reader a giddy sense of expansion, while the speaker makes herself small, intimate enough to confide that "BUYING TAMPONS" "Is like buying diapers // It doesn't end // Until it does."

Ultimately, these poets embody so many selves and modes of being that they return us to one of the oldest archetypes of the poet—the trickster. These poet-tricksters open space for uncertainty and questioning, demonstrate the ways in which we're stuck in useless patterns of thinking, and upend tired assumptions that underlie cultural systems of power. As Lasky's "Snakes" articulates, "The time in-between / When you feel that poetry is the last thing you need / That's the time you need poetry most of all." There's no way to anticipate what comes next in these collections, no expected route ever taken, but the reader is grateful to follow them off the path and into the dark, nourishing unknown.


Luiza Flynn-Goodlett is the author of the chapbooks Unseasonable Weather (dancing girl press, 2018) and Congress of Mud (Finishing Line Press, 2015). Her work can be found in Third Coast, Granta, Quarterly West, DIAGRAM, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. She serves as editor-in-chief of Foglifter Journal and lives in sunny Oakland, California.

Cracking open the vault of human hypocrisy and duality: A review of Sloane Crosley's Look Alive Out There by Peter LaBerge



One of today’s masters of the personal essay, Sloane Crosley, brilliantly explores a wide range of topics, from elementary school grudges to fertility, in her new collection, Look Alive Out There (MCD/Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 2018). Crosley’s third book of essays, published ten years after her first, I Was Told There’d Be Cake, maintains her signature wit while offering stronger self-reflection.

Perhaps one of the most striking essays in this new collection is “Outside Voices,” in which Crosley describes her one-sided relationship with a noisy teenage neighbor in her West Village apartment. Crosley sets the scene by introducing the neighbor, Jared, from her distant perspective.

How do I begin to explain my relationship with this creature? Is it a relationship if you’ve never met? Certainly this is an acceptable dynamic online, but played out in real life it’s called stalking. All five of the windows in my apartment faced Jared’s house. And for as many years, I heard every word this kid said.

Crosley crafts the character of Jared with humor and ease—the reader simultaneously knows everything and nothing about him, just as the narrator does. While much of the essay discusses the idiosyncrasies of New York City life, it strays from insularity and exclusionary language. New Yorkers, in particular, may commiserate with the author and the standard of claustrophobia in New York apartment living; but fundamentally, “Outside Voices” is about privacy and perception. The author’s tangible frustration comes not only from the invasion of her own privacy, but also from her inadvertent invasion of Jared’s. She doesn’t want to know as much about Jared’s life as she does, but the fact of the matter is that she does, which ultimately drives her intervention in his life. Through dialogue and her sharp-tongued narrative voice, Crosley invites the reader into her mind and effectively expresses the terror that Jared has caused her. In one scene, the she describes an instance in which Jared and his friends witness the narrator and her boyfriend, who is referred to as “the emotionally unavailable man,” naked through a window.

“What’s the relationship?” [Jared] shouted up, making a megaphone of his hands.

“You have to admit,” said the emotionally unavailable man, “that’s some sophisticated heckling.”

Staying low, I opened the window further.

“Shut up, Jared!” I snapped.

Jared’s friends snorted and slapped the table.

“Oh shit, man,” said one of them, “she knows your name!”

It was the first time I’d used his name, a treat I had been saving for myself. I lay on my back and grinned at the ceiling.

Without much of a physical description or other basic information, it would seem that Jared is initially a difficult character to connect with, although Crosley provides just enough characterization for readers to understand who he is and what he represents. Similarly, the lack of characterization of the narrator’s boyfriend, an authorial choice, emphasizes the discrepancy between perception and true identity, a common thread throughout the essay.

There is also the issue of Jared’s name. The repetition and sonic presence of his name is such an integral part of the essay, and finding a pseudonym for this character to do justice to the havoc he’s wreaked is no small task. Is it a coincidence that the name Jared is one currently circulating the media with disdain, thus catching readers up to speed with a similar sense of frustration? For Crosley, a known lover of wordplay, it would be hard to believe that this wasn’t a conscious choice. By the end of the essay, the author, exacerbated by neighbor-induced mania, comes to a realization that despite Jared’s, and later his younger sister’s, unwanted presence in her life, and vice versa, their existences are ultimately separate. “Their lives were out there and mine was in here. They were forever behind me in time, as unable to catch up as I was to wait for them.”

While much of the essay is light and energetic in tone, this excerpt in the last paragraph of the piece suggests the true toll that this relationship, or lack thereof, has taken on the narrator. The author uses imagery to form a juxtaposition between Crosley’s identity in an enclosed, indoor space and Jared’s in a presumably freer, outdoor space. As a woman in her thirties, Crosley has earned a degree of security in her life, as evidenced by her five-windowed apartment, while Jared, his friends, and his sister, all teenagers, lack certainty but have a degree of freedom, which is part of what instigates the author’s disdain. Although, as Crosley soberly puts it, her life and Jared’s will continue to exist on different planes, emphasized by their spatial separateness.


Crosley transitions between tones from essay to essay, from the comical to the deeply introspective. The personal essay format lends itself well to tonal shifts, and with that, the opportunity to shed the limitations of more traditional memoir. Take the final essay in the collection, “The Doctor Is a Woman.” While much of the collection is dedicated to the author’s adventures—and misadventures—this essay delves deeper than others in this book, as well as her previous two collections. The author examines the culture of the fertility world and, ultimately, her decision to freeze her eggs.

What makes this essay so remarkable is the author’s description of medical procedures, both from a clinical and a deeply personal perspective. Crosley details the steps of freezing one’s eggs with candor, but uses more casual language to remain true to herself as a writer:

You inject vials of drugs into your abdomen to persuade that one egg to let everyone have a chance. At the end of two weeks, you are briefly knocked out while your eggs are popped in a freezer.

By employing a conversational tone about a serious life event, Crosley invites the reader to join her in this experience. The use of the present tense gives the reader the sense that they are experiencing these events alongside her, rather than being told the story long afterwards. At the same time, this essay includes introspection that allows Crosley incredible vulnerability. “[The eggs] are just floating fractions of an idea. I know that. But I had never seen a part of my body exist outside my body before. I felt such gratitude.” Crosley writes “I know that” after the previous declarative statement, as if she’s addressing the reader directly. While many of Crosley’s essays use language that speaks to her readers for comedic effect, this essay is particularly noteworthy because of the candor and Crosley’s step away from self-deprecating humor. By putting herself at the center of this essay, she is able to provide a genuine account of what the fertility world looks like today while simultaneously exploring greater themes of self-identity and social expectations.

In an essay titled “The Chupacabra,” one of the shorter pieces in the collection, Crosley examines the life of a writer through a reflection on a unique assignment from a magazine—to find a creature, the chupacabra, in rural Vermont. “I am a less-than-ideal candidate for the job. I don’t specialize in mythical-creature hunting or even run-of-the-mill hunting.”

The narrator’s self-deprecating voice is a hallmark of Crosley’s writing style, as is the conversational tone used in this essay. The use of rhetorical questions, like when the narrator examines a flyer offering massage services that is “printed in Comic Sans (is there any other kind?),” offers a sense of familiarity that grounds the more outrageous subject matter of the essay in reality. Surely not all of the experiences Crosley writes about will be relatable to her readers, although her reflections on the unpredictability of the human experience, often expressed through quips, transcend subject. Similarly, in the penultimate essay in the collection, “Our Hour Is Up,” the narrator uses the rhetorical to add her mature sense of wit and perspective to a piece centered on a childhood memory: offering therapy sessions to her elementary school classmates—on Tuesdays specifically. “Why Tuesdays? Because Monday is too loaded, Friday is not loaded enough, Thursday is charged with anticipation for Friday, and Tuesday is essentially a less popular version of Wednesday. And ‘less popular’ is exactly where I belong.” The addition of this clever retrospection helps Crosley reconcile the relationship between the subject of the essay, her younger self, and her present-day narrative voice.

The conversation between the speaker’s two selves serves a major role throughout this collection. Whether it be the child and the adult narrator in “Our Hour Is Up,” the rational and the irrational self in “Outside Voices,” or the writer and the civilian in “The Chupacabra,” Crosley is constantly cracking open the vault of human hypocrisy and duality through the examination of her own experiences.

Madeline Diamond.jpg

Madeline Diamond is a writer and journalist based in New York City. She graduated from Bucknell University, where she majored in creative writing and American history. While at Bucknell, she interned at West Branch, the University's literary journal. Her writing has appeared in HuffPost, Business Insider, and more. 

Why We Read Fiction: A Review of Jamel Brinkley's A Lucky Man by Peter LaBerge


  A Lucky Man , by Jamel Brinkley (Graywolf Press, 2018).

A Lucky Man, by Jamel Brinkley (Graywolf Press, 2018).

There is a moment four pages into “J’ouvert, 1996,” the second story of Jamel Brinkley’s collection, A Lucky Man, that is in so many ways emblematic of the nine stories comprising the whole. Brinkley’s young narrator, Ty, is about to get a bad haircut from his mother, a day before the West Indian Day Parade. Where the readers is situated in the plot, Brinkley has already rendered the family dynamic so fully, it becomes easy to think that you know what the story is about: looking foolish at a very crucial time in his transition from youth to manhood. It becomes easy to laugh as Ty pleads with her to go to a barbershop. “‘Trip’s been going since before he could walk,’” the narrator says, to which his mother responds, “‘Like I give a damn about some fool calls himself Trip.” There’s a familiarity to the characters that comes from Brinkley’s use of dialogue, generous  in the way it both provides a window into the characters’ lives and serves as a bit of misdirection. It can lull the reader into a false sense of security. But reading on, one comes to realize, no one truly knows what lies in another human’s heart, and what Brinkley has done in this first collection is remind us exactly why we read fiction—to find that out. To live in it.

The stories in A Lucky Man range from 18 to 38 pages, and in that space, Brinkley depicts each world in astounding detail. Clothes, music, walks, looks, skin tone, bodies—like the narrator of the first story, “No More Than a Bubble,” says, he and his friends “liked to know these kinds of things.” It’s these details that leave you so immersed, feeling like you know, so that when young, male partygoers, who crash a party looking for sex, come to understand something about themselves that they weren’t quite prepared for, you feel implicated along with the narrator. When, at the end of the story, he reflects on how his idea of beauty has changed, we are left to wonder about how our own misconceptions of beauty are constructed. The veneer of a story about two knuckleheads looking to score has cracked, revealing a story about a son trying to understand his father, about the fear of being alone. As the narrator is left wondering if he really got what he wanted, the reader will also wonder, Is this what I wanted, too? How have my own expectations influenced my reading of the story? Faulkner famously lamented that young writers forget that “the problem of the human heart at conflict with itself” could alone make for good writing. Brinkley takes Faulkner’s words to heart. His stories teem with conflict and, ultimately, are about locating that feeling. They speak to the way the heart’s conflict moves through time. They shift and grow with each page.

To be a writer of color—to be a black writer—is to bear the burden of expectation. To be a black male writer of any era is to bear the burden of representing black masculinity. Throughout the nine stories, Brinkley writes refreshingly nuanced portraits of black men, which, more often than not, highlight their fragility, in many cases as the men attempt to highlight their virility. Fraught relations between fathers and sons are interrogated in several of the stories. Themes of comportment and performance emerge as the sons make their way out into the world and try to find a connection, whether it be through exploring their sexuality or musing over the eventual arrest that will rob them of their future. Brinkley’s commitment to creating complex characters and allowing them to exist as they are, regardless of the consequences, is one of his many strengths. His protagonists often live through cringeworthy moments, and there are undercurrents of menace everywhere, reminiscent of writers like Mary Gaitskill or Raymond Carver. Yet, the precision through which Brinkley employs detail gives his stories such a rich and singular feel that it’s hard to compare him to anybody. Much of the beauty in these stories comes from the perspective of their narrators. There is distance between the speakers and the story being told, which allows for questions, which allow for moments of poetry. Wisdom exists in Brinkley’s speakers, even if they don’t see it themselves—it’s in the questions they ask and in the ways they remain unsure.

In the final story of the collection, “Clifton’s Place,” a neighborhood bar is transformed until it is unrecognizable, a chilling story of erasure through gentrification. Brinkley pairs this erasure with the owner of Clifton’s Place, a woman struggling through the phases of dementia, and the various demises of its group of neighborhood regulars, known as “the folks.” The story follows a regular named Ellis, a lonely, somewhat pathetic man, as he witnesses it firsthand. While being lectured by the bartender, Sharod, about not being run out of their own establishments, Sharod warns him, “[W]e can’t have none of that soft-ass, bearing-gifts-for-massa, wannabe native informant bullshit. I see you eyeballing that white girl, but don’t get it twisted. The gentry don’t give a fuck about you.” Ellis still follows her home and humiliates himself. Again, Brinkley spares no one, and by end of the story, just as we are not sure if we can bear any more degradation, Brinkley walks us through that door, allowing us to live out the consequences, and as we read the last words, we are once again left wondering, Is this what I wanted? We are once again left questioning ourselves, reminded once again why we read fiction.


Kwame Opoku-Duku, along with Karisma Price, is a founding member of the Unbnd Collective. His debut chapbook, The Unbnd Verses, is forthcoming from Glass Poetry Press, and his work is featured or forthcoming in BOMB, Massachusetts Review, The Literary Review, Bettering American Poetry, BOAAT, and elsewhere. Kwame lives in New York City.

Lures and Hooks: A Review of Lee Conell's Subcortical by Peter LaBerge


  Subcortical , by Lee Conell (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017).

Subcortical, by Lee Conell (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017).

“There’s a science to certain mysteries,” the narrator of the short story, “The Afterlife of Turtles,” declares. Midway through Lee Conell’s debut short story collection, Subcortical (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017), the protagonist’s uncle—a man who loves science fiction and “worries about the state of his soul in a way intense enough to allow him to receive money from the state”—is missing. His absence forces her to question destiny, heaven, hell, mental illness, and belief, itself. This wrestling with belief, the give-and-take between the impossible and the possible, the desperately wished-for dream and stark reality, pervades the collection. Characters’ desire for transformation, the return of the dead, the ability to traverse social class or afford a college education, is deeply felt and deeply real, even as Conell situates many of her stories among ghosts, phantasms, and science fiction. Subcortical urges the reader to take fantasy and fiction seriously, to consider how belief in the supernatural or the unlikely is not only an emotional touch point, but also a potential form of salvation.

Winner of the 2018 Story Prize Spotlight Award and an Independent Publisher Book Award for Short Story Fiction, Subcortical’s stories often feature characters on a moral or psychological precipice, balancing between their past and an uncertain future, when visions of the monstrous or the uncanny drive them to face their guilt and fear. In “What the Blob Said to Me,” a grandmother relives her role in the construction of the atomic bomb among the backdrop of the 1958 film, The Blob. Soon, she associates the creature with her own silent complicity: “an oozing hush of havoc, a mucousy muteness surrounded by the sounds of others, by human screaming.” In “My Four Stomachs,” high school student Carley struggles to cope with her boyfriend’s debilitating mental illness. As Carley attempts to digest her confusion and grief, she recounts their relationship from the perspective of the four chambers of a cow’s stomach: “A place of entrapment, a place of softening. All at once. As if entrapment and softening were synonyms. They’re not synonyms.” Carley uses her encounter with the bizarre—in this case, the digestive tract of a mild-mannered, fistulated cow named Buttercup—to try to comprehend tragedy, puberty, first love and its disappointments.

Even “The Lock Factory,” a story anchored in realism, hints at the mysterious. Awarded the Chicago Tribune Nelson Algren Award and named a distinguished story in Best American Short Stories 2017, its protagonist is spellbound by the idea of freedom. She is especially invested in her vision of how her mother’s past co-workers escaped from or succumbed to their Midwestern hometown. Though gripping throughout, it is the present day scenes that most captured my attention, perhaps because of the far reach and pull of the mother-daughter relationship:

With my mother calling after me, I sprinted . . . Until then I’d always imagined an invisible tether linking me to my mother—if I got too far away, I was sure that tether would snap me back to her through some kind of mysterious maternal physics . . . And there, coming after me, was my mother. But not my mother like I knew her. I had never seen her run so fast. I had never seen her move with such strength.

Throughout the collection, Conell never loses touch with the reader; the passion and sense of loss in these stories, their beat and pulse, is never distant. Whether transported to New York or Nashville, the 1940s or the present day, she does not lose sight of what lures and hooks our hearts.

The lyrical control of Conell’s sentences allows her to transition smoothly from grief and bitter anger to sharp, quirky humor reminiscent of the fierce wit of writers like Lucia Berlin and Grace Paley. In fact, Paley’s dictum, “Luckily for art, life is difficult, hard to understand, useless, and mysterious,” seems to apply particularly well. In their attempts to understand pain and love, characters grapple with the mysterious head-on. In “The Rent-Controlled Ghost,” mystery takes the shape of a lonely young boy worried he “might become a ghost in the new apartment” of his renovated complex and subsequently befriending the ghost of a past tenant. In the haunting story, “The Sextrology Woman,” mystery assumes the form of a mold specialist in a relationship with a PhD candidate who disapproves of his career. This career, however, allows him to look at mold “the way some people might gaze up while inside a cathedral, as if serious Mystery were whooshing around a sacred vaulted space.”

Whatever the reader chooses to call it—mystery, magical realism, the glimmer of possibility—there is an overarching theme of the dream of reaching forward and above where you are at the present moment. These stories are brimming with the potential energy of each character, to join “beings that live on the margins, outside of any logical dimension, any successful design,” as the teenage protagonist of “Hart Island” earnestly hopes. After all, in a world in which Elizabeth Taylor is a genetic mutant, perhaps it is also possible to climb to a wealthier and more powerful social class, like the protagonist in “Mutant at the Pierre Hotel” dreams, or to pull a live rabbit from your hat for your former boss, like the narrator instructs in “A Magic Trick for the Recently Unemployed.”

Dreams, hopes, the unreal-made-real and vice versa, weave and tighten these stories together, rewarding the reader with perspectives that captivate and confound, whirl you around and yet fasten you to the solid reality of the human body. A persistent motif that sounds throughout the collection is, as one might suspect, the subcortex, the part of the brain responsible for instinct, memory, pleasure, and fear. Here, one might think of Frank, the protagonist of “A Guide to Sirens,” who fascinates honeymooners with fabricated myths about the island they’re touring. Such a task is both freeing and unsettling for Frank, who remembers his own troubled marriage:

Frank has packed all his memories of her away in what he likes to think of as the cerebral cellar of his brain. He imagines those memories decomposing down to their more basic bits, fusing to other forms: fairy tales, myths, legends, the stuff of tacky tours, the stuff that makes his living, the stuff that allows him to live.

It is this small, memory-laden “cerebral cellar” that Frank credits for his particular construction of the mystical or ineffable. Science and mystery, legend and loss become, to a degree, synonymous, and their gorgeous tangle is simultaneously dangerous, heartbreaking, and life-giving.

Sheila, a grieving college student in the story, “Unit Cell,” likewise places a stress on the importance of the subconscious for emotional survival. Confronted by images of her dead sister, she begins to think that, “instead of trying to keep the memory back, she should allow it to repeat until that higher-order structure emerges.” For Conell, the power of the human mind to provide structure and take it away is absolutely vital in the pursuit of self-knowledge. This dual nature, for instance, allows the narrator of the titular story, “Subcortical,” to begin to process how she was manipulated into taking part in a horrifying gay conversion experiment masquerading as science, as well as to address her own collaboration. Unable to sleep at night, she imagines the patient free and happy, “finally recognizing the person on the other side” of the two-way mirror she watches him from. Conell’s dexterous, smart treatment of these characters, her willingness to reveal their mistakes, flaws, humor, weirdness, and love, occupies a landscape both intimate and surreal, one the reader has “never seen before, a place that exists just beneath the surface of her waking mind.”


Cara Dees holds an MFA from Vanderbilt University and is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Cincinnati. The recipient of an Academy of American Poets Prize, a scholarship from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, and a Pushcart Prize nomination, she was named the runner-up for the 2018 Third Coast Poetry Prize and a finalist for Indiana Review’s 2016 Poetry Prize. Her work appears or is forthcoming in such journals as Beloit Poetry Journal, Best New Poets 2016, Crazyhorse, Gulf Coast, The Journal, and The Southeast Review. Her first manuscript was recently listed as a semifinalist or finalist for the Brittingham & Felix Pollak Prizes in Poetry, the Lexi Rudnitsky First Book Prize, the Saturnalia Books Poetry Prize, The Journal/Charles B. Wheeler Poetry Prize, and the St. Lawrence Book Award.

Like a Knife: A Review of Fatimah Asghar's If They Come For Us by Peter LaBerge


  If They Come For Us , by Fatimah Asghar (One World/Penguin Random House, 2018).

If They Come For Us, by Fatimah Asghar (One World/Penguin Random House, 2018).

The experience of reading Fatimah Asghar’s debut book of poems, If They Come For Us, is one of being gripped by the shoulders and shaken awake; of having your eyelids pinned open and unable to blink. If They Come For Us is a navigation of home and family, religion and sexuality, history and love. The speaker of these poems appears at once old and incredibly new, a dichotomy that is upheld as the narrative jumps from past to present and all over the last century. And yet, even when we’re told some of these memories and experiences are not the the speaker’s, they still are, somehow. A homeland, even one never seen, sticks in her blood; the trauma endured by her ancestors lives within her DNA. The cultural memory is lodged in the speaker like a knife—one that she may not be able to remove, but one that she could choose not to twist. But twist she does, and by doing so, opens herself to everything, from painful truths to the kindness of strangers. The cultural memory that lives in the speaker’s body is inescapable, but rather than run from it, she faces it boldly, writes it down, and shares it. In these poems, Asghar invites us to stare into the wound and—hopefully—learn from it.

Asghar’s book opens with invocations of history. Epigraphs from Korean-American poet Suji Kwock Kim and Rajinder Singh, a survivor of the India/Pakistan Partition, and an explanation of the Partition prepare us for the painful, but necessary, poems to come. (The Partition was the division of British India into India and Pakistan in 1947, which, Asghar writes, resulted in the forced migration of at least 14 million people as they fled genocide and ethnic cleansing. It’s estimated that 1-2 million people died and 75-100,000 women were abducted and raped in the ensuing months.) Multiple poems, all titled “Partition,” navigate not only the literal and historical meaning of the Partition, but also the divisions of the home, of gender, family—and, at times, how those divisions might be reconciled, if possible.

The book’s opening poem, “For Peshawar,” immediately draws the reader into the lasting conflict and fear with an epigraph that reads, “December 16, 2014 / Before attacking schools in Pakistan, the Taliban sends kafan, / a white cloth that marks Muslim burials, as a form of psychological trauma.” Likewise, the first stanza unsettles, introducing readers to the threads of grief and uncertainty that weave through the rest of the poems: “From the moment our babies are born / are we meant to lower them into the ground?” More than grief, though, this poem, and the poems that follow, drive the narrative into questions of home: Can a place be home if the people who live there, as “For Peshawar” questions, are meant to bury their children? What is home if it’s a place you’ve never been to and can’t touch? And what is home if the place where you are—both in public and in private—rejects critical pieces of who you are?

In America, the place that is ostensibly “home,” the speaker faces that rejection both in her family life and in society at large. In the poem “Microaggression Bingo,” Asghar uses the physical image of a bingo board to highlight the frequency of those microaggressions the speaker faces on a daily basis. Examples include both visual and verbal instances, like the first square, which reads, “White girl wearing a bindi at music festival,” and another on the bottom row where an unnamed speaker says, “I love hanging out with your family. It always feels so authentic!” Readers are also given a glimpse into the frequency of these occurrences via the text of the middle square, which reads: “Don’t Leave Your House For A Day – Safe.” In the same vein, the poem “Oil” walks the reader through the speaker’s experience as a young Pakistani Muslim woman in the wake of the September 11, 2001, attacks. She writes of her heritage, “All the people I could be are dangerous.” The speaker, whose parents have passed away, learns of her heritage from her relatives, who are “not-blood but could be,” further muddying notions of home, or where she truly belongs—often, this results in the idea that she doesn’t truly belong anywhere.

The speaker’s feeling of un-belonging continues even at home, as she comes of age without the guidance of a mother and father. This is true not only of race and heritage, but also of gender identity and sexuality, and many poems attempt to navigate those complexities—in terms of a relationship with the self and a relationship with religion. In “Other Body,” Asghar writes, “In my sex dreams a penis / swings between my legs,” and mentions how her moustache grew longer than anyone else’s in her class at school. She refers to herself, not unlovingly, as a “boy-girl.” Towards the center of the poem, that desire for a guiding maternal figure enters with the lines, “Mother, where are you? How would / you have taught me to be a woman? / A man?” And again, in “The Last Summer of Innocence,” questions of the role of the body, and of gender norms, resurface. In the same poem, the speaker’s sister defies Islamic law by shaving her arms, and Asghar writes in response, “Haram, I hissed, but too wanted to be bare / armed & smooth, skin gentle & worthy / of touch.” That is, until the sister’s body betrays her with an ingrown hair that lands her in the hospital. These poems return to the question of what “home” means, asking what it is to be in a body that doesn’t always feel like a safe place.

If They Come For Us gives readers lyrically beautiful but painfully true glimpses into a world we may not be familiar with and asks us to reckon with our place in it—whether that’s a place of commiseration, understanding, or of recognizing our own hand in upholding power structures that thrive off racism, xenophobia, and nationalism. But as important as those revelations and experiences are, the feeling I’m left with after reading through these difficult but necessary poems is one of optimism. If the speaker, who comes from a lineage of heartache and violence, and who lives through her own kinds of violence, can still look at this country that “has failed every immigrant to enter its harbor” and find kindness in the cracks, how can we not too have hope for a better, more inclusive, kinder future? Asghar’s book is many things: defiant, subversive, grief-stricken, angry—but it’s also full of things like bravery, friendship, family, and love. Amid the hurt and darkness that exists in this world, Asghar’s poems prove that hope is out there, if only we have the courage to look for it.


Raye Hendrix is a poet from Alabama who loves cats, crystals, and classic rock. Raye is an MFA candidate at the University of Texas at Austin, where she serves as the Web Editor for Bat City Review. Raye was a finalist for the 2018 Keene Prize for Literature and received honorable mentions for poetry from both Southern Humanities Review’s Witness Poetry Prize (2014) and AWP’s Intro Journals Project (2015). Her poems have recently appeared or are forthcoming in Southern Indiana ReviewThe Chattahoochee ReviewShenandoahThe Pinch, and elsewhere. 

A Necessary Emptiness to Grow Into: A Review of Traci Brimhall's Saudade by Peter LaBerge


 Traci Brimhall's  Saudade  (Copper Canyon Press, 2017).

Traci Brimhall's Saudade (Copper Canyon Press, 2017).

Traci Brimhall’s third poetry collection, Saudade, with its blending of family narrative, myth, and magical realism is, in many ways, the love-child of Anne Carson’s novel-in-verse, Autobiography of Red, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s masterpiece of magical realism, One Hundred Years of Solitude. Throughout, Brimhall’s attention to the architecture of poetry, on the line, stanzaic, and collection level, provides this book, which dazzles and baffles in turns, sufficient narrative clarity to fully enter into the ornate and heart-breaking world she shapes.

Saudade grows out of and complicates many of the preoccupations Brimhall explores in her prior collections, Rookery and Our Lady of the Ruins, in its examination of spirituality, faith, desire, myth, and the interplay of humanity and landscape. Set in Puraquequara, a village in the Brazilian Amazon and also the birthplace of Brimhall’s mother, each section of the collection is told from the perspective of a different family member, beginning with (and returning to) Maria José, arguably the book’s central figure. In addition to Maria José, Brimhall includes sections in the voices of Maria José’s husband, Thomas; her mother, Sophia; and her grandfather, Don Antonio. In each section, a chorus of Marias offers commentary, encapsulating the collision between Western colonizers and indigenous peoples by bringing together motifs of Greek theater, Catholicism, and traditional indigenous beliefs to provide narrative continuity and exposition. The Marias make sure we know, as in “In Which the Chorus Provides a Possible Chronology,” that “history began but did not write itself,” and that they “sing history in reverse so the story might end in birth.”

While its characters’ concerns frequently overlap—dead loved ones are as inescapable as the rubber plantation, the fruits of the Amazon, and a sense in each character of being haunted by restless desires—each voice in Saudade is rendered in different poetic form. Maria José, for instance, speaks in tercets, whereas her husband, Thomas, speaks in long stanza blocks. As Claudia Emerson notes in an interview with Sarah Kennedy, “the tercet always feels that it’s searching for its missing line, pulling the eye down with urgency, and that imbalance” infuses Maria José’s search for her lost daughter, her memories of her affair with a boto (a dolphin that inhabits the Amazon), her marriage, and the role masculine figures have played in her life.

Of these issues, Maria José is most haunted by her grief and longing for her dead daughter, whose severed hand is found “in the mouth of a dead jaguar” and blesses the village with miracles (“The Unconfirmed Miracles at Puraquequara”). In “How I Lost Seven Faiths,” Maria José is consumed with impossible longings: “I wanted my daughter back. I wanted to live back / in the before. Before love possessed me. Before grief.” This backwards gaze is reinforced by the structure of the entire collection: we move through Maria José’s life and family tree in reverse chronological order, beginning with her daughter’s death and moving toward her grandfather’s life, as each character tries to return to his or her own “before.”

In contrast to Maria José’s aching tercets, her husband Thomas’ single stanzas convey his reluctance to accept various absences in his life. A colonist, Thomas arrives in the Amazon certain of his faith in a Christian god, and, even as his faith mutates, he resists its complete dismantlement. In “Better to Marry Than to Burn,” Thomas’ first poem in his section, which charters his arrival in South America, he has “the knowledge of God / like an apple in the mouth. I faced my temptation,” which includes his own wife as well as the lives and ways of the people he now lives among. However, his wife’s grief and her affair with the boto change him. Later, in “Sanctuary,” he admits, “I understood / my sorrow over the world does not change it” and that “better this choice to be powerless, / enthralled, to forgive God’s ambition to be free of us.” Here, we witness Thomas’ shift from certain knowledge to certain sorrow; from the belief he is a vector of change to his acceptance of his powerlessness.

Maria José’s second section deepens our knowledge of her, examining her marriage as well as her relationship with her parents: her father is imprisoned and her mother is dead. In an interview with Sierra Nevada Review, Brimhall comments on the “twined grief” that bleeds across generations—in life as well as in Saudade, which she considers a work of “autobiomythography.” Thus, the grief Brimhall felt in mourning the loss of a child and her mother’s death informs Maria José’s experiences in this section. Maria José addresses both her dead mother and an imprisoned man who is not her father, but for whom she can “imagine love, and then…feel it” (“When I Go to Prison to Meet my Father”). In “Revenant,” Maria José catalogues her parents’ romance and her mother’s death:

My mother of gold carnival mask, of green feathers
sprouting from her shoulders, of glittered body, candled dusk.

Let me inherit her fevered hips. Let me be all wing and stolen
and saved. Mother, rise up as July, as tempest, as God in his night
sweats and be tender. Hold the curtain back while I enter.

In reaching backward, toward her parents, Maria José finds indirect solace for her sorrow over her daughter’s death. This yearning for consolation in the arms of the dead is at the heart of Saudade, which, while revealing the impossibility of fulfilling that longing, also suggests there is comfort in the act of reaching.

Sophia, like her daughter Maria José, also struggles with the ways desire intersects with and disrupts faith. In the opening poem of her section, “Rapture: Lucus,” Sophia recounts the story of a “missing kapok tree,” which she knows

[…] woke from her stillness one equatorial summer
evening as Adão pulled parrots from her branches.

She dreamed an amorous faun chased her, which was a memory,
which reminded her that in another form she had legs

From the poem’s title we learn the tree has a spiritual dimension as “Lucus” is a Latin term for a forest or grove, but with some sort of “religious designation,” and even a past life. In Sophia’s view, the tree is not so much lost as awakened, rapture here not only pointing toward the Christian idea of believers rising to join Christ on the last day, but also to “a feeling of intense pleasure or joy.” In her poems, Sophia finds herself at the frustrating intersection of these definitions: on one hand, marked by a mole that resembles “a pink Madonna with her robe open,” she’s become a figure of worship and intrigue; on the other hand, she pines, “O miracle, abandon me.” (“Virago”). In “On the Feast Day of Our Lady Hippolyta,” Sophia wants “to write in my diary—Dear, there are some things / I would not do for pleasure. I want it to be true.” In these moments, we see that the insatiable and contradictory urges with which Maria José wrestles have their roots in her mother’s experiences, suggesting that, while genealogy may not offer explanation, it can help us see the patterns from which we emerge and which we (often) perpetuate.

Sophia’s sorrow segues into those of her father, Don Antonio, who also mourns for the loss of Sophia’s mother, going so far as to wish his beloved were alive and his daughter dead: “I want to barter with Heaven. It took the wrong love,” he pleads in “After Seven Lullabies Vanish from the Library.” While Don Antonio’s sorrows and desires reverberate with those of his descendants, his poems also offer insights into the collection as a whole. In “Sibylline Translation,” he notes “fiction is one way of knowing. Dreams are another.” In “Belterra Exodus,” he suggests “we should invent a new / history of fact and fancy, where life is hard but courage / is easy because the dead do not resurrect themselves.”

Saudade is this marriage of fiction and dream, a “history of fact and fancy.” Through pairing invention with research, Brimhall excavates not recorded history, but lived history, seeking an authenticity that encompasses but is not bound by facts. This results in a collection that is at times confounding, at others enchanting. Its value, however, lies in its ambiguity: there are limits to invention, limits to what we can fathom about ourselves and our ancestors. As the untranslatable title suggests, ‘saudade’ is the longing for something absent. By its nature this longing can’t be fulfilled; we can only seek. As Brimhall states in the penultimate poem, “there is no fairy tale here to invite you to meaning, only the fantasy of the past you have made in your own image.” Saudade posits absence as irrefutably present in the fabric of human life: it provides us a necessary emptiness to grow into, to fill with our joys as well as our sorrows.


Amie Whittemore is the author of the poetry collection Glass Harvest (Autumn House Press) and co-founder of the Charlottesville Reading Series in Virginia. Her poems have won multiple awards, including a Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Prize, and have appeared in The Gettysburg Review, Sycamore Review, Smartish Pace, Cimarron Review, and elsewhere. She teaches English at Middle Tennessee State University.

The Body and Its Various Types: A Review of Samantha Zighelboim's The Fat Sonnets by Peter LaBerge


  The Fat Sonnets , by Samantha Zighelboim (Argos Books, 2018).

The Fat Sonnets, by Samantha Zighelboim (Argos Books, 2018).

How serious notorious and public a form, to think you could find the solution to a problem or an ending to an observation in one brief moment—a fraction of an abreaction or the science of the pattern of crumbs appearing on the table from the eating of a loaf of bread.
— Bernadette Mayer, in the 25th anniversary edition of Sonnets


No bread crumbs appear on the cover of Samantha Zighelboim’s first poetry collection, The Fat Sonnets. Instead, three unnaturally greenish, glazed leaves float above an empty pink plate, (part of “Piehole,” a larger installation by Simone Kearney). The leaves are meaty and thick, congealed even, irregularly-shaped, marbled and menacing, reminiscent in their ominousness of the three seal men in Rita Dove’s “Adolescence II,” visiting that speaker in her bathroom, their “eyelashes like sharpened tines,” their eyes the shape of “dinner plates,” conflating food, femininity, and fear. Below the leaves in “Piehole” wait childishly large, pink-handled renditions of a fork and knife on either side of a dainty pink plate, the kind a child might use before transitioning into the world of the adults around her, one which is already familiar to her through exposure and observation. The concerns Zighelboim navigates in this collection are essential when we interrogate what it means to inhabit a body, to witness the body’s manifestations of turmoil, and to be helpless in the face of the body’s desires towards excess and self-destruction.

In the poem “Pie Hole,” Zighelboim’s speaker draws directly from that cover image, itself entitled “Place Setting,” placing it in the poem, reminding the reader how the “lettuces are toxic,” and the speaker’s ultimate wish is to “to end the lettuces into a fine and shining dust.” In this conversation, mastery over food—including the power to refuse it or to destroy it—symbolizes a larger sense of having agency in one’s own life and outward relationship to the gaze. The Fat Sonnets simultaneously controls and interrogates the body, emphasizing methods in which Zighelboim’s content seeks to pressurize its received form, resulting in the creation of multiple interpretations for the language itself.

In “Historiography,” for instance, Zighelboim employs various uses of “body,” the word made flesh, but also made into a catalyst that allows the reader the pleasure of peeling off other layers of meaning. The body began in an untroubled state, but “Then body fattened, deformed,” recalling Simone de Beauvoir’s own description (from The Second Sex) of how the evolution of a woman’s body can also be the catalyst for a desire to erase that body, to reduce it and its impact when gazed upon: “She would like to be invisible; it frightens her to become flesh and to show flesh.” As “Historiography” progresses, readers are introduced to the speaker’s body in its current position, as a patient in a doctor’s office, the speaker ‘disembodied’ from her own form. In this sonnet, however, the argument moves forward and makes the body into the body, the speaker’s own familial legacy included in the troubling description of how this particular body exists and the spaces in which it is and is not permitted to exist: “Definitely no space for body in the family / plot.” Not only is the speaker foreseeing herself (and possibly her own direct lineage) excluded in the future from her family’s burial site, but she is also not part of its history; she will not be contributing to a legacy, perhaps because there was “No space for body on the barstool. No space for body / in the plus-size store…No // space for body at the cool kids’ party.” The body is excluded, removed from the social-romantic landscape of possibility, and violently erased, both from the present and the future.

By the end of “Historiography,” the body has gained some measure of status, at least syntactically, appearing at the beginning of the lines with a capital letter, even if it is an illusion of control: “Body stops trying… // Body all those nights and all those pizzas. Body binges / and body purges.” For the reader and the speaker, the end of this poem is not a victory, but a surrender to disappointment, rather than to acceptance, a giving up, rather than giving in, but the honesty of it, the conventional late turn in the sonnet, allows this to happen. In The Second Sex, de Beavoir also acknowledges the honesty with which women can live in the later years of their lives once they are no longer subject to the pressure to perform femininity or to conform to its standards.

The value of form—why this dialogue between outsiders and the self matters so much—manifests in other poems, such as “A Sensible Lunch,” which, in part, responds to “concern trolling,” a form of rationalized cruelty. The first line, “I’m eating brown rice and a single turkey meatball,” is an austere response to a presumed question to which there can be no “correct” or satisfying answer, control masquerading as concern, invasiveness disguised as participation in a process of purification and diminishment: “Are you having a sensible lunch?” The space between the first line and the rest of the poem continues the motif of exclusion and erasure, even as the remaining thirteen lines are crammed with sensual descriptions of meals remembered as part of a “we,” as opposed to the “I” in the first line. The last line of “A Sensible Lunch” may also be a nod to the cover image, the lettuce leaves transformed through desire into “three tiny edible flowers.” Whatever Kearney’s leaves are, they are clearly neither square, nor meals, but they haunt both reader and speaker throughout the trajectory of this collection, weightless and terrifying in their presumed virtuousness.

Just as the discussion of a body’s form often evolves into a discussion of bodies at large, poems in form can comment on the usefulness of adhering to the conventions of form, the traditions of the sonnet itself in the case of The Fat Sonnets. The sonnet is immediately recognizable and easy to classify, as can be the body and its various types (plus-size, petite, pear-shaped, willowy, etc.), willingly or not. While not every poem in The Fat Sonnets fits the textbook definition of a Shakespearean or Petrarchan sonnet, each becomes a conversation with the form, and, as Richard Howard says, “Zighelboim gave to any and all of her poems the Sonnet’s intensity of Purpose.” Is it, as Bernadette Mayer asserted in the introduction to the 25th anniversary edition of her own collection of sonnets, impossible to solve a problem in such a small space as provided by the sonnet? These are poems written for a world in which most of what we do is prepare ourselves to leave it behind: “I am an artifact / of myself. It’s time to move  now. It’s time to starve.” There can be no ending to these observations, nor is there any one form that can contain the problems of any body—private or collective—made flesh.

As I write this, I’m also fostering five very young kittens for a local animal shelter. Two of them are smaller than their brothers, and I am continually monitoring the weights of all five, delighted to see their tiny potbellies grow, encouraging them to gorge themselves on the kibble I provide for their nourishment. It is a relationship based on the purity of desire: the kittens must eat and grow “fat” as a way of surviving and because they are growing and changing so quickly.

The bodies of the poems in The Fat Sonnets ultimately challenge and stretch the constrictions of their own forms and limitations, and—through their visibility on the page—contain the element of performance, inhabiting form as we inhabit our own human bodies, often imperfectly, but—at best—continuing to change and to take from each moment that which we need in order to thrive.


Erica Bernheim is the author of the full-length poetry collection, The Mimic Sea, and of a
chapbook, Between the Room and the City. She is currently Associate Professor of English at
Florida Southern College, where she directs the creative writing program. Her writing has
recently appeared or is forthcoming in Denver Quarterly, DIAGRAM, The Missouri Review,
Hobart, and Burnside Review.