Review of The Man in the McIntosh Suit by Rina Ayuyang

Rina Ayuyang’s The Man in the McIntosh Suit eschews the pursuit of prosperity typically associated with the American Dream, and instead centers one man’s search for intimacy and home. Bobot is a Filipino law school graduate turned migrant farmworker who spends his free time writing love letters to the wife he left behind in the Philippines, even after he’s stopped receiving a response. When he hears a rumor that his wife was seen in America, he sets out on an adventure that carries us from the farms of rural California to the seedy speakeasies of San Francisco, desperate to find his lost love. 

Set at the onset of the Great Depression, Ayuyang paints a picture of the national unrest looming over Bobot with precision. Farmworkers whisper about distant protests, and discuss the measures they’d have to take to organize. The book itself opens with a true-to-life opinion piece written by Paul Scharrenberg, a representative of the American Federation of Labor. “There are enough Filipinos in this country at this time to create a problem,” it begins. “They are very lazy, and very vain. They are very quarrelsome… They have no idea of honor, or honesty, or fairness… I believe they should be excluded from this country.” This sentiment manifests within the story on a few striking occasions, most notably in a beating that takes place after a farmworker dances with a white woman in a pool hall. While characters move through immigrant communities for the majority of the book, these instances are more than enough to remind the reader of the racial hostility that awaits them when they stray too far.

Those coming from Ayuyang’s kaleidoscopic memoir, Blame This on the Boogie, may be surprised by the book’s simple color scheme. But just as the story of The Man in the McIntosh Suit draws on the noir genre, so does its aesthetic. Large segments are rendered monochromatically in blue, or green, or rosy golds and reds. These shades intrude on each other at key moments of transition or deep feeling, dazzling the reader as Bobot delves into the mystery of his lost wife. Ayuyang’s love of music also makes a welcome return in this volume, with lyrics of Depression-era songs floating across panels, and playlists of said songs shared on the final pages. When combined, all amounts to a gorgeous love letter to Hollywood’s romantic, black-and-white era, without Ayuyang losing sight of her own distinct flair.

Courtesy of Drawn and Quarterly

And in The Man in the McIntosh Suit, love is in the heart of things. It drives Bobot’s journey, and as the story unfurls, we learn how it’s driven the lives of the characters in his orbit. There could be a version of this story that centers the economic and racial inequities Bobot and his friends face. It is crucial that many versions of that story have been and continue to be told. But, while Ayuyang doesn’t lose sight of those injustices (just as love drives each character’s journey, a lack of money reliably inhibits it), prosperity and social acceptance isn’t the object of Bobot’s pursuit. Romantic love, platonic love, familial love, and queer love are at the forefront of this story, yearned for and celebrated. In the face of human relationships, country and what it promises you becomes circumstantial. This is a story about how loved ones are home. “But let me ask you,” Bobot says to his wife, “if you could be anywhere, then tell me where I would be?”

The Man in the McIntosh Suit is an ode to Depression-era noir that insists on romance, on hope. All this, without sacrificing the genre’s trademark thrills. We get our heists, our thrilling chases. Mystery begets mystery. As all good adventures do, The Man in the McIntosh Suit left me equal parts hungry and fulfilled. I set down the book longing for these characters, and looking forward to Bobot’s next chapter. Not unlike its characters, I felt nostalgic for a world I was uprooted from far too soon.

Review of YOU DON’T HAVE TO GO TO MARS FOR LOVE by Yona Harvey

Yona Harvey’s second poetry collection, You Don’t Have to Go to Mars for Love, offers a dazzling lyric journey through time and space that spans both the celestial and the personal. This is a book that bursts with energy and defies attempts at simple summary or categorization. Echoing The Odyssey it references, the poems create a winding voyage that touches on districts (The Dream District, The Frog District, The Sonnet District), elegies, and songs. Although heartbreak and grief weave in and out of its pages, the lingering emotion in my reading of this collection was wonder. Through Harvey’s eyes, we see a narrative rooted in the Black female experience that examines the limitations of relationships, language, and even our own imagination. At the same time, the poet invites us to marvel as she introduces us to whimsical Afro-futuristic possibilities, both utilizing and shattering familiar poetic forms, and teaching us to see “the most beautiful/ dark that hosts the most private sorrows/ and feeds the hungriest ghosts” (9).

Harvey’s poetry is fierce, noting that “An Apology—/ is not an eraser” (14-15) and “we who believe in freedom cannot rest” (5). In addition to social critique, it is haunted by a nearly apocalyptic understanding of climate change, glancing at “the unmistakable absence of the Great Barrier Reef” (65) and envisioning “when the glaciers get to melting” (68). But these poems are also comforting in their glittering beauty, their willingness to leap in form across the page, managing to surprise with each repetition. New meaning is created out of familiar words such as, “okay,” “&,” “yo,” and even “that.” Wordplay, and a deep attention to sound, permeate the poems, such as in the conclusion of “Subject of Retreat”:

     Then what? The snow
     on the other side. The sound
     of what I know & your, no, inside it.

The use of form here is playful and endlessly inventive, becoming more experimental as the book progresses and taking on a flexibility and musical quality reminiscent of the blues. The poem “The Dream District/ Origins” comes to mind, where three columns can be read independently or intertwined to create multiple interpretations. Where “Sonnet for a Tall Flower Blooming at Dinnertime” is composed as a haunting ode-like American sonnet, a later poem in the manuscript, “The Sonnet District,” challenges our understanding of this poetic structure. Through the use of subversive couplets that maneuver through humorous turns from an ex’s careless words to Shakespeare—the bard himself—the poem overflows what might have been fourteen stanzas into a fragmented and defiant conclusion: “I peeped the conveniently placed escape hatch in the shape of a narrow couplet/ from where I sat.// It didn’t take a telescope to find that.” 

“Cutthroat/ The Rising Cost of Fuel” experiments further with em dashes positioned before and after words, making the appearance that the poem is “glitching” on the page as if the words were slashes or pixels. Even the paper feels the wounds of loss.




Cumulatively, Harvey manages to balance a kind of Afro-futuristic surrealism that feels mythic, sci-fi, and slippery. But it is grounded by strong emotions of siblinghood, marriage, and parenthood that encompass an expansive capacity for feelings of love, grief, and betrayal. The poet is not alone on this journey; the collection builds upon a chorus of new and reoccurring voices and invokes such muses as Gwendolyn Brooks, Audre Lorde, Erykah Badu, Madonna, Denzel Washington, and even fantastical frogs to name only a few.

In the same chiaroscuro way that stars shine more brightly against a dark sky, humor and beauty illuminate even the most solemn sections. Nowhere is this felt as strongly as in her unforgettable twenty-eight-part title poem, which reads like a transmission with frequent punctuation and travels the stars as a marriage collapses:

     Any launch. changes. everything.
     The ultimate outcome.
     is love. or hate. Is success. or failure.
     Is life. or death.

This is an easy poem to obsess over: it manages to hold freedom and playfulness in the same stanzas that traverse the stages of grief, wielding transmission-like punctuation to emphasize the fragmentation of emotions. The culmination overlaps with the title, offering generously, “You don’t have to go. to Mars for love. / For you to be willing. is more than enough.”You Don’t Have to Go to Mars for Love achieves inspiring emotional breadth: it devastated me and made me laugh out loud, often on the same page. Harvey reminds us that our journey is not linear. As the penultimate poem declares again and again, “there is no center of the universe” (66). Like the vastness of space, this repetition is simultaneously comforting and frightening. These works urge us not to flinch away from experiences of loss, anger, and sorrow as a sense of freedom and the awe of discovery await on the other side. This is a rich, sparkling collection that you will want to explore more than once.

YOU DON’T HAVE TO GO TO MARS FOR LOVE can be purchased from Four Way Books for $16.95.

Review of BLISS MONTAGE by Ling Ma

“I have sweetness too, just underneath thicker rinds.” (131)

In the acknowledgements for her short story collection BLISS MONTAGE, author Ling Ma cites film critic Jeanine Basinger as coining the book’s title term. Basinger’s 1993 work A Woman’s View: How Hollywood Spoke to Women, 1930-1960 details a phenomenon in film of a woman’s briefly allowed period of happiness before the movement of the plot inevitably invites heartbreak. The audience, Basinger argues, has only a passive engagement in women’s joy, and the “Happy Interlude” or “Bliss Montage” serves only as a prelude to her far more interesting trauma.

The Bliss Montage is a flattening technique, a refusal to recognize a fulfilled woman as complex and whole but to instead portray her as an object upon which the world must inevitably shape a recognizable narrative. But Ma’s characters continually break from their assigned roles and emerge raw. In “Los Angeles,” a woman lives in a sprawling house with her stock Husband and one hundred ex-boyfriends, including an abuser. She luxuriates in her mansion and her adoring suitors while navigating the complexities of victimhood: How does one own their narrative without being reduced to it? In “G,” an Asian-American woman uses an invisibility drug to ease the pressures of moving through her world in a non-white body. “I have done so much G that my adult sense of self formed in the complete absence of my reflection,” the narrator says. “For a person like me, that’s a certain kind of freedom.” (50) 

The women in Ma’s stories are constantly changing, shifting and adapting to their world. Her first novel, SEVERANCE (2018), told the almost eerily prescient story of a woman continuing to work in a country shut down by a pandemic. The book was praised by author Jia Tolentino, who called it “the best work of fiction I’ve read yet about the millennial condition—the alienation and cruelty that come with being a functioning person under advanced global capitalism”. BLISS MONTAGE has the same grip on the surreal millennial experience: as the metanarratives Ma’s characters have been told about the world and their place in it fail, they plunge into an adulthood that appears similar in theory but far different in practice to the one they prepared for. In “Returning,” a woman visits her husband’s home country for the first time to experience a local festival together. When he slips away from her in the airport, she is forced to encounter the strangeness of his hometown alone and learns that the festival they have come to attend involves people burying themselves alive overnight in hopes that they wake up healed—if they wake up at all. “Another self,” the narrator reflects, “was needed to move into the future.” (105) 

A metamorphosis, Ma seems to suggest, may be the only way to move forward on one’s own terms. In “Office Hours,” a young film professor takes her old mentor’s office only to discover a hole in the wall leading to a world frozen in time. As she navigates the politics of an academic career for which she fought tooth and nail, she teaches her class on The Disappearing Woman, noting that unlike in the films she shows, she cannot simply pick up and move to a new world that meets her expectations. After watching Ghost World, her students agree: “Enid gets to disappear, but most of us can’t do that. Most of us are like Rebecca: we’re critical of the world but we still have to live in it.” (155) Reflecting at the end of his career, her mentor says the same: “The sanest way forward—you have to split yourself up, like an earthworm,” he tells her. (142) 

Ma’s women are both anxious and joyful, selfish and caring, unfeeling and full of wonder. They are the before and after of the Happy Interlude we never see onscreen. BLISS MONTAGE asks: How do we break free of the narratives placed on us? We split. We refuse to stagnate. We bury ourselves and regrow into something new.

BLISS MONTAGE can be purchased from Macmillan for $26.00.

Review of The Man Who Could Move Clouds by Ingrid Rojas Contreras

In her first memoir, Ingrid Rojas Contreras performs a delicate balancing act of history, memory, and myth. The Man Who Could Move Clouds begins with an echo. On a winter day in Chicago, a biking Ingrid crashes into a car door and suffers from temporary amnesia in the aftermath. The accident is eerily similar to one decades before, when her mother lost her memories after tumbling down a well in Ocaña, Colombia. When her mother’s memory returned, she also gained the ability to see ghosts and hear disembodied voices. Their family rejoiced and feared her new gifts, recognizing them as the same talents possessed by her father Nono—a curandero who could heal the ailing, divine futures, and move clouds.

After her own accident, Ingrid wanders back home and tells no one of her forgetting, privately enjoying the peace her amnesia grants her: “…it wasn’t the terrible thing she implied, but actually the best thing that had happened to me. I was boundlessly rich in loss.” She pantomimes knowledge of her life while her memory slowly returns. But, unlike her mother, she recovers without any notable powers to speak of. Instead, five years after she’s regained the stories of her own life and her family’s, she’s struck by the urge to write them all down. 

Her mother becomes furious at the idea of revealing the secrets of their gifts. In an argument, she threatens to never speak to Ingrid again if she chooses to share them with the world. That night, Ingrid goes to bed with the hand-mirror her mother once used to heal her own amnesia beneath her pillow. Whether by its magic or not, she sees Nono in a dream. “I fear he is there to tell me he doesn’t want his story told, just as Mami has done; instead, he takes my hand, and immediately we are transported to Bucaramanga, Colombia… we are in the back garden and he is pointing down the hill to a glittering river, and I hear him clearly as he says, This is the scene.” 

Portals abound across the pages. Her mother’s well serves as a passage into the space between reality and un-reality. Mirrors become paths tread by both Ingrid and her mother to return to their memoried selves. Dreams are accepted as a “burrow of the great beyond.” So when Ingrid wakes and finds that her family’s reported similar dreams of Nono requesting to be disinterred, it is only logical for them to take up the quest to share their story, and return to Colombia to lay Nono to rest once more.

In the same way, Ingrid the author acts as our portal to a legacy that extends far beyond her own. Readers are carried across time to the colonial histories of Colombia, its myths, and the spaces where it is difficult to distinguish the two. The reader will find that these distinctions hardly matter. In the Contreras family, all stories begin by asserting their truth: “Other people’s stories began, Once upon a time. Mami’s began, Once, in real life.” Ingrid takes up the mantle of this tradition, asserting early on, “Not once upon a time, but once in a specific time, in a real place…” One might be forgiven for reading this as a request to give her the benefit of the doubt as she shares tales rife with curses, witches, and ghosts. This is a work of nonfiction, after all. But in reading on, it becomes clear that Ingrid is not presenting us with a plea, but a declaration. 

It would be a flattening to place The Man Who Could Move Clouds in the realm of magical realism. The memoir is not a spectacle of the fantastic so much as it is a call for the reader to reconsider and expand their notions of reality, to recognize the multitude of fictions we tell ourselves and deem to be real. 

In a lesson on divination, Mami tells a young Ingrid, “You have to tell a story that will allow the client to experience the truth without your ever having to name it.” Through this lens, readers will become skeptical of Ingrid’s claim that she didn’t inherit her family’s gifts. With sweeping research and tender lyricism, Ingrid masterfully succeeds in divining a story that sits at the edges of reality, luxuriating in its truth whether you accept it or not.  

The Man Who Could Move Clouds can be purchased from Penguin Random House for $30.00.

Review of Sumita Chakraborty’s Arrow

Sumita Chakraborty’s debut poetry collection, Arrow, is a sprawling expanse of loss. Centering the story of her sister Priya, Arrow is both a testament and letter to her sibling —who died at age 24—as well as a record of the poet’s large and undefinable grief. 

The collection is richly inhabited by figures from mythology: a vast array of flora, fauna, and strange objects—orchids, hurricane plants; bees, sarcophagi; fish, bleach; rose bushes; tulips, irises, stags. They permeate the imagined landscape of the poems. The subject of death, ever-present, raw, and real, is encased within fables and stories so the speaker can interact with the painful reality of mourning through a prism of make-believe. Many laments — direct references to death and violence, particularly against women in both existing myth and invented story — spill out with singular focus, as if the poet cannot avoid thinking and speaking about them. Hands, tongues, heads of people and objects are cut off: blood, asphyxiation, shrieking, sacrifice. Although there are attempts at resurrection and renewal, Arrow does not take the easy way out by offering the clarity of healing or time—even at the end, “we arrow from times of grief into—well, into more such times” (75). Sections end with a sense of arriving, emotionally, right back where we started. 

“Dear, Beloved,” by far the densest poem, is composed of one continuous stanza of long lines, a lyrical and painful crux of the book. The worldbuilding brims with energy and expands outwards, even as it never veers from the central theme of death. It forms a microcosm of the book as a whole: pain, guilt, anger, and grief’s circular, non-linear shape. It opens with hypothesis: “It would be winter, with a thin snow. An aged sunbeam / would fall on me” (22) and describes a mountainous landscape envisioned by the speaker, where most of the poem takes place. Unlike the real world, here, her sister is present: a living and breathing character in a bleak fairy tale setting. Tied to this world, we see the speaker in deep turmoil: imagining the self as “some fantastical beast with eyes / lining the inside of my body (26),” confessing desires to die in multitudinous ways, only to be amended; “I did not want to die, but I wanted to want death” (26). The speaker’s grief appears in many ways: complicated by guilt, helplessness, inevitability.

This struggle is especially heartbreaking considering the admission towards the end of the poem that “I am lying to you” (32). Tension and tone quickly ramp up: “It was a sky in which every child of every star, / living or dead, could be heard humming” (28). These images—sky, child, humming, living versus dead— are heightened and strengthened through a repetition of loose, gauzy imagery. The ending’s rich language pulls everything together, collecting and funneling into one bottlenecked explosion — a space where she and her sister exist together. 

Chakraborty’s work is a study in repetition, in returning. Every recurring thread—ash, singing, hum, lullaby, vegetation, deer, dear, doe, children— is further deepened through layers of meaning, contradiction, and re-definition. Even its title, “Dear, Beloved,” plays on these different associations — and on the meanings of her name: Priya. 

At times throughout the collection, the speaker addresses us as readers — but we sense that, despite this, she speaks only to her sister. Readers, along with other secondary characters in Arrow, are just overhearing. Chakraborty uses images that are terrifying and brutal (incision, ash) yet delicate and moving (moths, stars); precise in their meaning, yet, like most moments of intense human emotion, containing a multitude of conflicts and contradictions. Opposite feelings coexist, fighting each other for space in excruciating relentlessness. “Yes, there is much to love about the body. / Too, there is much to hate” (24). We encounter such immense detail that we find ourselves reading everything many times, carefully, to see the whole multi-prismed painting. 

Arrow deals with all these particulars of emotional turmoil even as its centering pull is one of grief. It’s not for us to know the origin of every struggle — for them to be named — but we witness the narrator’s pain, both emotional and physical: senses that cannot be separated from each other. “Sister, could I find you on that horse mountain? I wonder / if I want to. Have I made this world?” (27). Moments like this frank confession remain shrouded; we’ll never know the entirety of what the speaker feels. Perhaps the speaker does not either. Neither purely narrative nor image, and never resolving through its very nature what cannot be resolved, Arrow requires us to hold both truths: there is some meaning to grieving, and there is nothing to be gained from it. The poems in Arrow are a mastery in re-definition – they are kaleidoscopic. The refrains presented in this collection leave their tracks all over the speaker’s mindscape, creating a world of tragedy, memory, danger — and some small amount of comfort. 

Arrow can be purchased from Alice James Books for $17.95.

Review of Gods of Want by K-Ming Chang
gods of want

K-Ming Chang’s stories vibrate with energy, lyricism, and the hysteria that comes from the crushing weight of history. As a collection of stories, Gods of Want spans generations—orbiting relationships between women, their bodies, their ancestors, and their wild environments. There is an aura of mythic simultaneity in the work as deceased ancestors, immigration trauma, environmental anxiety, and queer relationships collapse into poignant, uncanny narratives. Chang’s writing style is musical, heady, fabulist, and straddles the line between grotesque and lovely.

As a book, Gods of Want is rich with hauntings. Its stories measure quantities by negative space and absence: what is lost, forgotten, dead—or deadish—as ghosts weave in and out of the pages. Whether it is the woman followed by a legion of spectral relatives in “The Chorus of Dead Cousins,” the aunt swaddling a potato instead of a baby in “Auntland,” the “dark jelly” inside the bellies of shot raccoons in “Dykes,” or the ghostly absence of a cousin in “Anchor,” Chang’s characters experience a full spectrum of griefs and ghosts. In response to this hauntedness, the tales become obsessed with cataloging, with lists ranging from aunts and cousins to widows, foods for the dead, and, most importantly, names. But even these names are slippery with negative space, contradiction, and layers of heritage. The story “Eating Pussy” begins: “Her name was Pussy, but the rumor was she didn’t have one.” These anxiety-inducing inventories are frantic in their attempts to bear witness to what is important before it is lost—even to memory. A conversation in “The Chorus of Dead Cousins” further expounds on the project of the stories: “We need an exterminator, my wife said, but all the ones I called were men who said they didn’t deal with what was already dead.” Men might not be willing to treat with the expired, but that is exactly what Chang’s stories do, placing a finger on the vivid intersections of loss, trauma, queerness, feminism, and the Asian American experience. As a character in “The Chorus of Dead Cousins” explains, “You can’t take a picture of an earthquakeYou can only take a picture of the aftermath.”

Threading the tales together is a powerful through-line of gender and queerness as Chang’s feminine protagonists must wrestle with the expectations, duties, and dangers of their families and world. In “Xífù” a woman hounded by her mother-in-law tells her daughter:

That’s the only requirement I have: Don’t marry a man with an origin. Set his family on fire. But she tells me it’s okay, that she’ll marry no one’s son because she’s a lesbian, and I’m so jealous I could kick her in front of a car, the way I once did to the neighbor’s pit bull when it shat maggots on my feet.

The portrayal of cyclical inheritance is dynamic and bracing: in “Auntland” the narrator tells off an aunt for kissing another woman at Costco, but as an adult, finds herself in the same situation, saying “I had an aunt who saw me kiss a girl in the booth of a Burger King and said, I knew it. I knew you were supposed to be born a son.”

As a whole, Gods of Want is a glitteringly surreal collection that flirts with genres like magical realism, humor, and horror but defies the very categorization it attempts—some things can’t be measured, only experienced. Within the book, the lines between lyric essay and fiction blur with repetition and musical language, rewarding intuitive readers who allow the words to wash over them. In a 2021 Editors Panel, Chang told me, “I invented my own queer ancestors so I wouldn’t feel as alone.” Gods of Want is a culmination of that inventiveness—a full community of voices infused with their own complexities, absurdities, and desire.

Quotes from advance uncorrected proofs. Official publication: July 12, 2022 from Penguin Books.

Review of The Era of Discontent by Brianna Noll

“This is the era of building/ and taking apart, our landscapes/ and skylines changing, shaken/ as the tectonics of the moon…/ This isn’t hyperbole–/ we’re terrified of entropy, of the world/ as it once was. This is the era of discontent/ where imagination’s gone mad” – Brianna Noll, “Aesthetics for Toxic Times” 

Brianna Noll’s second collection of poems, The Era of Discontent, is laden with both the frustrated and hopeful ruminations of a society in crisis. Written and published during the Covid-19 pandemic, the collection is a rallying cry for those disillusioned by the promises of modernity — and a call to remember humanity’s roots as we rebuild. 

Noll’s work is enigmatic– deliciously rich in its intricacies, it requires careful contemplation from the reader. She masterfully weaves a vast array of muses into the collection’s fabric, blowing the dust off of forgotten artifacts, individuals, and legends. Noll’s prose emboldens us with a sense of urgency and wonder as we scour the internet for additional context. In “How to Give Birth to a Rabbit (after Mary Toft, 1726)”, Noll approaches the universal, heart-wrenching grief of a miscarriage via the story of Mary Toft, who infamously convinced several 18th-century doctors she’d given birth to a rabbit following the loss of her pregnancy. It was later revealed to be a hoax, and Toft became the subject of much scrutiny. 

“This makes you a monster,/ of course” Noll writes. “Tread lightly./ No one will think about/ your miscarriages, your/ empty salt cellars and/ candles re-formed from/ their drippings, which alone/ mean little but add up to/ a fervent kind of desperation.”

It’s in her compassionate treatment of stories like Toft’s that Noll shines. She mixes current events and cultural oddities to evince ideals that transcend space, time, history, and belief—placing her squarely in conversation with something more overtly cosmic.

Still, these detours don’t detract from the collection’s purposeful and timely narrative arc. The collection is broken into three untitled sections artfully structured by Noll to play off of each other. In the opening pages, Noll cheekily offers her readers insight into her central line of inquiry. “Epistemological Snapshot” finds Noll rebelling against the assumed, unquestioned truths of our existence — comparing them to a ruler in both measurement and rigidity. Noll implores her readers not to become complacent and to remain curious, writing, “You know you cannot know what actually exists–/ you’re just tired of the same old stories.”

After setting up her epistemology, Noll peppers the first section with sharp criticism and warnings. In “Isolationism,” we find a rare moment where Noll uses the first-person to reflect. She laments, “But I worry we’ve otherwise become/ strangers in our own worlds, / and isolated in turn. What do we hold/ on to when the world around us/ fades at twilight? There’s little and less/ to grasp when our eyes, so used/ to light, must acclimate to the dark.”

Positioned against the woes of the first section, Noll’s voice in the second is luminous, baptismal water. It offers solace, companionship, and encouragement. In “The Lake We Call Medusa,” Noll pleads:

“You must be/ a light-bearer,/ or the water will/ make a statue/ of you, calcify you/ from the outside in… You are/ your own instrument./ You must learn/ to cast light/ from your fingertips,/ your vocal chords,/ or better yet, your/ pores. The demon/ in this water cannot/ bear the dawn.”

The final section crescendos with a deep ache to reconnect with our humanity, exemplified in “The Collective Unconscious”:

“Some things have been with us/ a long time, like the words spit, / fire, and mother, or the color/ black. We are born with them/ on our tongues, as we are born/ knowing that haloed suns foretell/ rain. We share the land and / the language to speak it, but/ these commons grow fewer, / and we’ve stopped trusting/ in lore… Look backward:/ anyone who’s seen a lingonberry has named it for an animal: cowberry, foxberry, bearberry, cougarberry. / This is the legacy we leave—truths we feel in each other’s bones.”

The Era of Discontent provides readers with a welcomed respite from the loneliness, chaos, and confusion of our current cultural epoch: a gaze into our ancestral precedence, creating a concrete antithesis to the digital-age’s intangibility. In “Elegy for the Ground We Walk On,” Noll ends with a message of hope as she considers the changes necessary for a brighter future, writing, “This need not be a disaster:/ we could better cultivate our sight, / unclench our hands, and learn new/ words for a world we do not shape/ to our will, but shapes itself–/ more pliant than we’ve ever believed.”  

The Era of Discontent is available from Elixir Press for $17.00.

Review of World of Wonders by Aimee Nezhukumatathil

In her recent collection of prose titled World of Wonders, Aimee Nezhukumatathil explores the world’s most extraordinary forms of life whose striking characteristics often mirror and complement human experience. In a series of short essays, Nezhukumatathil introduces a range of enchanting species that have proved important in her own life. 

The book begins in Nezhukumatathil’s youth in Kansas where her mother works at a mental institution. Around the institution, she recalls riding bikes with her sister beneath the shade provided by Catalpa trees. This is the first of many homes Nezhukumatathil describes throughout World of Wonders. By the end of the essay, she is an adult in Mississippi, gazing at another Catalpa tree on the campus where she teaches.

The book follows the years she spent moving around the country, first with her family and then as a young adult. Nezhukumatathil finds an intrinsic sense of home in whatever nature surrounds her, from the Catalpa trees of Kansas to the shores of the Aegean Sea, to monsoon season in southwest India. Wherever life leads her to wander, Nezhukumatathil is a willing observer, an active participant in whatever space she calls her own. 

It’s as if she has scoured the corners of Earth to illustrate the creatures that make up the planet’s beauty—no stone is left unturned. Through observing and explaining the characteristics, habits, subtle and overt beauties of each creature, Nezhukumatathil often offers mirrored qualities between the species and her life. Each species offers a lens through which she views life as a daughter, mother, wife, educator, and writer. 

In doing this, she uncovers some of our world’s failures and lack of insight. In describing the axolotl, what is also known as the Mexican Walking Fish, a pink salamander with a smile, Nezhukumatathil writes, “If a white girl tries to tell you what your brown skin can and cannot wear for makeup, just remember the smile of an axolotl.” In describing the axolotl’s wild, neon-lined eyes, she travels back to being in junior high, trying out “various shades of Wet n Wild lipstick, including a red the color of candy apples…” She remembers the past and current pain of forcing a smile both in junior high and as an adult professor dealing with racist colleagues. The section ends with more about the charming axolotl, whose seemingly harmless image hides its strength and enthusiasm. “And when it eats—what a wild mess—when it gathers a tangle of bloodworms into its mouth, you will understand how a galaxy first learns to spin in the dark, and how it begins to grow and grow.” 

World of Wonders reminds us of our undeniable tie to the natural world, the human and non-human characteristics of all living beings. The book’s end encourages us to become active members in our world, lest we forget its intricacies and differences. She suggests we “start with what we have loved as kids and see where that leads us.” 

World of Wonders is the beginning of springtime in a book—the relief after a long, lifeless, unforgiving winter. A book that comes at the perfect time for all of us—an awakening after so much darkness and isolation. To read World of Wonders is to be “shot through with bud and bloom,” as Nezhukumatathil writes. The world around me sprung from its roots with every page. We are not only reading a book about nature, but the animal kingdom’s guide to navigating human life. Nature, we learn through World of Wonders, has much to teach us. 

Review of Moth Funerals by Gaia Rajan

Moth Funerals, by teenage poet Gaia Rajan, opens with Juliet I, a poem that flits across the page. It can be read in multiple ways, (an introduction to the wonderful use of space throughout the work) and read in any direction, the poem captures the reader’s interest, leading them directly into the heart of the chapbook. There is no time here to linger — Rajan’s words are urgent.

Rajan, the managing editor of The Courant and a poetry editor for Saffron Literary, demonstrates in her debut chapbook that her ability to capture the reader within the life of her work is already impressive. These poems weave dreams through solid moments, beautiful images with bitter truths.

 “The truth is/ my first love had to be/ myself,” Rajan writes in Juliet I. With these words, the life of the chapbook is unwound — this is a work that bursts with the tangled spell of teenage girlhood, as well as Rajan’s own lived experience. Rajan’s voice becomes identifiably hers early on, carrying with it a strength of emotion that never seems to fade. In [self-portrait as moth], she writes, “I can’t stand being named: once/ as they ask where I’m from, again/ when are you sure. When what kind/ of girl are you. The kind who answers:/ to make the body a country, one must tear/ away its wings.”

Poems such as We Were Birds float between the anger of youth and the pain of early loss. “That night he wore a white shirt and leapt/ into the river. Didn’t surface for air. More water/ than body, more tide than blood./ We’d just turned thirteen. After,/ I closed every window.” The body slips through water, the world slips through loss, but we cannot fully slip away.

Such is the nature of Moth Funerals. We have been let into Rajan’s life, her art, and until the final poem has finished, the flow of her work captures us in its sharp stream. In Nostalgia Is The Prettiest Liar, Rajan both observes and responds. “I sit in the dark and watch a white woman cosplay 1930./ She says it must’ve been simpler back then,/ incants it like a prayer, smiles and snaps white/ gloves on. I heard that back then, if your hands/ were darker than the gloves, you were sent/ to a different immigration center. I heard/ the alternate centers ordered more coffins/ than water.”

We are carried through the chapbook on the wings of something ethereal. As promised by the title, moths are ever-present here. In [self-portait as cocoon], they’re used to their full potential, fluttering and restless. Rajan asks us: What does it mean for her to reach us through poetry? What does it say about the way we consume? 

“I’m trapped in here I don’t want/ to be free anymore I just want you/ to know me I can’t speak and you/ imagine wings that flutter pretty from my lips/ green like dead-body phosphorus pretty/ enough to forget anything ever happened”

Even in moments when the reader might identify a young poet, or lines with room to become more focused, the clarity of vision is strong. A variety of rhythms, images, forms, and feelings give the chapbook its breath.

Moth Funerals is striking; Rajan’s writing is shiver-inducing, catching us at unexpected angles.  Poem In Which I Do Not Become A Bird is full of these glimpses. “How all your pockets are weighed/ with sea, how when the hotline is yours/ finally a bodiless voice whispers it gets better,/ which is what people say when they do not know/ what to do with their hands.” 

We are thrust from beauty to rawness and back again. “I know/ the truth. His death was his death, his life his life, the birds/  just birds,”. 

Toward the end of the chapbook, in When I Dream I Dream of Diamonds, we see Indian women taking back their stolen cultural artifacts from a museum. “We tremble outside to the rain/ and it washes us clean as if we could be anything,/ as if without memory we could be/ real, as if gems and pictures could be enough. For a moment/ we are silent and running and there is no country/ to belong to.” 

This moment in the poem sings. She writes: “Promise me–/ our bodies will always remember/ what was taken./ We will loot it back/ forever, reaching behind the glass,/ ours & ours & ours:” Here, Rajan emerges from her cocoon. 

Moth Funerals can be ordered from Glass Poetry Press

Review of Home Making by Lee Matalone

Author Lee Matalone and her debut novel, Home Making, follows the main character, Chloe, as she learns to navigate what it means to be a daughter, mother, friend, wife, and homemaker. 

Room by room, the story follows Chloe as she decorates her new dream house, the one she is forced to move into when her terminally ill husband no longer wishes to be with her. He provides all the money Chloe needs to start fresh, but Chloe finds the work slow and tedious. 

When she and her husband were young, they spent date nights walking around fancy neighborhoods. They dreamed of building a space completely theirs. And now, Chloe is forced to reconcile a space that is hers alone. 

Matalone is an author that works in scale. She examines the tiniest of details–a sheepskin imported from Reykjavik, a vase of cut flowers, a stack of white plates. She writes, “Beneath the prettiness we are all a mess. We are all struggling. We do not know how to make a home. Let’s leave bleach stains on the darks together. Let’s put too much sugar in the cake and celebrate our efforts, our failures.”

Through these details, we start to understand the larger histories of the characters: Chloe, her mother, Cybil, her best friend, Beau. From Japan to Tucson to Virginia to Louisiana, the places from which we come never quite lose their grasp on us. Whether we are trying to forget them, come to terms with them, or even celebrate them, the details of a place become engrained in our DNA. It is what calls to Cybil as she learns how to be a single mother after being adopted from a Japanese orphanage. It is what Beau tries to both embrace and escape after an unhappy childhood in the South. It is what Chloe continues to seek for herself, a place that she has chosen, that has chosen her.

The novel begs you to consider your own living space. 

My apartment contains a master bedroom, a guest room, a bathroom, a kitchen, and a shared dining and living room area. 

But Matalone would rather inspect the assortment of mugs in the kitchen cupboard, mismatched and chipped, collected from trips, given as gifts, stolen from roommates and friends and family over the years. She’d touch the ratty white blanket at the end of the bed, kept because it is soft and the dog likes to lay there.

It is place and the people in those places, Matalone argues, that make us who we are today. And just as various rooms make up a house, our heartbreak and loss and love and joy and struggle are what make a home.

Review of Deluge by Leila Chatti

“I thought/ surely I will die, so much of me/ outside of me and still more/ leaving,” Leila Chatti confesses in the title poem of her shimmering debut collection. Afflicted in her twenties by a uterine tumor that caused her to bleed without stopping – to flood, as physicians described it – Deluge dissects her experience and the places it overflows into gender, desire, illness, and faith with intimate lyricism.

Chatti’s unflinching perspective throughout the collection is striking. She refuses the impulse to shy away from what history names shameful or taboo, instead looking at both her body, and outside responses to it, without blinking. A number of poems illuminate her experience with medical treatment where Chatti delves into multicultural responses to illness, which range from religious shame to the callous indifference of the U.S. medical system. In The Handsome Young Doctor, Who is Very Concerned, she describes one visit to us:

“…I say I’ve read
this is dangerous. He says, impassive, of course,
everything has its risks.

Already checking the time on his wrist.”

Equally searing is her tangled and dynamic exploration of faith, in which ruminations of the body and health bleed over to the topic of desire. What sets Chatti apart is how deftly she balances feelings of defiance and isolation with real and searching devotion. From the first poem, Confession, the character of Mary from the Holy Qur’an is developed as a woman whose embodied experience plays out parallel and inverse to Chatti’s, immaculate conception counterpoint to barren flooding:

(oh Mary, like a God, I too take pleasure
In knowing you were not all
Holy, that ache could undo you
Like a knot)—

The investigation and questioning of Mary braided throughout Deluge positions Chatti in the tradition of Mary Szybist’s Incarnadine and Marie Howe’s Magdalene, but with her distinctly brave, taut language and narrative stream. Intertwined with explorations of Mary are Chatti’s own direct addresses to God, such as in one of the Annunciation poems: “If there/ is something you need/ to tell me, God, you must/ tell it to me/ yourself.” By repeating titles like this—Annunciation four times and Deluge twice—the poems take on a nearly liturgical quality, an echo like prayer.

The poems are masterfully ordered, often flowing directly into each other. For example, Zina closes with the lines “each time he touched me/ anew as though making me/ with his own two merciful hands” while the next poem, Nulligravida Nocturne, opens with “He touches me,” perfectly stair-stepping from one piece to the next. Similarly, the conclusion of Hymen, “and that’s the heart/ of it, isn’t it? Of a woman, you/ the only blood worth anything” transitions skillfully into the next title, The Blood. Beyond the linkage from page to page, Chatti crafts a narrative that is both personal and historical, spiraling inward. While she lays herself bare with the defiant vulnerability of her narrative, the collection wraps itself, almost comfortingly, around the reader, layer after intimate layer through the ripples of repetition. What the poem Tumor does formally, circling the page, the collection executes on a larger scale, gaining nuance with each recurring motif, confession, and doctor’s visit.

Contributing to the sensation of blanketing layers is the often-present darkness in the collection, presented not as fearsome, but consoling. From Night Ghazals repeating “black” and the redacted words in Etiology to Metrorrhagia where her partner Henrik gardens, “thumb turning in black/ soil. Birds scattering, spotting the dark,” Chatti’s is an interior, embryonic darkness. Where other narratives search the shadows of the foreign, Deluge is an exploration within the poet herself, a quest that is physical, spiritual, and emotional.

Cumulatively, Deluge’s chiaroscuro calls for healing and empathy from the darkest of places, to find a kind of frightening beauty in even a grapefruit-sized tumor. With her ability to land unerringly on what feels like the perfect word and a nearly primordial sense of embodiment, Chatti offers a collection that will linger within readers.

Review of I Hold a Wolf By the Ears by Laura van den Berg

Throughout I Hold a Wolf By the Ears, Laura van den Berg’s new collection of short stories, the reader finds bits of evidence that something devastating has happened. “The bartender asked me to tell him my story, and I describe the places I have lived. Eight cities in 10 years. Many different jobs. Few possessions or attachments. I’ve had some drinks. I go on. ‘You on the run from something?’ the bartender asks. ‘Yes,’ I say, without hesitating.” These clues point to some missing piece at the center of these stories, and make the stories feel like mysteries. The reader’s primary interest, however, is not in solving what has happened, but in watching how the characters maneuver the fallout of their tragedies.

Like its characters, the stories revolve around some avoidance or failure. There’s a train that never comes, a doomed last trip, children that do or do not appear, absent sisters, and impersonators of the living and the dead. In each story, characters want to deceive themselves, believing that they can evade their problems.I did not want to confront whatever was happening in my neighbors apartment; I only wanted to get away.” These characters close their eyes against what haunts them in a desperate attempt to persevere. [The hypnotist] believed with all her heart that something unspeakably awful had happened to me and that my memory had concealed this awfulness, in an attempt to save my life, and that this unprocessed trauma was the source of all my troubles. After she said this, I refused to go under hypnosis. My commitment to the truth simply did not run that deep.”

These are case studies on the difficulty of holding pain in perpetuity, the way it “wants nothing more than to destroy your life.” The collection forms a catalogue of living with trauma, of finding a way to survive with one’s grief. I considered the possibility that our thoughts were the most important thing to know, because they made up the stories we told ourselves about the world and our place in it, what was possible and what was sacred and what was forbidden.” The lives, and in fact the very worlds, of these characters deform to accommodate what has become forbidden and sacred in the aftermath of devastation.

To avoid their pain, characters repeatedly escape into the safety of other lives.I cannot deny that I have always enjoyed being other people.” Inhabiting the lives of sisters, in particular, echoes throughout the book. The characters mirror and merge into the personas of their sisters, perhaps like how the sisters of trauma and grief, or the sisters of devastation and self-destruction sometimes merge. “I find a pair of opal earrings on [my sister’s] dresser, next to a photo of my sister and Pat. They are on a beach in southern Maine, smiling wide. I put the earrings on and I am surprised by their weight. [Their] bed is unmade. I get under the sheets.” Other times, characters try to evade pain by obliterating themselves. In the title story, a character hands over her passport to hotel reception and thinks about how happy she would be to leave the woman in that picture behind.” When one of the many therapists in these stories asks how a new coping method is going, the protagonist explains, “I felt obliterated,” then clarifies, “I told her it was working.”

Of course, just like in life, ignoring and denying their pain only worsens the lingering effects for these characters. Grief, especially when it was not properly tended, could turn even a reasonable human being hostile and confused.” And, as another therapist says, that which cannot be forgotten must be confronted.” But gore is hard to look at, and these characters have a relentless aversion to contending with their pain. In one story, a character admits she is being abused, but then takes it back. When later explaining why she retracted her admission, she says, “I wasn’t ready.” But once acknowledged and named, there is no way of really denying truth. “Once you have a thought like that, there is no turning back, there’s only pretending to.” And that pretending has reverberating repercussions. I didnt yet understand that refusing one kind of narrative could activate another.”

I Hold a Wolf By the Ears is riddled by its characters’ trauma and grief. The reader watches the characters maneuver the complicated task of living with their ghosts, sometimes closing their eyes against them, sometimes approaching the lurking shadows. I thought the universe had granted me a chance to remake my life,” a character says. Later, she laments, As it turned out, I have been doomed to live the same old story, with the same ending.” These stories examine characters as they try, fail, struggle, and persist against their histories. And the reader joins them in their grief, knowing that there is no simple escape from this kind of monster. I hold a wolf by the ears. She’d understood the phrase to mean something along the lines of—there is no easy way out.”

Review of In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado

Carmen Maria Machado’s newest release, In the Dream House, is a haunting memoir of her experience with same-sex psychological abuse. The “Dream House” is literally where Machado’s unnamed partner lives, and figuratively a metaphor for the dreams the two had as a fresh couple, the dreams for an idealistic, romantic life together. The Dream House begins like a fairytale, but quickly turns into a nightmare. The house also serves as a symbol of Machado’s mind, which slowly becomes her own prison in a harrowing situation. 

Split into short chapters of one to ten pages, each section explores the Dream House from a different perspective. The chapter titled, “Dream House as Hypochondria,” for example, discusses Machado’s attempt to get mental help for her partner, and the chapter titled, “Dream House as Spy Thriller,” describes the shameful details of her relationship as a secret she has to hide from the world. Rather than following chronological order, chapters skip around in the narrative, instead ordered by intensity, as if following the flow of Machado’s own mind. The building intensity paired with the short chapter form allows the reader to quickly fly through the book.

Machado uses a second person perspective in order to help the reader place themselves in the situation. In situations of abuse, it is all too easy for readers to think that they would have seen the warning signs, that they would have left before it escalated. But by using the second person, Machado forces the reader to experience it. She demands that we go through the Dream House with her.

When we first meet the unnamed partner, she seems like an average person. She wears “white-blonde hair pulled back in a short ponytail. She has a dazzling smile, a raspy voice that sounds like a wheelbarrow being dragged over stones. She is the mix of butch and femme that drives you crazy.” Machado then follows the progression of their relationship with interludes of her own thoughts. If she had been able to see into the future, would she have done anything differently? Is she a better person now, after having gone through the experience? Contrasted with the honeymoon phase narrated alongside them, such questions bring the reader a sense of imminent dread for what is about to come.

Machado interlaces her own narrative with research and thoughts on abusive same-sex relationships, a taboo subject. Often, when we think of an abusive relationship, the man is the perpetrator and the woman is the victim. If women are victims, how do abusive lesbian relationships exist? Stereotypes of lesbian relationships as men-free utopias are harmful to queer women, but so are stereotypes that one woman must be the “man” of the relationship. Because of the already existing misconceptions about abusive relationships, the abuser in same-sex relationships becomes the “man.” Machado struggles with these ideas throughout the memoir. By telling her story, she asks if she is bringing to light the experiences of hundreds of victims, or if she is strengthening the fallacy that same-sex relationships must follow heteronormative stereotypes.

In an interview with The Paris Review, Machado explains that she wants to provide a broader context, to convince the reader that her experience was not an anomaly.  She also provides research as a way to further her own understanding of the experience. “How can I understand it,” Machado said, “as not just a thing that happened to me, a discrete thing, but also in the context of history and in queer history, and in the history of gender?”

She understands it by writing through it. And through Machado’s own understanding, readers are transported into a world they may have never thought about. Machado comes to grips with the situation by morphing it into a narrative, a powerful tale to reach all types of readers. Readers who have never deeply considered what an abusive relationship can look like other than the stereotypical man-on-woman violence. Readers who have experienced an abusive relationship and are looking for a companion, someone who believes them. Readers trying to come to terms with the fact that lesbian relationships are not a romantic utopia, an escape from the problems associated with men. Machado has been each of these. By writing through her relationship and its subsequent abuse, Machado has created a poignant memoir that brings much-needed nuance to a larger dialogue on domestic violence and abuse. 

Review of The Crying Book by Heather Christle

For five years, Heather Christle embarks on an experiment, documenting and mapping each time she cries. This experiment, when shared with others, leads Christle to conversations with friends, to research, to her past, and ultimately to her debut nonfiction collection, The Crying Book. As a self-coined highly sensitive person, I was drawn in immediately. 

Her book, a segmented, meditative lyric essay, is a compilation of observations about crying. In her first meditation, she discusses how crying in public is a way to feel seen. A page later, she complicates her own experience with research, stating that crying in public often leads to “a worsening mood. You can be made to feel ashamed.” And yet, she continues, “criers report others responding with compassion, or what the study categorizes as ‘comfort words, comfort arms, and understanding.” Early on, she shows how complex the process of pain and crying can be. 

The form of the lyric essay allows Christle to accumulate a large quantity of material. Much of her book is focused in research, including but not limited to: psychologists, philosophers, and research studies; other writers and artists interrogating pain; politics and social movements; gender and racial inequalities; and murder, suicide, and death. 

Reading a lyric essay collection can often feel like a light whiplash, taking hard turns into seemingly unrelated topics. The build Christle organizes feels unending, encompassing so many crying-related topics. She touches on an almost exhausting number of examples, reminding me of how exhausting it is to feel such deep emotions. 

Christle writes about how tragic events, like the suicide of her friend, lead to despair and crying, showing how our emotions are often a response to the world around us. However, she also suggests that our emotions, when unable to be expressed, can be catalytic, and lead to violence. She writes: “They say perhaps we cry when language fails, when words can no longer adequately convey our hurt. When my crying is not wordless enough I beat my head with my fists.” Violence, onto the self, and to others, becomes a large theme present in her work. Christle balances research and narrative, sometimes simultaneously, to answer the question, Why? She continually interrogates, attempting to answer why she feels the way she does, why people take their lives, why people commit acts of violence, and more. She discusses Kent State, shows us a picture of a young woman “kneel[ing] beside the body of a slain student, her whole body an anguished question,” – Why? 

The way Christle weaves social issues and politics into her own narrative shows a universal hurting, and how powerless we can feel to violence. Through recognizing her own pain and digging into research, Christle has found a whole world, a history of people who have endured suffering. 

Kaveh Akbar, in his blurb of Christle’s work, suggests that The Crying Book is “about crying, yes, but secretly it’s a book about everything: pain, sleep, joy, despair, birth, art, exile, atrocity, language, weather, fish.” I am in awe of the multitudes this book contains. Christle addresses many topics, and yet her voice is constantly focused and microscopic. She spans centuries of history, but readers will never feel lost in time. 

Amidst the amount of research Christle compiles, the book is anchored by her own narrative, following the five-year timeline of her child, beginning with conception. While motherhood is only one of many themes in her book, Christle has created a subtle way to keep readers grounded in a form that can often be difficult to follow. 

The ability to jump from topic to topic requires trust in the reader that we will follow, and delicate attention to organization from the writer. The lyric essay, Christle’s especially, reminds me of the video game, Katamari Damacy, where players roll a sticky ball over random objects, growing and growing until it takes on the size of a planet. It’s a snowball effect – she collects research and stories, places them next to one another, and builds them into something whole.

Since reading Christle’s book, I have been fixated on her opening pages, which seem to resonate even louder the longer I’m away from it. I think of her opening pages when I read the news, when a friend confides in me, when I accidentally step on my dog’s tail. Crying is a reflection of our pain. And our pain, when not treated properly, can lead to violence. However, our pain, when shared, can be even more powerful. It can become a bridge, leading us to compassion, to comfort words, comfort arms, and understanding.

Review of Spirit Run: A 6,000 Mile Marathon Through North America’s Stolen Land by Noé Álvarez

Marathons echo across decades and centuries in Noé Álvarez’s debut book Spirit Run.  He tells the story of the 6,000-mile marathon he undertook at age 19 with Peace and Dignity Journeys (PDJ) — a First Nations/Native American movement in which participants run across North America to rekindle connections with their cultures, communities, and homelands.

Álvarez interweaves the journey of the run with stories of his upbringing in Yakima, Washington as a son of Mexican immigrants.  The marathon of the work day in the fruit-packing warehouses where Álvarez worked alongside his mother tests his stamina. He writes, “Only now, this summer, do I learn the pangs resulting from standing for long hours in a factory.  The uncirculated blood below the knees crushes my feet. I wonder how my mother has sustained this for as long as she has. Decades.” The work, like running, is physically and mentally grueling. Not only does this work set up Alvarez to endure the conditions of PDJ — running tens of miles every day with little food and rest — but it illustrates how the PDJ marathon is part of a much longer journey.  While Alvarez’s parents work in the fruit industry where “they become one monotonous shape, the shape of a worker,” Alvarez runs in PDJ to honor his parents labor and the marathon journeys they made to the U.S. His father not only made the journey once, but twice, after being stopped by immigration police and getting deported. Álvarez carries forward his parents’ work in the run and their stories in his writing, while also starting his own journey of reconnecting with the North American land that he has grown to hate — a land brutalized by corporate farming and used to wear down his own family.   

Starting in Prince George, British Columbia and running all the way to the Zaculeu Ruins in Guatemala, Spirit Run, written in short chapters, moves at a rapid pace through mountains, forests, deserts, beaches, and cities. Though the narrative is fast, it retains the meditative quality of journal entries grounded in place and people. Álvarez writes, “We continue to slip in and out of society like ghosts in the night, connecting our hearts and minds with the land and the many tribal peoples who cross our paths every single day, carrying the heavy thread of prayers of hundreds of individuals.” Hazel of the Stetliem Nation invites the runners to his mountain cabin where he serves them coffee and describes his role in reoccupying land and keeping watch over the forest. A community in Oaxaca prepares a feast of beans, rice, tortillas, and frijoles. Chapito from the Fisherman People of the Seri Nation accompanies the runners on a raft to Shark Island off the coast of Mexico where he was born. These individuals and communities give nourishment to the runners’ bodies and minds. In Spirit Run, the marathon is not just about the amazing endurance of an individual, but also about the survival of family, indigenous nations, and cultures. The success of the marathon depends on community.

Álvarez’s book is also a collective narrative, telling the stories of other PDJ indigenous runners alongside his own. Through his fellow runners’ stories, Álvarez highlights the diversity within the indigenous community and the different perspectives the runners bring to PDJ.  Indigenous women’s voices play an important role in these sections. Zyanya Lonewolf expresses anger toward the truck drivers who purposefully try to run her off the road while she runs. She explains she decided to join PDJ because her cousin Ramona Lisa Wilson was murdered on the Highway of Tears — a stretch of highway in British Columbia where many indigenous women have disappeared. Another runner, Ipana, decides to leave PDJ part way through the route to help her community in Alaska protect the caribou that have provided food and shelter to her people for centuries. 

 Every member has their own reasons for joining the run, as well as leaving it, and sometimes their philosophies clash. Some participants believe only the strongest runners should continue the run so as not to deplete food, water, and supplies. Others call out individuals for bullying runners and creating a toxic atmosphere.  These tensions are often aired in Circle — a space for the community of runners to gather, converse, and resolve conflict. While the various runners’ stories weave throughout the narrative, they are highlighted in the prologue and the last section, “Today.” Bookending the narrative with these stories reflects the communal Circle and shows how the runners’ life circumstances have changed from before the run to after it.  These stories of indigenous runners that Álvarez intertwines illustrate how running together is an act of collective struggle and liberation. In the words of Andrec, a PDJ member, “That’s the ceremony of running.”  

Spirit Run: A 6,000-Mile Marathon Through North America’s Stolen Land will be on sale starting March 3, 2020. 

Review of Inside Ball Lightning by Rainie Oet

The title of Rainie Oet’s forthcoming “memoir in verse,” Inside Ball Lightning, is a good indicator of what to expect from the poems within — they enter suddenly, through an open space, and electrify us. 

These poems feel totally fresh: their presence on the page alive, crackling. They draw us in with the familiar, and then we are blinded, suddenly, in the glow of flashbulb memories rich with sensory detail and striking emotionality.

“If you see ball lighting, run/ because it can go through a/ window, any window,/ and erase you,” reads the introduction to Home Video Tape. The quote is attributed to “Mama,” and drives home a main theme of the book: the erasure of self, of others — of erasure and apparition both, through the strange twisting of memory. 

Erasure of Mark, a poem haunted by plains of white space, reads: “I’m hitting/ Mark’s surface/ Mark opens/ I fall in/ closes/ trapping me./ He kisses/ water:/ waves./ Mark/ is small/ “No.”/ Mark/ is dark.” These visions swell into a common memory, a feeling of loss. 

Oet, the author of three other books of poetry, traces this loss through the mist-paths of their childhood. In spiraling patterns, we experience their relationships with siblings, the roots of their family, and the gradual gathering of a separate self. 

Trauma passed through generations is cut through with concrete nostalgia — Neopets, Digimon, and the Powerpuff Girls all make appearances here. The imagery, both odd and recognizable, pulls us in. “A phone rings. Zafara/ leaps out of the computer/ and asks to be fed:/ “It’s been over two years./ I’m dying, I’m dying.”’

Within these pages is captured a kind of permeability in space and time that is both disorienting and fascinating. There is a sort of dream logic present — memories blend with reality. The voice shifts from Oet to their relatives – in one example, to the perspective of the father as a child. We are floating, in a sense, through the malleable past. 

In the poem I’m Lost Inside a Folding Cube, Whose Sides Withdraw and Reinstate, Float Dust in Light, (a wonderfully descriptive title) Oet writes, “I make myself go back in time to 1970 and tell little/ Papa, then little Mama:/ “You’re okay, you’re okay, it’s okay, you’re okay./ Don’t disappear like you’ve been disappeared on./ Please.”/ And they don’t, and everything is different.” 

How beautiful, how strange, is this doubling back of time — this ability to revisit scenes of one’s own past, or to confront others who have shaped it? 

Even past the last full poem, the book continues to surprise. There is a “notes” section, which provides space for additional observations, snippets, and anecdotes which enrich the experience of reading the poems, as well as an appendix, titled Ghost Cams. 

The narrator recounts their “obsession” with the ghost cams of the “early internet” — watching and refreshing “online video feeds constantly connected to the world’s most haunted places — library, mansions, hospitals, parking lots.” We’re also treated to descriptions of some of the cameras and their contents, including one which tricks the viewer into thinking they’ve finally caught sight of a spirit.

 There is a subtle grief in this — a feeling of disconnect. The narrator glimpses the beginnings of things, but doesn’t quite catch their endings. They are watching from a distance, both connected to the subjects of their viewing and removed from them. “I wonder if they know the ghost might be around them right at this moment, floating some erratic path through their bodies, connecting them like dots to a curving line. No, they can’t possibly know.” 

Oet also provides space for their family members to respond to the work. Mark, their sibling, says, “Inside Ball Lightning is the exploration of the questions we ask ourselves as we grow up and re-remember: What happened? Who am I?” 

In Inside Ball Lightning, Rainie Oet collects the fragments of many lives and weaves them through with thread. They press together dreams, memories, bonds — and from them pulls a unified energy. 

Inside Ball Lightning will be available from Southeast Missouri State University Press in March of 2020.

Review of Burn It Down: Women Writing About Anger by Lilly Dancyger

“Throughout history, angry women have been called harpies, bitches, witches, and whores,” Lilly Dancyger writes in the introduction of her new anthology, Burn It Down: Women Writing About Anger. Written by a diverse group of angry women, the twenty-two essays in Burn It Down confront the long history of women accused of being dramatic, hysterical, crazy, or hormonal for expressing anger and forced to swallow their rage in order to be viewed as composed and respectable ladies. Women are angry about so many things. They are angry about widespread violence and sexual assault, being stripped of rights and agency, being talked over, told to be quiet, or not taken seriously, and so much more. “Every woman I know is angry,” Dancyger writes. Burn it Down splits open women’s anger to reveal the ugly, uncomfortable inside and gives women a space to rage.

Many of the essays in this collection address the gendered nature of anger, who is allowed to express it, and how women bear the burden of keeping the peace. The writers talk about not having a space to release anger, and several speak of denying they ever felt angry so they wouldn’t have to confront it. Dani Boss’ essay, “On the Backburner,” describes how as a child she learned that the place for women’s anger was in the presence of other women. She watched her mother trade stories of frustration and rage with other moms and noted how often she heard, “phrases like, ‘I wish I could have said… ’” (157) On the other hand, Boss writes that her father openly raged, and she learned that as a girl it was her job, “to keep the peace through [her] work and [her] silence.” (158) Reema Zaman’s essay, “My Name and My Voice,” also speaks to the expectation for women to bare the weight of a man’s anger; “I’ve been taught that men of any kind, be they our abuser, father, or partner, are our mystery to solve, our duty to abide, our pain to nurse, our responsibility to care for, our child-master to defer to.” (140) Women are taught to be nurturers, first and foremost, even if it means they must sacrifice freedom, safety, or happiness.

Several essays discuss anger in relation to one’s identity. Shaheen Pasha describes her experience being a Muslim woman in America and her anger arisen from trying to navigate these two identities with pressure from both sides to choose between them. Samantha Riedel explores her relationship with anger before and after gender transition, writing how she exerted anger and aggression as a child in order to “perform masculinity in the only ways she knew how.” (72) Monet Patrice Thomas discusses the intersection of race and gender, the angry Black woman stereotype, and how suppressing her anger is an act of self-protection. When a man sexually assaulted her, she thought, “What expression could I conjure that would not encourage him further but would remove me from harm’s way?” When a police officer pulled her over and put her in the back of his police car, she “fixed [her] face, this time into a picture of innocence.” (32) In both instances she felt fury.

The collection also talks about how women’s anger can become entangled with other emotions, as a result of how women are socialized to behave. Marisa Korbel’s essay, “Why We Cry When We Are Angry,” talks about when anger produces physical tears, a frustratingly feminine response that becomes easy for others to dismiss; “When angry, men are much more likely to act out physically in aggressive ways. Women are more likely to cry.” (67) Erin Khar explores how women’s anger is placed back on the woman, taking on the form of guilt. “Anger in a women is akin to madness,” Khar writes. Khar lists things she has been called when she is angry, including “irrational,” “unstable,” and “in need of help,” (97) to reveal how these labels cause women to internalize and twist anger into feeling guilty for their behaviors and emotions.

The essays in this collection are bold, harrowing, honest, and cathartic. They depict a wide range of women’s anger, scorching hot and taking a stand. Other essays include Lisa Marie Basile’s piece on how often women’s physical pain is ignored, belittled, and left untreated. Meredith Talusan writes of doubting her own intelligence when a male classmate contradicts her in an area she has more expertise. Marisa Siegel writes of worrying her father’s oppressive anger would be genetically passed on to her son. Rowan Hisayo Buchanan examines how hunger leads to anger, and Dani Boss explores anger and menopause. Melissa Febos and Nina St. Pierre describe being angry, hormonal, teenage girls with a reason for their anger.

Perhaps the most satisfying moments in the collection are the multiple echoes that women’s anger so very often justified. “My anger signals the presence of an injustice,” Reema Zaman writes, “Rather than being shameful, my rage is noble.” (141) Erin Khar says, “I have a right to be angry.” (101) In a society that gaslights, silences, and dismisses women, this needs to be said. Each of the women in these personal stories has reason to be angry, and they are all justified.

Review of Mistress by Chet’la Sebree

Chet’la Sebree’s Mistress is a stunning debut that features a series of persona poems written in the voice of Sally Hemings. Sebree brings critical fabulation into the poetic discourse by constructing these poems using both historical record and imagined interiority. Throughout the collection, Hemings reckons with her past and sits in conversation with contemporary black women. Selected by Cathy Park Hong for the 2018 New Issues Poetry Prize, Mistress is a cross-generational conversation that uses the body to trace a linage of enslavement and degradation. Transposing history onto the contemporary, Sebree’s must-read collection scales time and geography, building an ancestral conversation between black women who are eternally in search of freedom and agency.

The front cover and title page, designed by Rebecca Schaefer, immediately orient the reader to the time warp that’s to follow. Reminiscent of 19th century frontispieces and portraiture all the while highlighting contemporary undertones—the front cover is an intimate close-up focusing in on an ear, pointed outward with intention. It serves as a calling to the reader to both listen to and reckon with the past about to be presented in the pages to come.

“Mistress” itself is a loaded term carrying many weighted definitions and perceptions throughout history. Sebree circles around the many fraught definitions in order to further complicate our understanding of the word. In poems like “Mistress of the House” and “Mistress of Hypermobility,” Sebree presents “mistress” as matriarch, as home builder, as dominatrix, as world traveler, and as educator. Sebree relentlessly threads this term throughout the book, ensuring that the reader doesn’t simply dismiss the label as immoral or, even worse, ignore the person behind the term. What do women gain with the label and their positionality? What do they lose? By returning over and over to these themes, Sebree complicates perceptions of black women’s desire, sexuality, and agency.

The book itself is split into three sections, each one furthering the notions previously presented. This allows Sebree to create a text that’s layered, weaving themes across generations. A great example being Sebree’s piece “Extraordinary Privilege, August 1792.” The words originally presented in the piece by Madison Hemings make their way back into the text a few pages later in the final lines of a piece entitled “Contemplating ‘Mistress,’ Sally in 2017.” This masterful weaving of theme and time is accentuated by Sebree’s range and precision. From an erasure piece that uses text from Stephen O’Connor’s novel Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemmings to a piece that repurposes words from Thomas Jefferson’s 1785 Notes on the State of Virginia, Sebree propells the reader to sit with history in new ways. Stand out poems from the collection include “Je Suis Sally, August 2017” and “Ab Hinc (or, Sono Chet’la).

As a quasi-appendix, Sebree reveals a four-page timeline of the Hemings and Jefferson family-lines featuring fifteen people and spanning centuries, from 1735-2018. This paired with the notes section are a testament to the extensive research that went into the creation of this book. What’s even more impressive than just how meticulous Sebree’s research can be, is how well she manages the release of her knowledge onto the reader, making history feel both accessible and personable. Every poem leaves the door slightly ajar so that the reader can go learn more, while also hitting an emotional truth that rings timeless. This interiority is a fresh way of honoring history, and Sebree’s execution is a sign that she’s a master of both language and craft.

There’s no doubt that Mistress sits within a long linage of talented texts that work to insert interiority into a historical arena where black bodies are traditionally viewed as pawns instead of humans with dignity. From William Wells Browns’ fictional representation of one of Thomas Jefferson’s enslaved daughters in Clotel to Toni Morrison’s more contemporary fictional retelling of family history in Beloved, Sebree’s Mistress shows the reader how to reckon with a past and move forward into a future.

An impressive debut, Mistress is a bold reclamation of history, one that blurs genre and time and challenges the antiquated perceptions of the black female body and desire. Released October 2019, copies are now available here.

Review of Tunsiya/Amrikiya by Leila Chatti
Blue door on a white wall

It is an impossible task—to be safe in America when your neighbors are watching. It’s impossible to explain how your body is too large to protect, how history is also a place in the body. When I moved to the South, I became a danger. I made a disturbing sight flickering through the grocery aisles. I perpetuated uncertainty, and the townspeople, I affected them. At dinner with my partner’s family, only I hear the man asking that I pay attention to his body. And because I am listening, I am unreasonable, living with parallel facts: that I am American, that my citizenship is secondary to my neighbors’ perception.

Leila Chatti attends to this duality in her first collection, Tunsiya/Amrikiya, a title that identifies the feminine within a nationality, and then the feminine within a second nationality. Leila Chatti is a dual citizen of Tunisia and the United States, and her poems explore her identity through a powerful, directing lyric “I.” Hers is a speaker who demands dialogue, which in its most basic form is the structure for acknowledgement.

It’s easy to imagine the speaker must feel defeated, pushed to the periphery. After all, “Jane and William had / so many apples, but never a friend named Khadija.” Who, then, will extend the generosity of apples to Khadija or to the speaker? But Chatti’s poetry constructs a center. Her poems are architectural in their narratives, with speakers who can be generous, who can receive bounty, even if the reader has not imagined these speakers lucky in their histories or their geography. If Chatti narrates a history she cannot control, she still hands her characters the knife. They are feeding themselves in poems like “Momon Eats an Apple in Summer”:

She keeps each sliver
to herself. Her fingers draw

the blade through the flesh
up to the bed of her thumb

and stop
and there is no blood—she knows

Chatti creates the abrupt line break, the isolating “and stop,” but Momon continues. The speaker narrates Momon past obstacles of prosody, and the sentence continues, which is to say, Momon will keep living. The speaker, in her record, sustains those she loves.

Those she cannot sustain with speech, she seeks to identify, to make their bodies sufficient. And perhaps this is the nature of a speaker in motion. If she cannot settle between two countries, the body, too, must be a place. For such a speaker, Chatti constructs the poem like a proof. In “Upon Realizing There Are Ghosts in the Water,” Chatti’s speaker confronts the defacing violence of political borders and risks her own body to give shape to an invisible death.

I should have known but the water
never told me. It sealed its blue lips
after swallowing you, it licked my ankles
like a dog. I won’t lie
and say the ocean begged for forgiveness;
it gleams unchanged in the sun.
Some things are so big they take and take
and remain exactly the same size.

The speaker is in conversation with the dead, an act that extends her humanity to her listener. “I waded in / to your grave as if trying it on,” and “when the waves came, / they gave me back.” There is the risk that the speaker could well be another body we “should have known,” after it’s lost in the Mediterranean between so many borders. Instead, she becomes a vessel for recognizing the grief that hasn’t been expressed and the lost figure who hasn’t been identified. If the ghost can be seen, it can be seen as part of her body, which “wore its salt like gemstones.” The poem extends the body, provides a whole ocean asked to house it, and a speaker also vast enough to wear the ocean, to carry the body of another, another’s endless possibilities.

It’s this certainty that surprises in Chatti’s poetry. Essential to her identity-proof is that someone will listen. Her speakers structure their bodies and their loved ones in cumulative optimism. Chatti’s poems are not naive. By extending the body (the refugee coffined by the Mediterranean Sea, the mother with “four hearts / outside her body”), Chatti describes vulnerability but also pinpoints violence; she creates opposing scales where the brown body is central, not the harm done to it.

When reading “Motherland,” its opening question, “What kind of world will we leave / for our mothers?” I return again and again to how Chatti’s “Okay When Are We Going” separates a mother and daughter remembering the aftermath of 9/11 while contemplating the consequences of a Trump presidency:

!200! !100!that summer after the towers sank
like a heart, she pinned the tiny striated flag to my breast
before my flight back there, the other land, as though it might protect me
from this one. My mother, looking the same
as she does now, white-lipped and terrified, in a Midwestern restaurant

Here is a mother struggling to disguise her child as herself. She disguises her child from her country by dressing her in the symbolism of her country. She is frightened, and her child is frightened: “I was a child. I cried. The flag shuddered on my chest.” Yet at the heart of this is a mother who will have her country recognize itself in her child. She’s willing to enact a string of signifiers so that every moment her child shakes, her country will have “shuddered.”

If we go back to the question, “What kind of world will we leave / for our mothers?” with the knowledge that the child is more vulnerable than the parent, that “the country she gave / me could kill me,” or that the mother risks her “four hearts / outside her body, buried / in brown and fragile skin,” then we are praying for the wellbeing of our country. We hope for the sake of our country that the vulnerable will survive—because in Chatti’s beautiful America, the loss of any brown child is unbearable.

Review of Immortal Village by Kathryn Rhett
House in a tree near a river

Any reader of poetry is familiar with the way theme constellates across a book, building a product that is much more than the sum of its parts. And yet each time I read Kathryn Rhett’s Immortal Village, I remain amazed: this collection manages something I haven’t witnessed before. Although initially Rhett’s use of theme seems familiar, she gradually intensifies the repetition of phrases and ideas until they become the driving force of the lyric’s “narrative.” Repetition acts as a wormhole in space-time, allowing the reader to exist in several moments, and poems, at once.

If that sounds complex, Rhett’s technical control of language makes it simple. Recurring phrases such as “white nightgown,” “with a war on,” and “lay down some” send the reader forward and back across the collection, like a wind stirring chimes at every house on the street.  Consider the use of repetition in “Slip”: “But it’s always 1776. / It’s always 1972. / We’re always wearing white nightgowns. / He’s always saying, let me / tell you a story / In a confiding tone / And the story will always destroy us.”

Amidst the revolving themes of art, family, and selfhood, the collection relies on the narrator’s voice as a constant. This allows the poems to take risks they would not otherwise be able to. The poems can move seamlessly from moments in the narrator’s childhood to moments spent with the narrator’s own children. The book inhabits many spaces, including but not limited to a honeymoon apartment in Mexico, a cornfield outside a juvenile boys’ home, the Uffizi Gallery, and the glass airspace above San Francisco. Literary allusions add another element of depth, spanning from Elizabeth Bishop to Gerard Manley Hopkins to Gothe. Rhett understands how to arrange image against image, text against text, in a way that brings out the best qualities of each.

Rhett comes to poetry from prose, having previously published two books of nonfiction; as such, the ease with which she builds character in these poems comes as no surprise. What truly astounds, however, is the superb musicality with which she manages the task. These poems are driven by sound, and Rhett is masterful at pacing. Her narrator is recognizable by voice and breath alone, as in “In Bed”: “If only you would with your hand / cover my mouth, lay down some violence / like what we watch with satisfaction on TV— / lay down some violence against me / while we wait for / death what what they say we’ll get.”

Rhett is able to alter tone without rushing the reader, even—and especially—at moments when the poems intensify. Each line is given appropriate time to reverberate. The poems are resolute, uninterested in softening the world. But despite that darkness, there is delight in each turn of language, each time a sentence manages more than it rightly should. For example, from “Book of Hours”: “The child growing larger by the hour, as if birth were endless. / She traps her small flying hand with her mouth.” In this manner, Rhett’s poems alchemize joy where the reader least expects it. The collection is as energizing as it is precise, and the ideas continue to echo in the reader’s mind long after the book is closed.

Although this is Rhett’s first full-length collection of poetry, its finely-tuned craft speaks to her years of experience. She is able to transform the ordinary over and over, making a mythology which becomes larger than even the immortal village or the richly painted angels. At a time when literary forms continue to be more hybrid, this collection is a model of how a book within a single genre can innovate through cross-genre technique. Rhett’s whirled collage, her balance of characterization and lyricism, and her musicality make this book a true wonder. The magic of Immortal Village is subtle, but I have the feeling this book is a preview of literary conventions to come—and what a future that promises to be.