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.

Review of Sky Country by Christine Kitano

“Sky country,” as explained by the title poem of Christine Kitano’s second poetry collection, is the Korean word for heaven. It is a word used to describe the United States, and a word that underlies this book’s framing conceit of the immigrant experience. Kitano, the daughter of a Japanese American father and a Korean immigrant mother, delves intimately into her family’s history to explore and challenge this notion of paradise across the five sections of this collection.

Opening with a series of linked prose poems, the first section of Sky Country paints in lucid detail the poet’s relationship with her Korean grandmother, as mediated through language and narrative. When her grandmother tells stories of her past, Kitano writes, “My Korean is weak. I understand only pieces of what she says.” The American world which the poet inhabits also resists neat translation across a generational and cultural divide, and Kitano expresses this frustration: “I want to tell her it’s not that kind of war, but I don’t have the words.” However, in the same breath, these poems forge a connection between the two women through images, if not through language. Kitano describes her grandmother reenacting biblical stories, “rais[ing] her arms, as if in victory, to summon the Pillar of Fire and split the Red Sea”—an image that echoes the “boat, a river, and a fire” that recur in the older woman’s storytelling.

Section II of the collection is situated firmly in place: Utah’s Topaz Concentration Camp, circa the 1940s. Here, Kitano uses persona poems to imaginatively explore the internment experience of the Japanese during World War II. The collection’s third section continues to adopt the unique voices of different narrators—ranging from a prostitute, to an insomniac, to a dental assistant—and in the fourth section, the poems delve into the poet’s relationship with her parents. A series of prose poems, grouped under the title “A Story with No Moral,” links Los Angeles in 1990 with South Korea in 1958—connecting Kitano’s own childhood discomfort about her physical appearance with a story of one of her mother’s mixed-race classmates.

The fifth and final section in Sky Country circles back to the poet’s grandmother, whose experiences living in both Korea and the United States ground the collection’s narrative (and thematic) preoccupation with immigration and belonging. In the concluding poem, Kitano muses gently as a way of exit, “It is here, the bus that will ferry / you home. Go ahead, / grandmother, go on.” The collection ends planted firmly in concrete visual details, echoing and responding to the poems in section I that first introduced images as a potent form of communication within the larger, often failed, framework of language.

An essential component of the immigrant experience is the slow erosion of one’s cultural and linguistic identity, and Sky Country subtly interrogates this sense of erasure. Writing about her grandmother in section I, the speaker observes that she “knows how history can wipe away a person’s language,” and this observation is juxtaposed both directly and indirectly with the speaker’s own loss of the Korean language. In “Fireflies,” a mother teaches her daughter the Japanese word for “firefly” but wakes up the next morning to “find the characters gone, / the name on the earth already erased by the wind.” Kitano’s examination of absence and loss converges with the sense that this collection in no way tells a complete story. In writing about her father, the poet admits, “This is not the whole story, / and yet, it is true. / It is a story without an ending. / And when I open my mouth / to speak, it continues.” Both the father’s narrative and a more general immigrant’s narrative take shape through Kitano’s poems, yet also spill beyond them, too much for one narrator, one author, or one book.

On a more intimate level, Sky Country is driven by a current of longing felt tangibly in every section. Kitano conveys desire in flashes of imagery, like “a light that fails and fails to reach us” in “I Will Explain Hope,” or the men in “Lucky Come Hawai’i” who “crave your breath, your cool hands / smooth as abalone shell, your fine feet . . .” Kitano also speaks of a powerful ache, writing about dreaming of her dead father and desiring to please her mother. She encapsulates what is perhaps the heart of the collection in “Autobiography of the Poet at Sixteen,” when she states, simply and beautifully: “we are built for life, / for love, which means / we are built for pain.” Life, love, and pain converse with and long for each other across the poems of this collection. Under the unifying notion of “sky country,” Kitano invites readers to ache in the same way she aches as a woman and a daughter, in the same way Koreans ached dreaming of America as heaven, in the same way immigrants have ached trying to belong in this country. Sky Country offers pain and delight, heartbreak and love, through poems which—while rendered in exquisite language and imagery—still gesture to what is incomplete, what is unwritten, and what is lost.

Review of Difficult Women by Roxane Gay

Roxane Gay’s new book, Difficult Women, is a deeply moving collection of short stories that are by turns tender, heartbreaking, and chilling. Gay’s characters, “difficult” thought they may be, are rendered with a profound sensitivity that affirms their humanity, alongside their wounds and flaws. Gay herself claimed an affinity for so-called “unlikeable characters” in a 2014 piece for Buzzfeed, describing them as “those who behave in socially unacceptable ways and say whatever is on their mind and do what they want…and put themselves first without apologizing for it.”[1]

Difficult Women is replete with such complicated characters: women and men who make selfish and self-destructive decisions, often in response to past trauma. These stories explore the ongoing effects of that trauma in language both lyrical and intimate. In “North Country,” an African-American woman who recently lost a baby during childbirth takes a job as a professor in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where she finds love with a patient and plainspoken Yooper. The story details the many microaggressions she experiences in her mostly-white small town and conveys the way these actions weigh on her as she works through her grief. In “Break All The Way Down,” a woman whose child is killed by a motorist punishes herself by leaving her husband for an abusive lover. When the lover’s ex-girlfriend abandons her own baby in the woman’s arms, the woman is finally able to return to the house she shared with her husband to begin to come to terms with their loss.

Scenes of domestic abuse and sexual violence abound in these stories, but these moments are never sensationalized. In the case of “Break All The Way Down,” Gay depicts the desire for violence as yet another intrusion of past trauma on a character’s present life. When the protagonist finally returns to her husband, she begs him to “hold [her] to the ground;” though he readily accepts this request to temporarily take charge of her life, he patiently refuses to give the physical punishment she demands of him. Many of Gay’s characters who “survive” trauma never quite finish “surviving” it, and her plots often hinge on the ways characters navigate a hostile and dangerous world while nursing wounds that never fully heal.

While several of Gay’s protagonists invite punishment in heartbreaking ways, occasionally characters’ masochism brings them closer together. In the brash and energetic “Baby Arm,” Gay explores the strange and touching intimacy between two young women who co-host an all-female fight club, an environment where a cathartic sort of misogynistic self-abasement sits uneasily beside affirmations of female companionship.  In the middle of a melee, the narrator catches her friend’s eye across the room and sees her “[mouth] ‘I love you,’ and I smile even though it hurts and another set of knuckles connects with my face, running the moment—bitches ruin everything.”

Throughout this collection, Gay takes risks not only with content, but also with style and form. The title story is written as series of vignettes that present a satirical taxonomy of diverse types of “difficult women,” including “Loose Women,” “Frigid Women,” “Crazy Women,” “Mothers,” and “Dead Girls.” Though somewhat fragmentary, the story is nevertheless clever and engaging. “La Negra Blanca” productively inhabits an uncomfortable space between realism, satire, and the grotesque. In this story, a mixed-race woman who is putting herself through college by working as an exotic dancer is stalked by a wealthy white racist obsessed by hip-hop culture and the bodies of black women. This villain is no less terrifying for being cartoonish, and the story is by turns tender and deeply disturbing.

Several stories in the collection are explicitly surreal or speculative. “Water, All Its Weight” and “Requiem for a Glass Heart” allegorize depression and vulnerability via magical realist conceits. In the first, water seeps from the walls and ceilings around a recent divorcee, warping and staining any room she occupies; in the second, a “stone thrower” married to a glass woman handles her with care, but is reckless and carefree with his flesh-and-blood mistress. Though thought-provoking and beautifully-written, these speculative stories are ultimately  weaker than others in the collection. The strength of the stories in Difficult Women derives from Gay’s remarkable ability to tease out and explore the humanity of her unusual and complicated characters, and this deep empathy is inhibited in tales in which emotions are transformed and externalized through allegory.

Published in January, this collection takes on new resonance in the aftermath of an election in which a man who once bragged about sexual assault won the presidency over a female candidate he notoriously derided as a “nasty woman”—a bit of nomenclature that seems right at home in Gay’s titular taxonomy. The dystopian premise of Gay’s “Noble Things” is especially striking in this light. In a version of America divided against itself, in which southern states have seceded after a divisive election and a border fence has been built along the former Mason-Dixon line, Parker, the son of a Southern general, longs for unity. When his young son inspects a map of the Balkanized former United States and asks “Why aren’t these states together?”, Parker responds, “They used to be,” then continues: “they ought to be.” He explains that “once, there was an election and smallminded people couldn’t handle the man who won.”

The premise evokes the racist divisions of the Obama years, in which the election and re-election of our first black president led to petitions for secession across the nation, as well a “birther” challenge to the president’s citizenship championed by the very man who would eventually succeed him. But the longing for unity expressed in “Noble Things” takes on new implications in a post-45 America that has also heard half-serious calls for “Calexit” alongside jokes from anxious progressives about moving to Canada. Abandoning the American project may have consequences (both for those who leave, as in Gay’s story, and for those who are left behind), but the imperative to stick it out takes its own toll.  In “Noble Things,” the North remains prosperous after Southern secession, while Parker’s South suffers under the austerity brought about by its “smallminded” decision. In the closing paragraphs, Parker and his wife nostalgically recall the days when there was only “one nation, indivisible until it wasn’t” and marvel at “how quickly it all came apart.” Maintaining unity means striving to heal divisions, but may also mean persisting—as the characters of Difficult Women do—in a world that feels on the verge of breaking apart.

 

[1] Gay, Roxane. “Not Here to Make Friends: On the Importance of Unlikeable Female Protagonists.” Buzzfeed, 3 January 2014, https://www.buzzfeed.com/roxanegay/not-here-to-make-friends-unlikable?utm_term=.vhW0reyjd#.svKAD7VJm. Accessed 24 September 2017.

Review of Pain Woman Takes Your Keys, and Other Essays from a Nervous System by Sonya Huber

A skinny volume with a bright red cover, Sonya Huber’s new essay collection is vibrant and loud from its first pages. The collection details the speaker’s diagnosis of and life with rheumatoid arthritis and chronic pain, and addresses both the physical realities and the metaphysical concept of pain. In the opening essay, “What Pain Wants,” the speaker says, “pain resents being personified or anthropomorphized.” Of course, this statement is itself a clever and strange contradiction, hinting that the speaker is comfortable living in complex, imagined spaces. The relationship between this speaker and her pain is complicated. In the same essay the speaker converses with pain: “Pain prefers any texture in which tiny seeds are embedded. Pain shakes its head—no, it says, that is you that likes that texture—and will have nothing to do with spheres.” The imagery here is dense and evocative (those spheres, yes, but also glowing skeletons, egg yolks, cough drop wrappers, lumpy casseroles, nautilus shells), drawing attention to sensation and the response of pain at each turn.

In the essay, “From Inside the Egg,” there are moments in which the effects pain has on the process of writing are visceral, visible. “There’s a theory about the ‘gates’ of pain in the brain that shuttle signals, / but I can’t look it up right now. / I can only do certain kinds of thinking in pain. I can think through a keyhole.” Here, the simple act of not returning to ‘look it up,’ to add in the missing research is political, is the point. The speaker challenges the supposed laziness of sick and disabled people, and allows the absence of information to speak louder than any citation. In a collection incorporating so much research, this moment where the source is purposefully omitted stands out. “From Inside the Egg” is also one of the collection’s more lyrical essays. There are line breaks and sections that are right-aligned. The use of the field of the page almost ‘crips’ it, forcing the reader to contend with the language Huber has broken.

One of the longer and more explanatory essays, “The Alphabet of Pain,” covers an exceptional amount of terrain. The essay uses the foundation of the speaker’s body to engage diverse subjects, including queerness (“Pain sex is queer sex”), labor (“As a woman worker, I have had to speak up to resist the expectation that I will be endlessly available”), and the flaws of the United States medical system (“…only four medical schools in the country have a required course on pain management”). Pain is made both specific and universal, and is called out as political, as when Huber writes, “if pain were not political, we wouldn’t have torture and jails, both of which manipulate and use the body’s instinctive aversion to pain to instill fear and compliance.” This essay comes early in the collection, and lays an explicit foundation for the vocabulary (or alphabet) of pain that later, more lyrical essays (including “From Inside the Egg”) build on.

The collection as a whole may center around pain, but an almost equally present thread is that of the digital space. In “The Status of Pain,” Huber writes of a friend who mentioned the prominence of pain on Huber’s Facebook page. Researching her own life and digital history, Huber finds that this prominence simply doesn’t exist; she’s only posted explicitly about pain three times in the year before the conversation. On the decision to be ‘out’ with her illness and pain, Huber then writes, “will people automatically associate our whole beings with those moments when we are at our weakest?” The title essay, “Pain Woman Takes Your Keys,” speaks to the narrowing effect of pain on Huber’s writing process, almost confessing that “some days in the last year, all I could make was a blog post.” But then, a shift: the blog post is reframed as powerful and significant, a piece that goes viral. The essay ends with the speaker speaking in the new voice of ‘Pain Woman,’ saying “You have more options than the writerly self you think you should be writing through.”

In “Peering into the Dark of the Self, with Selfie,” Huber examines her own “pain selfies…pale olive ovals,” and the motivations behind this documentation. Much has been written about selfies. (Are they narcissistic? Do only millennials take them? And really, are they causing the downfall of modern society?) Huber engages with this conversation, through the lens of disability. “I am seeking the best light and the best side of the woman who does not have to pretend she is not in pain,” she writes. For her, these selfies and their presence on her phone are meaningful, as is the phone itself, which we’re told in “The Alphabet of Pain” serves as a conduit between the speaker and a close friend with the same illness.

“Cupcakes,” a beautiful essay about motherhood and the cupcakes the speaker doesn’t bake for her son, includes Huber again mentioning digital spaces, this time writing “I have been trying to support my new reality by following more disability activists on Twitter.” In Pain Woman, the digital space is where the speaker connects with other disabled people in ways she can’t in her ‘real’ life. It’s a space for research, it’s a space for creativity, and it’s a space for disclosure, which leads to critique from the nondisabled people around her. Just as Huber makes pain explicitly political, so does she unpack the everyday conversations with nondisabled colleagues and friends. When a friend says Huber ‘looks good,’ or a colleague mentions disapprovingly that she’s been ‘very open’ about her disability on social media, these moments are not neutral. They are moments of small but noted violence. They are microaggressions.

In Huber’s collection, pain is ceaseless. It is present in every essay. Pain’s constancy is the point. Pain is relentless, but we’re also told (in the short essay “Prayer to Pain”) that it “is not other than you.” Pain and illness are reframed as strength, as the foundations of a prosperous and privileged community excluding the nondisabled. “We cannot be cured and are therefore invincible,” Huber writes in “Welcome to the Kingdom of the Sick.” This collection does important work to lead a nondisabled audience to the water of revelation, illuminating the barriers of systemic ableism and a health care system designed to lessen time and money spent on patients. Equally, this collection does not pander to ableism. It is not always for its nondisabled readers.

Pain Woman contains moments of fantastically dark humor (“I have tried and I enjoy yoga. But if you tell me to try yoga, then I will have to fight you,” in “The Alphabet of Pain”), moments of tightly-controlled rage (“Thank you for reminding me that the world of persona and star-creation is one that excludes bodies with illnesses,” from “Dear Noted Feminist Scholar”), and moments of straightforward declaration (“I refuse to be at war with myself,” in “From Inside the Egg”). In the age of Trump, an age when the Affordable Care Act (which the speaker mentions as the reason she can access healthcare) is threatened, this book is even more important, luminous, and necessary than it was when it was published a few months ago.

Review of Revulsion: Thomas Bernhard in San Salvador by Horacio Castellanos Moya

In an unbroken monologue sustained for over 80 pages, Edgardo Vega, the narrator of Horacio Castellanos Moya’s Revulsion skewers every aspect of Salvadoran culture he can summon—from pupusas and football to the archetypal Salvadoran character. Moya channels Austrian writer and luminous curmudgeon Thomas Bernhard (1931-1989), whose own style eschewed both paragraph breaks and generosity of judgment, and whose work is more often compared to the symphonies of his contemporaries than their novels. Bernhard’s Austria is a failed state, both culturally and politically, a country whose citizens cannot collectively produce a soul worth admiring. Moya’s El Salvador is no different.

Bernhard’s narrators often live abroad, are forced to return to Austria and confront their hatred of their motherland. Moya’s narrator, too, lives abroad, in Montreal. “I left,” he says, “because I never accepted the macabre joke of being destined to be born in this place.” The joke, for the reader, lies in the breathlessness of his assault on El Salvador. Indeed, it is impossible not to laugh, if only from sheer exhaustion. His indictments compound and spin out into manifestations of their own bombast. Vega tells his interlocutor that El Salvador “is a hallucination…it only exists because of it crimes.” Crimes here are shorthand for the atrocities associated with the twelve-year Salvadoran civil war. Because of these crimes, and because of the country, this slim book also exists.

Edgardo Vega lives the life of a grateful expatriate. An art history professor at McGill University, his Canadian passport immunizes him from the indignities visited on émigré Salvadorans. “Even so,” Vega says, “I came because my mother died, Moya, the death of my mother is the only reason I felt obliged to return to this filthy pit.”

Where the reader might expect an epigraph, Moya provides a disclaimer: “Warning: Edgardo Vega, the central character of this report, exists. He lives in Montreal under another name that’s not Thomas Bernhard. He surely relayed his opinions more emphatically and with more carnage than this text contains. I’ve softened perspectives that may have offended certain readers.” First published in 1997 as El asco, readers were indeed offended by its attack on Salvadoran culture and politics. Moya received death threats after the book’s release and friends urged him to remain abroad. In the afterword, he explains that his little book was conceived only as an exercise in style, a game of mimicry. He adds, “El Salvador isn’t Austria. It is a country where, in 1975, its own leftist comrades assassinated the country’s most important poet, Roque Dalton, after accusing him of being a CIA agent. I thought it would be better to go into exile than play the martyr.”

For those, Salvadoran or not, inclined to take offense, there is no dearth of material in Revulsion to do the job. Edgardo Vega’s irascibility is tireless—given a willing listener, he will bemoan “the idiocy of being Salvadoran” eternally. In the Afterword, Moya seems less concerned than amused over his countrymen’s offense. To contextualize Vega’s revulsion further, or attempt to mitigate its effects, would be like explaining a punchline, something from which Moya gracefully refrains.

The author is himself a character, present only as Vega’s silent companion. Both reporter and consummate listener, Moya sits with Vega between the hours of five and seven, in the only bar in San Salvador that Vega can tolerate—the bartender pours heavy drinks and allows Vega to choose the music. “This evening,” Vega tells Moya, “I want to listen to Tchaikovsky’s Concerto in B-flat Minor, which is why I brought my own CD with this stupendous concerto for piano and orchestra, which is why I came prepared with my favorite Tchaikovsky.” This moment depicts Vega at his least vociferous, subdued before plunging into another diatribe.

Vega is foremost paranoid. Suspicious and terrified of his countrymen, he sees everywhere “guys who were no doubt torturers and participated in massacres during the civil war.” Everyone is guilty but those who fled; namely, Vega. When Vega is generous, he’ll add Moya to his list of nonparticipants. Moya is too busy, he says, writing “famished little stories about sex and violence” to actually engage in it.

Vega’s diatribe belies his fear that he, too, despite his Canadian passport, despite his hatred of violence, is guilty of the same crimes. In order to cancel his own guilt, everyone else must be made culpable. Every bus driver, football player, and bartender is, to Vega, complicit in the most horrible war crimes. He doesn’t stop, though, with accusing citizens of El Salvador. It is their culture, too, their dietary habits, their prejudices, and their leisure activities that are responsible for the war’s atrocities. This unsparingness bleeds into hyperbole and comedy. Moya’s Vega is certainly funny, though because of the form of Revulsion, his humor is best appraised in its accumulation. It’s impossible not to laugh when everything is guilty.

The appearance of Vega’s brother, Ivo, signals the arrival of a plot to support further diatribe. Vega says of his brother, “[W]e don’t hate each other, we’re simply two planets on distinct orbits, the only thing that brought us together is the task of having inherited my mother’s house in Miramonte.” Ivo owns a chain of locksmith shops across San Salvador. An arriviste with aspirations beyond his social station, Ivo’s tastes are decidedly lowbrow. He loves football and binge drinking. He “has three televisions in his house,” says Vega, “you wouldn’t believe it, three televisions they turn on at the same time to different channels, a true hell this place is.” Here, there is a barely perceptible increase in generosity never present in Bernhard’s work, as if Vega, or Moya, is uncomfortable directing his rage at individuals.

Diatribes erect a formidable edifice in Moya’s book, but their indictments are allowed to stand unsupported. San Salvador is a stupid city. Why? Because its people are stupid. Why? Vega answers that question in a number of ways, and few of his answers are sufficient. San Salvador, he writes, is “a culture with the memory of a gadfly, crashing every two seconds against the same window glass because after two seconds it’s already forgotten that the glass existed.” Because the form of the monologue lends itself more easily to exposition than scene, Vega conveys his observations in lists, similes, and hyperbole. Anecdotes would better serve a story, but Revulsion is not a conventional story.

In the afterword, Moya notes that “the wife of a writer friend threw her copy [of Revulsion] into the street, out of her bathroom window, indignant, thanks to Edgardo Vegas’s barbaric talk about pupusas, the national dish of El Salvador.” (Vega claims that the popularity of pupusas can only be explained by “hunger and ignorance.”) Despite death threats and book burnings, Revulsion continues each year to expand its Spanish publication. Moya writes that strangers beg him to write a Revulsion for Mexico, for Guatemala, for Costa Rica, a book “that would critically demolish their country’s cultures,” that would plainly articulate their revulsions for them.

In 2016, New Directions published the book in English, as translated by Lee Klein. Nearly ten years after its initial publication, Revulsion is as timely as ever, and not only for El Salvador, Guatemala, or Costa Rica. As political backlash threatens to undo years of progressive advancement in the United States with a public resurgence of white supremacy and xenophobia, Vega’s type of paranoia is all too relevant.