A Face Out of Clay by Brent Ameneyro

What struck me first were the ways of exiting — via bird, via memory, via magic. Brent Ameneyro’s speakers are all knowing and all nostalgia. Producing not the sheen of romantic recall but the cleverness of reconstruction. In Ameneyro’s debut, A Face Out of Clay, there is no questioning, but lingering visitations. Portraits of loved ones, of lived in spaces, all held up in a magnificent, power-inducing light. In “As the Fog Starts Burning Away,” the speaker says, “I don’t want to think/about the people I love/dying.” So dead they shall not stay, rather, take Mayté, who, in a later poem, “turned/into a crested caracara,/blew the napkins off the table/when she opened her wings.”

Again, in the poem “The Overwhelming Smell of Rosemary” we are met with “A bird, mid-flight,” as it “gains human-level consciousness.” We watch as the bird watches, a man, mid-walk, reaching out towards a rosemary memory. As the poem’s title suggests, and as fact permits, smell is the strongest sense for transport; the bird hurled through time to the man’s childhood yard, and then again thrown to the future, and his rosemary scented fingertips.

This is the method by which this collection guides us. There’s a surreal suspension in his work which allows for the liminal border space that Ameneyro himself may occupy to be made tangible within these pages. The border between life and death, past and future, country and country, becomes easily traversable. Reality is just a mere suggestion for Ameneyro, and “cosmic anarchy” is just a parenthetical. Though yes, there are still truths and swelling moments of peace embedded. They can be found in every poem and tucked between the line breaks, there: “boys washing windshields,/their sisters selling bracelets at the red light,” there: “the newly appointed/middle school teacher/who was queen/of keg stands,” and there: “we were all sitting/in suspense/hanging onto his every/word.”

The images appear so properly rendered; they act as translator and as transporter. Having no personal connection to the city of Puebla, I can see now the “houses like parakeets/perched on a dirt road” or smell the scent of the

“fried pig skin
car tires         cigarette smoke”

during “A Walk in Mercado de La Merced.” This rich image system serves as an obvious boon for Ameneyro’s poems, which have no interest in teaching, in delineating what is or isn’t “yours.” Instead, these poems assert, or rather demand, that we “do not refuse what you are.” Where one comes from, where one may go.

Ameneyro’s Tectonic poems do a different sort of traversal, that of the eye, that of association. In his note section he describes the form as dealing “with rupture, bodies (both the human body and the earth’s body), and uncertainty.” The form calls for a prose block to be written, repeated, then redacted, ensuring that whatever is erased in the top half remains present in the bottom. These poems claw at completeness, showing both a whole and the sum of its parts. They trick the eye, it is almost inevitable that your sight will slip between lines, between meaning.

In as much, the meaning making is occurring over time. Of the poems, the four Tectonic iterations are among the selections I have returned to the most. Highlighting the bottom half, attempting to read the complete whole of what has been erased, only after seeking that elusive middle fissure, the center between the repeated prose block where the top erasure is then inverted; the redactions being revealed beneath themselves. The lack of capitalization and punctuation act as obscurant, blending start and end, making all associative links possible and plausible. A great equalizer of signs and language. Everything is flattened, almost unassuming, white space giving to focal points as a painting’s lighting leads the eye.

Take, for example, the second iteration of “Tectonics” — “the first american” appearing twice, center-right, with cavernous dips of white space to the left. This symbol contextualized by its surrounding, and occasionally opposing, symbols: “fast” “food” “chiles en nogada” “snow-capped volcanoes” “giant gray warehouse” — several realities plucked and isolated, as to be distilled to their valences and sent vibrating within the same space, just as tectonic plates form the uppermost mantle and form the constantly moving foundation upon which we live. In this way these new formal poems act as anchors for this collection, the tectonic plates of which Ameneyro’s poetic landscape glides over.

As such, whereas the above iteration tends to send me inward, into a more contemplative realm, the third iteration of “Tectonics” is sweeter, speaks of the earth, “about blood” “her skin” “her own hand” “her heart.” It sends me outside. Shows that all of this has already been happening, intermingling ideas and matter, connections endlessly connecting. These poems show that despite a sense of unity, schisms are inevitable. And so, if “Tectonics” serve as mantle, the hot heat center of the poetic interior, what to do with the surrounding work, the whole of the moving (poetic) earth?

Well, this collection has shown that living and the sweet gift of remembrance is impossible without movement. And as is stated in “Movement Manifesto,” here is a helpful “rule:use everything/if you have to/as long as you don’t stop.” Indeed, this stellar debut from Ameneyro does little to indicate his slowing down, rather, he has proven that he is not afraid to go outside the observable universe for his answers.

Time and Knowing in Jane Huffman’s Public Abstract: A Review by Hannah Nahar

The entry points of Jane Huffman’s beautifully precise Public Abstract are two epigraphs, from Jean Valentine, “but to say I know, is there any touch in it?” and sculptor and artist Louise Bourgeois: “Pain is the ransom of formalism.” These epigraphs introduce us to some of the central concerns of this collection: pain and illness, form, both knowing and its impossibility. We begin with that quintessential impossibility to fully understand and articulate what a book is “about,” as Huffman’s first section, titled “A BOUT,” embraces and turns into structure. A poem in this section begins “I had a bout / of something / Undefined,” and many of the poems in the collection are pleasingly resistant to aboutness. The collection as a whole becomes a bout, a reckoning, with the desire to fit experience into formal shapes and the pain of that impossibility.  

A bout can also refer to a period of time, and in their rhythms and meters, these poems attend to time self-consciously through their metrical patterns—we hear and feel time passing in and through them. “[I had a bout]” goes on to describe the “something / Undefined” as  “a clocking from within.” While explicitly describing vertigo, the diction here also gestures to keeping time, and with their iambs, trochees and rhymes, this poem and many others move at the pace of a ticking clock. Charles Simic famously wrote that “the secret ambition of all lyric poetry is to stop time,” but Huffman’s formal pieces seem to create time, propel us through it, and hum with a daunting reminder that time will never stop. In thinking through these pieces, I recalled the final lines of Omatara James’ poem “A Flair For Language,” where her speaker describes rhyme as “the coincidence of language and time.” Language, in time, for Huffman, is constructed by forced coincidences: coincidence shaped into forms.  

In “Surety,” the speaker repeats an onslaught of cumulative similes:   

“I’m sure as wetness
follows steam.
I’m sure as cold  
that follows  
follows steam… 


I’m in the midst  
of sureness,  
sure as bricks.  
I’m sure as cold  
that follows 
wetness follows 

As when an interlocuter repeats their argument so many times they become unconvincing, the accumulation of sureness metaphors in this poem creates an ironic weather of uncertainty. The poem admits as much at its close: 

“I’m in the heat  
of surety. The bleat  
and seethe of surety.  
The mist  
that follows certainty.” 

The speaker perhaps tries to be sure and fails to convince themself. Even so, the rhymes that punctuate this metrical piece create a musical confidence that complicates the anxiety. And throughout all the book, as the poems circle their questions and enact their recursive procedures, Huffman’s precise meters keep the language moving at an assuring clip, even as we encounter the abstract and the formally complex. Sound is in lockstep with the crystal logics on these pages, the tightness of their rhythms, from the titular and first poem, “Public Abstract” –“I swept / and am sweeping, / have slept / and am sleeping.”  

The four sections that follow A BOUT also seek understanding and attempt to cope with the impossibility of fully knowing in their own ways. In the section REVISIONS, the poems resee, rewrite, and interrupt received forms such as the sonnet, sestina, and ode, as a form of continued desire for understanding and articulation of the world. The poem “Revision” uses shifting repetitions and brackets to add layers of meaning to a meditation on body and mind, form and formlessness – “Like a crowd, a body moves without a mind” later becomes “[The] body, like the mind, moves in crowds,” which later becomes “The body moves with [crowded lines].”  

These revisions are numbered, giving a sense of their progressive making through time. All of Huffman’s poems honor the word poem’s etymology in their careful construction– they are made things. What the movements yield are original lines and beautiful ways of thinking about forms in the world: “[The wave, a solitary interaction of] the wind. [The kiln is thinking itself warm.]” later becomes “[The wave with the mind of a] kiln, thinking itself warm.”  

The section LATER FRAGMENTS frames sparse poems as additions and attempts to further clarify an argument, though the argument itself shifts and changes. Later is an intriguing time marker in the story of the speaker, another reference to time and its passing, even in a book that resists a classic narrative. In one of these fragments, the speaker invokes their “causal impulse” as indulgent but unputdownable: 

“If I am  
Indulgent tell 
Me how 

To put this 
Impulse down  

Back in its  
Loaded box” 

In a series of numbered prose blocks, the penultimate section, ON INVENTION, holds some of the rare personal specificities of the speaker, interspersed with meditations on Cicero’s De Inventione. The title and the analysis of Cicero’s history / fable / argument, negotiate with the invention of the self as another mode of knowing. In the final poem of the series, Huffman writes, “I invent a future version of myself who changes her mind…in the fable of my life, I was born childless. History congeals into fable, and fable argument. One side covets the past, the other the future.” Time returns here to haunt, backed by the fraught abstract and specific experiences of illness, familial addiction, anxiety, and intellectual questions these poems negotiate.  

The final section turns to haibun, the traditionally Japanese form originated by Matsuo Bashō, with prose blocks followed by summative or emphatic haikus. Huffman’s haibun in this section all have declarative titles (“On moving,” “On beauty,” “On theatre,” “On breath”) that evoke the sense of aboutness other poems seem to reject, though they stay mysterious, complex, and rich in their language. In “On knowing,” the speaker says, “What I didn’t know grew over what I knew,” in a declaration of unsurety, but also of the passing of time that creates the sense of self.  

Throughout the whole collection, influences and intertextualities abound. This is a book that is immediately pleasing to the ear, but also one who benefits from the close reader willing to attend to the author’s references and influences. The poems honor in form and reference luminaries such as Emily Dickinson, Kay Ryan, Jericho Brown, Rilke, John Donne, Dionne Brand, and many others unnamed. Huffman is a poet and a thinker who understands that poetry is a collaborative act.  

As Dana Levin writes in the introduction to this APR/Honickman First Book Prize winner, for Huffman, “singing reveals knowing, rather than knowing sparking song.” Singing reveals something else, too— 

a touch of the private feeling that is present behind all of Huffman’s public forms and rhetorical satisfactions. While specific confessions appear rarely (though importantly) in the open language in the book, rhymes drive the engines of emotional resonance, as the final haibun confesses with its moving haiku: an admission that is more emotional than rhetorical, though of course it is both:  “Rhyme is so public. / Weeping openly / in a crowded latitude.”  

Where the Haunting Happens: On Jessi Jezewska Stevens’ Ghost Pains

The particular landscape of Jessi Jezewska Stevens’ first collection, Ghost Pains, recalls echoes of the “New Aesthetic,” a term coined back in 2012 to describe the leakage of the digital realm into the physical world. Characters point their phones at the sky, “as if to image-search the constellations,” travel by way of reading reviews on Google Maps: “His laptop was an oyster open to the world. Escape was almost always possible.” They watch YouTube performances of classical musicians in lieu of going out to the theater, read the Wiki version of the story of John the Baptist: “It’s all too extreme in the Bible.” A couple embarks on a road trip, (“He’d autoreplied his .org inbox; she, her .edu.”), despite the fact that “millions of millennials were reluctant to leave the coasts, had never even Googled Yellowstone.” One character boasts that she can “go weeks without speaking to anyone but Ann and the cashiers at the BioMarkt. And occasionally my phone. What a stupid woman, Siri must think, who has to ask for directions all the time.” Throughout Ghost Pains, Stevens’ characters are caught not only between the physical and digital, but also one country and the next, the past and the future, between wanting to know and wanting to forget. This, as they say, is where the haunting happens—when a ghost is stuck between two worlds, unable to pass from one realm to the next. This same sense of dislocation haunts the aching, alluring stories of Ghost Pains, summoning phantoms of all kinds.  

Most of the collection’s stories follow Americans abroad—in locales such as Berlin, Krakow, Tuscany—and explore their inability to truly assimilate, despite even the greatest desires to shirk the place they came from. “Perhaps I owe this rootless mood to the country my passport says I’m from,” remarks the narrator of “Dispatches from Berlin”, “a nation forever staring into other people’s pantries, reaching in an arm.” The narrator of “The Party,” one particular standout of the collection, admires the beautiful ceiling of her Berlin apartment: “You could never afford a ceiling like that in America now, I thought. Not unless you were born beneath it.” She deems the empty glasses left abandoned after the titular party “little ghosts!” and remarks, “Last night the American walked around sniffing at them like a dog. He said, Who would leave all these dead soldiers behind? I couldn’t say. I am American as well, but lately I haven’t been feeling quite myself.” In “Weimar Whore,” the central character finds herself utterly enamored with Germany’s distant past and falls into an anachronistic lifestyle, stewing cabbages and darning her socks, decking herself out lace-up ankle boots and wool skirts even in eighty-seven degree weather: “The truth was she’d overdosed on the media of the inter-war period. She couldn’t keep both feet in the now.” Later, she confides to a psychiatrist: “I’m beginning to feel…like it’s everyone else who’s nuts.” In the title story, a character takes the lingering pain of a hack-job nipple piercing as a cosmic sign to leave her city, and accepts a job transfer to Poland, where she searches for “nostalgia of a type that didn’t really belong to her.” She reminisces on some of her grandfather’s last words, that “being American meant she didn’t have to dwell so much in the past.” But, she wants to know, “couldn’t they have also dwelt a little more?” 

By contrast, the characters in the few U.S.-based stories long to free themselves from the past, despite its inescapable omnipresence. After viewing the specter of the eponymous battlegrounds —recalling the memory of actual dead soldiers, after the colloquial, metaphorical versions we encounter in “The Party”—the characters of “Gettysburg” reflect that, “It really was a beautiful country, as long as you had no memory.” In “Duck Duck Orange Juice,” a college student goes to interview a musician on the upcoming election at his solitary residence out in the country, and muses that “there’s no more to news, the news is old and yet cannot be thrown away.” The rural settings of the U.S. stories offer a stark contrast to the glamor of the cosmopolitan foreign locales, and evoke some of the most palpable feelings of haunting in the collection.  

Throughout Ghost Pains, characters vacillate between yearning to extricate themselves from the past and to return to it, but “Honeymoon,” another crown jewel of the collection, offers one example of a narrator who relishes the in-between rather than trying to escape it. Evoking a similar sense of martial ambivalence as in Stevens’ excellent first novel, The Exhibition of Persephone Q, a newlywed narrator on her Tuscan honeymoon longs for her life before marriage: “What I truly missed was being engaged. Now there’s a vacation.” Stevens shines her brightest in the first-person, and “Honeymoon” is a true masterclass in narrative voice. Even in an ostensible paradise, the narrator reminisces on “those early months of courtship, when everything was still uncertain…It seems to me there is something lost to those hour-long train rides. The thrill of the ask. The space.” In Ghost Pains Stevens proves herself an expert cartographer of that space lying open wide in each story, undaunted by its ambiguous infinity. 

A compelling collection that’s sure to linger, by an exquisite stylist of psychological fiction. 

The Places Where Womanhood, Faith, and Danger Collide: A Review of Sarah Ghazal Ali’s Theophanies

In her already sold-out debut poetry collection, Sarah Ghazal Ali names and renames the places where womanhood, faith, and danger collide. Theophanies, from the word meaning “visible manifestation of God to humankind,” are embodied in these poems through stunning meditations on women from the scriptures. “A name / is a condition meant to last, / to outlast,” Ali explains in her poem “Sarai.” Her collection invokes women like Mary, Hajar, and the poet’s own namesakes alongside contemporary martyrs such as Nabra Hassanen, who was assaulted and murdered in Virginia in 2017. The effect is a book of poems that reads as timeless and unflinching, drawing in readers to witness a feminine lineage of Muslim faith that is, at once, lyric and brutal, gorgeous and convicting. 

The opening poem, “My Faith Gets Grime Under Its Fingernails,” sets us up for these complexities right away: 

                                               “rather than God’s pristine names 

           The places I’ve prayed—elevators, Victoria’s Secret 
           fitting room, the muck-slick meadow after rain— 

           will testify for or against me, 
           spilling through my Book of Deeds

                                               in ink of blood or honeyed milk” 

The contrasts here are striking as the lines dance effortlessly between the present and the past. This is accomplished particularly well due to the voice of the collection, which reverberates with a prophetic quality, lapsing from the singular “I” to a plural “we,” such as in the poem “Daughter Triptych” where “I dreamed of abortions. Some might have been mine: / oblong pink pills, a curved door handle, wire hanger, unripe papaya” suddenly shifts: “I looked out from the eyes of Maryam. A sharpened stake in our hand…Then I was elsewhere, watching Sarah, aged and exhausted. Her fingers pressed / light against that slightest bulge.” In the span of a few lines, the triptych takes on the personas of three women, each with their own distinct experience of pregnancy and embodiment, united over time and space through the simultaneity of the poem. Similarly, the poem “Magdalene” opens, “God made laughter for the third incredulous woman. / We cover our mouths, ashamed to echo what’s hers. // We bleed as punishment for the curious first.” The plural pronoun takes on many shapes, encompassing the three women, then all women. 

There is a distance to the voice of Theophanies that struck me immediately—how the speaker of the poems holds her own stories at an unflinching arm’s length while pulling scriptural figures like Maryam and Sarah close enough to touch. The balance brings the present into the lineage of faith and history in a way that feels both distant and intimate, vulnerable and profoundly wise. “Faith [is] a legacy / of echoes,” Ali expounds in the poem “Temporal.”

Perhaps this echoing is what makes the ghazal such a perfect prominent form in this collection, right next to the persona poem. The ghazal is another namesake of the poet, which she takes advantage of, playing with the doubling in “Ghazal Ghazal”: “My people must include my father, his voice lilting from baritone to bellow. / Did my god not make his mouth, aural imprint of every remembered ghazal?” Ali cements herself as a master of couplets, and this couplet form especially, building the repeated words of the form into a haunting refrain: 

           “Blasphemous how one begets many. Father, father, daughter. 
           & your mother? Miraculous origin- the one safe country. 

           When they ask, Ghazal, if you anger, recite again: men 
           Flee the wind for the anthem of a new country.” 

                                                           —“Partition Ghazal”  

The ghazals harmonize with the relational complexities that braid through the collection as the speaker looks to the more immediate lineage of her family—from childhood memories of playing with a plastic brain model with her father in “Temporal” to the more solemn account in “Motherhood 1999” where the speaker tells us, “That year my mother made herself tall / with routine, nutrifying / my body… First triumph of her spine, the only daughter— / followed by son and son.” Ali’s familial accounts are a dynamic testament to her diasporic Pakistani heritage, exploring what is received and what is passed onward with tenderness, defiance, and longing while pushing against the constraints of patriarchal tradition. 

           “Recite to me a single memory not manufactured. 

           Even a mother is myth, fabling 
           to survive a marriage   miscarriage   man.” 

                                                           — “Daughter”  

In this way, Theophanies is a beautiful and deeply matrilineal text, a landscape splashed with the red of poppies, birth, and blood. Readers, too, are incorporated into this inheritance through the scattered, repeated commands like “recite” and experimental forms like the family tree shape of “Matrilineage [Recovered]” where we weave our way through the maze of generations to decipher the poem. 

Overall, this is a book that is revelatory, solemn, and stunning, where the exquisite music of the lines and exacting, enjambed sentences peel back to reveal new layers, like “the untorn snakeskin I found / while digging for wetness in the sand” in “Epistle: Hajar.” Theophanies is a timeless poetry collection: ferocious, lyric, and resonant, and an instant classic on my bookshelf. Like its predecessors, the words of Leila Chatti, Kaveh Akbar, and Mary Szybist, Ali’s poetry shines with a gritty, ethereal faith—the kind that “gets grime under its fingernails,” the kind that brings readers to their knees. 

Review of Landscapes by Christine Lai

Landscapes is set in a future of environmental collapse that, while fictional, feels grimly easy to imagine. “A nature diary composed over the past decade would read like a catalogue of losses. There was a time when catastrophe seemed far away…then change became visible,” the novel’s protagonist, Penelope, tells us in the opening chapter. Penelope is the archivist of Mornington Hall, a formerly grand estate that has succumbed to decay along with the world around it. But as the novel begins, most of Mornington’s prestigious holdings have been either destroyed, damaged, or sold to finance repairs. The estate’s house, gallery, conservatory, and library are set to be demolished seven months from the book’s onset. The novel is a record of that time, partially composed of Penelope’s diary entries and catalog notes as she archives what remains of Mornington, which has also been her home for the past twenty-two years. Penelope’s archival notes are just as personal as they are professional—perhaps more so: “I also wish to keep a record of the objects that I find evocative, with a description of their physical states as they exist now, in my hands,” she writes. Indeed, Landscapes is ever-conscious of the ephemeral nature of art, and our particular experiences of it, often belied by the facade of conservation: if art can be preserved, restored, contained, can we protect it from time? Can we make it eternal or does it too have a life-span just as we do—as the Earth does? “Do you think art endures?” asks another character later on. Penelope answers, “I don’t know. Individual artworks, no. They require a lot of conservation. Art, with a capital A, I have no idea.”

Reading Landscapes is truly an art lover’s dream—the novel is brimming with references to artworks both real and fictional. The challenge such ekphrastic writings face is rendering visuals into words, an often difficult and imprecise act of translation. But Landscapes succeeds because the art that informs its foundation is not only described, it is woven into the landscape of the novel itself. 

“Mornington Hall was famed for its seamless transition between interior and exterior,” Penelope tells us. The same could be said for the book as a whole—Landscapes moves deftly across multiple other dichotomous divides. Penelope’s intimate diary entries (as meticulous and as closely observed as one would expect from an archivist) submerge the reader firmly into her interiority, but Lai’s richly drawn details of Mornington, awash in contradictions of opulence and atrophy—tattered trompe l’oeil wallpaper, flowers blooming in cracks on the walls—also ground us firmly in a setting outside the narrator’s mind; we understand Penelope more deeply because we can envision the world she writes from. Penelope herself is a passionate art lover, especially of the works of English Romantic painter J.M.W. Turner. Penelope’s love for art is so intense that it transcends her exterior world into her own interior. At times, the lines between the realms begin to blur. “At a certain point, I wanted to spend my life in that painting,” Penelope says of Turner’s Norham Castle, Sunrise, the first painting she fell in love with. She admires the way “the painting’s radiance belies its dark core…This is what I love in Turner—the way violence is embedded in a gleaming landscape.” This is true both of the landscape of Mornington Hall, with its fractured past and seemingly doomed future, and of Penelope’s own inner state, as an act of sexual violence from the past continues to invade and haunt her present. 

As Penelope sits for a portrait by an artist friend, she finds her mind wandering more and more frequently into painful memories of her past. She attempts to stay present by mentally reciting “as a mantra” a Louise Bourgeois quote: “My memory is moth-eaten full of holes.” Penelope writes, “The more I recited, the more I resisted the images from the past that sought to latch on to me.” When she finally witnesses her completed portrait towards the end of the novel, Penelope thinks, “It was unmistakably me, but me as I exist in different times. Even though the image is static, it in fact records in its many layers the dynamic subject that dwells both past and present.”

What tense does art exist in? This is a question I found myself asking as I read Landscapes. Is art past, or is it present? Or is it more accurate to say that it contains both at once, moves through dimensions, just as we do? Is this what makes art human—maybe even mortal?

Another question I found myself pondering: is art a form of memory—or is memory a kind of art? Penelope recounts a conversation she once overheard on the London Tube in which two men debate the merits of painting from memory: “If you try to reconstruct something over the span of years, or if you try to reconstruct an event that happened a long time ago, how accurate can it be?” one asks. But Landscapes suggests that the reason why art moves us so deeply has little to do with allegiance to detail—maybe to love an artwork, to truly absorb it and let it pervade the exterior world to our own interiors, means that we make it our own, create something new in our minds. When a beloved Turner painting is stolen from Mornington (a commissioned reproduction of an original that was among those sold for repairs), Penelope mourns its loss before realizing “the Turnerian colors and the luminous core at the center of the darkness are lodged in my mind. These details have taken root in my imagination . . . so often that I find myself picturing A View on the Seine as if I had painted it.” 

In her diary, Penelope remembers another incident in which she describes a beautiful view from the train that her partner sleeps through: “He said my description was as good as the view itself,” she writes. Something new formed, something beautiful persisting, in the wake of a loss—even if only in our minds: this, Landscapes tells us, is how art endures. 

Review of The Best Prey by Paige Quiñones

Paige Quiñones’ “The Best Prey” is a bestiary of desire. Animals abound in Quiñones’ debut collection: spiders, foxes, whales, and sparrows, enacting primal wants and violence, relationships and intimacies. With her precise imagery and steady gaze, Quiñones makes of her animals a story of the body, of love, of mental health and gender, and family heritage.

From the start, we are ensnared in Quiñones’ web, like the bee caught in the spider’s web in the opening poem. “But imagine, pretend he is you: / beauty is the cold bind.” Quiñones does not mince words. The reader has come here looking, perhaps, for beauty, and beauty is abundant in Quiñones’ poetry, but no line is innocent or simple. Even as we admire the vividness of Quiñones’ language Quiñones turns her gaze, and we become prey. “I am complicit,” Quiñones ends the poem, complicit in the act of writing, in desire, in the hunt. Thus, Quiñones establishes the drama of the whole collection, the sway from predator to prey, object to subject, writer to written thing. All the while implicating the reader, as voyeur, or as some more active player in the game of predation and desire that Quiñones lays out.

Quiñones is an adept tour guide through this jungle. We soon return to a spider in the poem “Luna de Miel,” living, dying, and consuming its children in a goblet of water between two lovers. In “Love Poem: Fox,” Quiñones plays with the imagery of the hunt: a rich man on a horse, his gloves and hunting dogs. “To dress myself in woman / would be a finer sport,” Quiñones writes. The speaker becomes fox, becomes woman, measuring its predator and the chances of its survival. It’s a radical and frightening kind of love poem, and in seven short couplets Quiñones flips the familiar form.

The speaker is never only prey. Again and again, Quiñones refuses a singular narrative, or a single form. In the prose poem “That Which I consider Untamable,” Quiñones conjures something like a fairy tale. An animal leaves dead birds at the speaker’s doorstep, the birds “splayed open like a / gentleman’s waiting hand.” Here is death, the gifts of courtship. The speaker catches a fistful of the animal’s fur and Quiñones writes, “it is not / enough. I would like his entire pelt. I would like to lie in it.” The voice claims agency and power, even if it is a complicated power. Love and violence are always intertwined, and the poem asks: can there be want without consumption? Love without ownership?

There are human animals, too, family histories across language and time. In “Dueña del Bosque,” Quiñones writes, “You think you can return to that place / where your feral tía / climbed down from the mountain.” Natural imagery and the familiar are linked through language, and Quiñones explores the impossibility of return and gendered intergenerational trauma. In “La Operación,” the speaker imagines the voice of her abuela in Spanish Harlem: “duerme duerme duerme,” says the grandmother. With long lines and single-sentence stanzas, Quiñones conjures a vision of family origins, and the violence of men and medicine against women’s bodies.

And there is longing, as in the poem “Alternate Realities.” Each line begins with the conditional “if,” and with each “if” Quiñones conjures a question about love, health, and home, about what might life look like if something were different. Quiñones offers no answers; the reader must imagine what these other timelines might look like. Placed in the third and final section of the book, the poem draws on everything before to fill in the blanks. Quiñones employs the magic of what’s not there, what’s absent from the page, to fully activate the reader’s participation in the poem.

In some ways, the collection is a darkly honest choose-your-own adventure of love and its counterparts. Roleplay is encouraged. In the final lines of the final poem, Quiñones’ writes, “You are the quetzal I’ve snared / & I’ve stolen a feather & / you expect to be released.” We are haunted by the expectation of release, and the floating ampersands that bookend her line, like twisting snakes. “Maybe our roles are reversed,” Quiñones ends the poem. Start over, Quiñones seems to invite, read the collection again and play all the roles, the messy but alive human and nonhuman animals that populate this landscape of desire. More than simple metaphor or archetype, there are real bodies in Quiñones’ lines, bursting with pain and passion.

“The Best Prey” won the Lena-Miles Wever Todd Prize for Poetry from Pleiades Press. Paige Quiñones earned her MFA from the Ohio State University and is currently a PhD student in poetry at the University of Houston.

Review of The Man in the McIntosh Suit by Rina Ayuyang

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

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

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

Courtesy of Drawn and Quarterly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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

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

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

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

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

Review of BLISS MONTAGE by Ling Ma

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

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

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

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

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

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

BLISS MONTAGE can be purchased from Macmillan for $26.00.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review of Sumita Chakraborty’s Arrow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review of The Era of Discontent by Brianna Noll

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review of World of Wonders by Aimee Nezhukumatathil

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review of Moth Funerals by Gaia Rajan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Moth Funerals can be ordered from Glass Poetry Press

Review of Home Making by Lee Matalone

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

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

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

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

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

The novel begs you to consider your own living space. 

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

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

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

Review of Deluge by Leila Chatti

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

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

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

Already checking the time on his wrist.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review of In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review of The Crying Book by Heather Christle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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