Sundress Reads: Gravity & Spectacle by Shawnte Orion and Jia Oak Baker

Half-photography and half-poetry, Gravity & Spectacle is the killer combo that you didn’t know you needed. This collection is a truly cinematic experience made possible by a collaboration between self-professed college dropout and poet Shawnte Orion and Asian American poet and photographer Jia Oak Baker, both based in Arizona. This work seeks to make sense of its atmosphere: at times thick and suffocating, at others, colorful and intriguing. These pieces work in cohesion, like the cogs of a turning, anti-capitalist wheel, in order to critique the world in which they find themselves. As Orion writes: “we will begin by taking scissors to the strings of kites” (55).

The first half of this collection—Gravity—is filled with Baker’s photos, often featuring metropolitan locales or arid dustbowls, where light and contrast set the tone at every stage. What’s most striking is the central figure, the same in each photograph, a man (presumably Orion from interviews given), wearing a gigantic mask on his head. This almost Orwellian mask, created by Phoenix artist J.J. Horner, resembles something between a many-eyed octopus behemoth, or a mutant saguaro. Saguaros and Arizona’s Sonoran Desert feature prominently in both these photos and Orion’s own lines in the second half of the book: Spectacle. Even urban Arizona becomes some recast version of this barren wilderness: “the official / State Bird of Arizona / is the Ceiling Fan” (46). The masked figure becomes a looming presence, both speaker and spectator as the reader moves back and forth between image and lyric.

Certainly, these connections are distinct and vibrant. In Baker’s “Elliptical Proximity,” the masked figure takes a selfie at a fairground, mid-air with just a few inches of himself in the frame, a disconnected father and son in the background, lit by brightly colored bulbs that juxtapose a sense of American nostalgia beside many of the more muted photographs (29). This same photograph is nodded to in Orion’s poem “You’ve Gone Supernova but Nothing Burns Brighter Than Itself,” where he alludes to the discovery of Neptune: “like how the presence of other people in your elliptical proximity is the only way to understand that you are alone” (56). Many of the poems contain winks, nudges, and nods to the images that precede them.  There is something both cheeky and somber about Baker and Orion’s united perspective.

Orion’s poems are as close to punk rock as we can get in 2021. When he isn’t taking shots at a certain former president—“Make Orwellian Dystopia Science Fiction Again (79)”—he’s unspooling social and class commentary: “a guide to which fifty states in America / women who care about their rights should avoid / ranked in no particular order” (64). This collection is witty and wry even as it is biting. In a piece where the speaker wonders about the flat earth conspiracy, Orion grounds us in reality, back to blue-collar workers and the mundanity of the everyday: 

My supervisor still believes
the earth is flat and we fall
off the edge every night
when we clock out (59)

It is the outliers who are the key players for Orion and Baker. The reader cannot take their eyes away from the masked stranger in the grayscale laundromat (18) or under the lit-up letterboard at Phoenix’s Rebel Lounge (5). With short clipped consonant sounds that call to mind the grinding skaters who are dotted throughout these pages (perhaps pro-boarder Rodney Mullen, whose name and words crop up once or twice) as well as piled-on metaphors that are somehow both sumptuous and gritty, every Arizonian doldrum is made sharp, funny, and irreverent.

Should you read this collection? If not for the strangeness of Baker’s composition, or Orion’s “Desert Tarot Six-Card Spread”—first in Spanish and then in English—that so perfectly recalls that familiar, rehearsed mystic phrasing, then do it for those striking, heartbreaking moments tucked away amidst the cleverly virgule-d prose poems:

don’t wait for second responders / like you waited for dad to return
from the bar with that elusive gallon of milk / like you waited
for mom’s hair and smile / to return from the oncologist’s office
don’t wait for the world to stop spinning (53)

You might end up with repetitive strain injury after flipping back and forth so often to search for the photographs that link to the poems you’re immersed in. You’ll find yourself unable to forget that alien-headed man under the fairground lights. Orion writes that “The eye is the quickest muscle” (49). It’s clear that in Gravity and Spectacle, perspective is everything. 

Gravity and Spectacle is available at Tolsun Books


Shannon Wolf is a British writer and teacher, living in Louisiana. She is currently a joint MA-MFA candidate in Poetry at McNeese State University. She is the Non-Fiction Editor of The McNeese Review and Social Media Intern for Sundress Publications. She also holds an MA in Creative Writing from Lancaster University. Her poetry, short fiction, and non-fiction (which can also be found under the name Shannon Bushby) have appeared in The Forge and Great Weather for Media, among others. You can find her on social media @helloshanwolf.

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