Sundress Reads: Review of Made Man

Jendi Reiter’s third poetry collection, Made Man (Little Red Tree Publishing, 2022), skillfully explores the transmasculine identity through the lens of capitalist America and small town mentalities. Inherently a political text, Reiter dissects their own gender journey along with the state of our consumerist world today, such as asking the titular transfag in “Transfag Semiotics,” “Want to be understood? What are you, a beer commercial?” (116).

Reiter compares their gender journey to the everyday, beginning with one of the many “self-portraits” throughout the collection: “Self-Portrait as Pastry Box.” The stunning language of, “…see the red smash where tiered berries kissed the jostled lid” introduces readers to Reiter’s mind, transporting us to this pastry box home where knives are not taken in vain. The smallest of objects are turned into a playground of metaphors with their words. The last line of “Take the cannoli, broken for you” (3), as a reference to Communion, sets up a recurring theme of religion for the rest of the book, as well. While the author clearly has a complicated relationship to the church, the religion itself, and the imagery and verbiage from it, have stuck with them.

This is best seen subtly in poems like “Whistler’s The White Girl.” Lines like, “your red hair, that made your papa suspicious, that your mother pulled in pin-curls and bleached with lemon juice, is finally necessary for the composition” (23), evoke recognition in others who grew up in the church, especially from queer kids who didn’t quite fit the mold. While this poem is based on the painting of the same name by James McNeill Whistler, Reiter’s language is restricting in a way that rings true with a transgender boy being primped and posed by his family, a doll for Sunday morning church service. 

In the very next poem, “psalm 55.21,” Reiter also tackles the feminist struggle within the Christian faith. The first line is a rewording of the actual psalm 55:21, changing the pronouns to feminine ones, written as, “her speech is softer than butter, but war is in her heart” (25). This original verse describes one’s two-faced nature— saying pretty words to your face, then later stabbing you in the back. This poem lists out creature after creature, gifted protections by god, then ends with,  “But to the woman, only a tongue, like a cat licking her newborn into breathing, like a cat rasping the meat from a bone” (26). While this may seem like a resigned response to a sexism ingrained into women’s bodies, the poem’s opening verse alludes to the more hopeful view that something as simple as a tongue is capable of holding immense power. With just their words, women are capable of more than first expected. 

Much of the collection seems to take on a more pessimistic tone, such as the most explicitly political poem in the book, “President Obama Gives a Tape Measure to the Admiral Who Killed Bin Laden.” The title alone tells a whole story, something Reiter proves themselves quite good at through the book. While the poem is a heavy criticism of the military, the scope feels very human. Pessimistic, yes—convinced that the military is such a part of America’s nature, the poem recognizes the humans at the heart of it all. The final line of the poem is a quote from Admiral William McRaven: “It had been a good night, and just for a moment we could laugh about it” (89). This quote elicits a mixed response, as on one hand, it can be seen as a bonding of this group that is forced to do such horrible things, coming together in a moment of joy. On the other, thinking of these people laughing after committing such atrocities makes readers have to sit with the reality of our present day, and let it horrify us as it has Reiter. 

Made Man is not lacking in light, however, as moments of levity are interspersed throughout, such as in “93 Minutes of Darkness.” Readers are introduced to mundane “flour and mayonnaise kitchens” moments before dropping references to the “official sunshades” (69) schoolchildren use to cover their faces, or “the democratic maw of omnivorous Dagon” (71). While referencing the climate crisis and the end of our world as we know it, Reiter manages to create an image of a town that is still surviving, through it all. This sense of community is strong enough to dissuade the citizens in this piece from dread, and Reiter’s humor can’t help but do the same. 

“Dreaming of Top Surgery at the Vince Lombardi Rest Stop”’s title proves Reiter’s skill with titles again, feeling like a text you could receive from a friend. The poem stems from a moment so simple, perhaps even disheartening, for one’s gender expression. What makes the message so heartwarming is Reiter’s word choice, granting readers with the image of “Walt Whitman unbuckles his big-‘n’-tall Levis at his eponymous urinal” (65). It all feels so hopeful, these references to “manlier” men, the masculine ritual of “mighty men drenching you in Gatorade that shocks you breathless like love?” (66).

Maybe hopeful is the singular best word to describe Reiter’s collection. While prone to believing the worst in mankind, stuck in torrid political spirals that nothing can get better, there is a heart in the middle of it all that hopes desperately it somehow can. Just maybe, with neighborly bonds and the cultivation of the next generation so often referenced in the form of Reiter’s own son, there could be a better future out there. 

Made Man is available from Little Red Tree Publishing

Izzy Astuto (he/they) is a writer majoring in Creative Writing at Emerson College, with a specific interest in screenwriting. When not in Boston for college, they live in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. His work has previously been published by Hearth and Coffin, Sage Cigarettes, and Renesme Literary, amongst others. He currently works as an intern for Sundress Publications, and a reader for journals such as hand picked poetry, PRISM international, and Alien Magazine. You can find more of their work on their website, at Their Instagram is izzyastuto2.0 and Twitter is adivine_tragedy.

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