Former Sundress Editorial Interns Jillian A. Fantin and Max Stone were messaging on Instagram and realized they both have micro-chapbooks being released by Ghost City Press in their 2023 Summer Series. They decided it would be fun to review each other’s micro-chapbooks. Though seemingly dissonant in content and form, Stone and Fantin’s micro-chapbooks support each other with their complementary takes on queerness.
Max Stone’s The Bisexual Lighting Makes Everyone Beautiful
‘Oh my God, look.’ … [He] show[ed] them something in his hands…a handful of dust. ‘There’s glitter in it!’ he said. A man Fiona didn’t know peered over Yale’s shoulder. ‘That’s not glitter. Where?’ It just looked like dust.” —Rebecca Makkai, The Great Believers
In The Bisexual Lighting Makes Everyone Beautiful, Max Stone worldbuilds their queer experience through the words of a speaker sculpting their human and planetary body. Through personal, intimate experiences with moment(s) of anti-queer political and social violence, Stone’s speaker fleshes themselves into a queer corpus containing the delicate anxiety and the search for kinship that is the human experience. As the collection continues, so does the speaker’s development into an active, wise, and nearly eternal observer of the beings and bodies within their orbit, akin to the experience of a planet’s moon.
Max Stone opens his chapbook concretely by establishing the speaker’s queer identity and physical presence(s) within their world. In “Coming Out Ad Infinitum,” the speaker’s words in the coming out cycle disrupt their oral communication before forming their body: “Throat all choked up, / too much bread, something” becomes “Tight corset chest. Heartbeat extra violent” (Stone 3). Stone’s recalling tense, painful moments is especially masterful because of the way the “you” directly speaks to the “I” of their same body. Coming out is repetition in a world where you “can’t be open… / Not yet” (Stone 3). Meeting “a new person” or “a new doctor” implies the queer speaker’s ceaseless sculpting of their physical body (Stone 3). The intensity of this repetition is driven home with a final disruption of any created rhythm: “Again and again and again… / You’ll come out and come out / And come out and—” (Stone 4). Stone continues building solid ground with an explication of a public tragedy in “Waking up to News of a Mass Shooting at Club Q on Trans Day of Remembrance” and “Beaux,” which features a figure both grounded in human reality and elevated to nearly-unattainable ideal of transmasculinity. In just three poems, Stone establishes a distinct speaker while also leaving room for further self-transformation.
By the time we reach the micro-chapbook’s end, the speaker completes their aforementioned transfiguration to a body that is both fully man and fully moon. Like our moon, the speaker remains bound to the tides of a planetary body’s unique orbit and thus may only observe, act, and experience within those orbital boundaries. To be a moon is to contain billions of years, to be cratered with time and knowledge.
Nevertheless, the titular poem, “The Bisexual Lighting Makes Everyone Beautiful,” is the true moment of corporeal and cosmic transformation. In a final scene, the speaker and their queer friends move from the domestic party sphere into the memory of a woody naturescape:
Everyone else was in the river,
I was on the bank, watching
the moon reflecting on the water,
watching their limbs stir
up the light. (Stone 10)
The speaker leaves us to consider their queer duality and the implications of that existence. Stone’s speaker seems to reside on the fringes of their community, a lonely existence of distance and observation. Still, The Bisexual Lighting Makes Everyone Beautiful is nuanced in a final depiction of its speaker who refuses to stay in shadows. “Watching” becomes an act of love, like the dependable orbit of “the moon reflecting on the water” (Stone 16). Further, Stone’s speaker isin the water within everyone else. Their human body may be on the bank, but their planetary body is clearly reflected in the water and, thus, illuminated by the same titular beautifying light. And unlike “everyone else,” Stone’s speaker can see the light that reveals everyone’s beauty! Ultimately, Max Stone’s The Bisexual Lighting Makes Everyone Beautiful ends with a speaker’s self-made dual existence as fully human and fully moon, allowing them to balance experiences of queer oppression and systemic bigotry while still knowing and hoping for the beauty inherent within the true queer experience.
At the start of this review, I quoted a scene from The Great Believers, wherein a woman watches a video featuring Yale Tishman, a gay man who died decades earlier from AIDS-related complications, eagerly showing the camera and his onlookers the glitter in the dust. Max Stone sees the glitter in the dust. He knows beauty because he is beautiful. He sees beauty because everything this bisexual lighting touches is beautiful. And he writes the beauty of the queer experience while still delving into public and personal pain and oppression because he knows the true queer experience is inherently, definitionally, and fundamentally beautiful. Stone and his micro-chapbook do not ignore the existence of the dust. By identifying the dustier aspects of his worlds and treating his work with formal and thematic care, Stone makes the glitter that is queer beauty and queer experience sparkle even more.
I remain shocked at how consistently buoyed I felt upon starting and finishing The Bisexual Lighting Makes Everyone Beautiful. Very rarely does feeling “beautiful” elicit positivity given imposed cisheteronormative connotations of appearance and identity. Stone, though, makes me and my poetry feel beautiful—that is, “masculine but in the peacock way” (8)—and I truly believe that every queer reader will shine a little brighter after basking in the light of Max Stone’s queer poetics.
Jillian A. Fantin (they/them) is a poet with roots in the American South and north central England. They are a 2021 Martha’s Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing Poet Fellow, a 2020 Jefferson County Memorial Project Research Fellow, and the co-founder and Editor-in-Chief of RENESME LITERARY. Jillian received an MFA in Poetry with a minor in Gender Studies from the University of Notre Dame. Their writing appears in American Journal of Poetry, Spectra Poets, Barrelhouse, and poetry.onl.
Jillian A. Fantin’s A Playdough Symposium
Jillian A. Fantin’s micro-chapbook Playdough Symposium (Ghost City Press, 2023) is a queer, contemporary re-imagining of Plato’s dialogues through a series of prose poems. The collection features two main characters that appear in each poem and engage in conversation, sissyfist (a play on words of Sisyphus) and two-piece suitor, who are based on Socrates and Phaedrus from Plato’s dialogues combined with Johnny Knoxville and Steve-O of the Jackass franchise. Sounds weird, right? Well, it is weird—in the best way. With two epigraphs, Fantin sets up a dichotomy between Ancient Greek philosophy and modern pop culture, the first being a quote from Plato’s dialogues and the second from Steve-O. The epigraphs set the stage and tone for the symposium, which is a delightful intermingling of so-called high and low culture as complicated philosophical concepts are superimposed on contemporary culture.
Each poem’s title is a concept from Greek philosophy, such as “Xenia,” the Ancient Greek concept of hospitality; “Eudaimonia,” the condition of human flourishing; and “Kleos,” which means eternal glory. Beneath the framework of these ancient philosophical concepts, sissyfist and two-piece suitor engage in strange, stimulating, and often crass dialogues.
Playdough Symposium is an apt title, as the world and characters are highly malleable and mercurial—nothing is stable. The reality of a liminal world both timeless and of the present day is constantly created, shaped, and re-shaped through the dialogue between two-piece suitor and sissyfist. For example, in this world, “AD means After Diane that is After Diane Keaton’s Bowler Hat,” (Fantin 5) which weirdly makes sense. Fantin’s work is deeply intelligent and sharply funny, packed with clever turns of phrase such as “so Medusa just made men rock hard?”, “hydraplaning,” and “Ice capades” (9). Nouns are used as verbs like “embryoing;” familiar phrases and cultural markers like brands are turned on their head, including when “sissyfist sucks two-piece suitor’s tootsies like he rolls his pop,” (Fantin 7). So much is packed into this short collection: misheard David Bowie lyrics, Jessica Rabbit, Zeus eating pita chips, and Buffalo Bill protesting no shirt no shoes no service.
sissyfist and two-piece suitor are hilarious and crude and their personalities leap of the page. A distinct undercurrent of sexual tension and homoeroticism courses through the poems: “a long soft kiss in the business district, two-piece suitor profiteroles back down the curve of sissyfist’s spine oh scoliosis groans two-piece suitor make me in your image” (Fantin 11). It’s unclear what sissyfist and two-piece suitor’s relationship is exactly, but it’s definitely queer-coded. sissyfist and two-piece suitor both use he/him pronouns yet neither seems to fit distinctly in the male category, which is exemplified when “two-piece suitor strokes the cervix in the hole in his thigh postpartum depression sissyfist nestles within that musculature,” (Fantin 8). That slightly unsettling image presents two-piece suitor as being both male and female or neither. sissyfist’s name alone is very queer, and his actions match as he “hissyfits” and “sissyshrieks.” Playdough Symposium also troubles and blurs the lines of gender. Above all, this work is deeply original. I can confidently say I have never read anything like it. Playdough Symposium is a delicacy of language, pop culture, philosophy, queerness, and mythology. Each poem is layered with jewels of sound, word play, and genius turns of phrase. Each sentence is surprising—you’ll never guess one that begins with “ostrich egged,” will lead to two-piece suitor plaiting “pinkies into radishes,” (9). This collection may be playful, sexy, and funny, but there is also a poignant emotional depth. Fantin proves that Jackass can be philosophical and that the Ancient Greeks have a certain jackass-ness beneath the historical veneer of intelligence and sophistication. This is the micro-chapbook you never knew you wanted but definitely need to read. Right now!
Max Stone is a queer poet from Reno, Nevada. He holds an MFA in poetry and a BA in English
with a minor in Book Arts and Publication from the University of Nevada, Reno. He played
soccer at Queens College. Max is the author of two chapbooks: The Bisexual Lighting Makes
Everyone Beautiful (Ghost City Press) and Temporary Preparations (Bottlecap Press).