Sundress Reads: Review of Babe

In Dorothy Chan’s poetry collection, Babe (Diode Editions 2021), readers are transported into a vibrant and alluring world where pleasure reigns supreme. Through her masterful use of language and vivid imagery, Chan invites the audience to indulge in her inner world, one filled with movie star glamour, iconic beauty marks reminiscent of Marilyn Monroe, and a faux blue fur coat that serves as a shield against exploitation while radiating both excess and fun. In this realm, the senses are tantalized by the allure of delicious food, evoking nostalgia and delight in the present moment—a mouthwatering burger with a caramel shake, kimchi pancakes, and egg-shaped jello—each culinary creation a testament to the pleasures of the senses.

At its core, Babe searches for connection through pleasure while delving into Chan’s complex identity as a Chinese woman subjected to fetishization. The collection unearths the predatory relationships she has experienced with older men in her past, shedding light on the intricacies of power, desire, and vulnerability.

Another major theme within the collection is the resistance of queerphobia; Chan details her reality as a bisexual woman navigating her queerphobic family.  Chan is a larger-than-life movie star outright denying the script of heteronormatity, the primetime TV reality show of life has laid before her. In “Triple Sonnet, Because You Are Not My Home, You Are Not My Home, You Are Not My Family,” Chan writes: “Hello, Primetime, your formula’s / so straight, it’s stale, but what would you know? / Basic cable you have no idea what you’re missing” (22). Throughout the collection, Chan skillfully intertwines themes of pleasure and identity with her exploration of family dynamics. Babe exposes the queerphobia and misogyny present within her familial relationships, adding depth to her narrative. The raw and candid portrayal of these experiences lends authenticity to the poems, allowing readers to empathize with Chan’s journey of self-discovery and acceptance.

In “Dear Lady Stop Gifting Me Lip Balm and Handcream,” Chan recounts a time an in-law speculates on her sexuality: 

“Lady it none of your business

what I do in my spare time

and my sexuality is not yours to dissect

not yours to straighten up…

But I’ll gladly build a rocketship

ride a rocketship orgasm a rocketship

if that will shut you up and fly you out of here.” (27) 

Chan at no point denies herself within the text, yet queerphobia constantly pushes back against her expression; forcing conflict over and over. She reminds the reader that to be authentically yourself is the ultimate freedom, but social structures in place, especially those within the most intimate spaces, mean that the battle to find and maintain your authentic self is lifelong. 

Chan’s poetic prowess shines through not only in her exploration of pleasure and identity but also in her innovative use of form. She introduces readers to her invented Triple Sonnet, showcasing her technical brilliance. The line breaks of these three connected sonnets are built around the sawtooth margin, with indents for every other line. These indentations build the tension in the reading of the poem. If the words of the poem are the food, the sawtooth margin is how your teeth should chew over them. It slows you down, makes you chew a little longer so the taste of the words linger over your tongue. This form becomes a vessel for her lyrical expressions, allowing her words to flow seamlessly and captivating readers with their rhythm and cadence.

In addition to her captivating descriptions of sex and pleasure, Chan creates an intimate connection with her readers through the lens of food. Food becomes a symbol of love and acceptance, fostering a sense of comfort and belonging. We see this on full display in her poem, “Love Letter to Jello Salad, Time Travel. And My Mother:” “ .. oh so colorful, and isn’t  it such a wonder / how different shapes can enhance the taste of food, like / the flower-shaped donuts in Japan, preferably in / matcha or strawberry, or how the heart-shaped / chocolates in the  Valentines Day selection always / taste the best” (12). The rich imagery of culinary delights further enhances the sensory experience of the collection, evoking a profound emotional response from the readers. 

Babe challenges societal norms and celebrates the complexities of identity, pleasure, and love. Dorothy Chan’s poetic voice is unapologetic, bold, and empowering. Her exploration of the human experience, intertwined with themes of pleasure, desire, and acceptance, resonates deeply with readers, leaving a lasting impression. Through her eloquent verses and inventive form, Chan invites readers to embrace their desires, confront societal barriers, and revel in the freedom of being true to oneself. “Babe” is a testament to the transformative power of poetry, reminding us of the importance of embracing our authentic selves and finding joy in the pleasures of life.

Babe is available at Diode Editions

Zora Satchel (she/they) is a Black and Chinese American queer poet and cinephile who writes about mental illness, film, family, and friendship. She holds a degree in Ethnic Studies from Colorado State University and was awarded the Brooklyn Poets fellowship for winter/spring 2021. She lives on the border of Brooklyn and Queens

Sundress Reads: Review of Fever

Part bisexual awakening, part chronic illness memoir, Fever by Shilo Niziolek delivers a brutal, heartfelt recounting of the mostly-inner life of a queer woman whose body continuously betrays her. Told in untitled, fragmented vignettes, the book spans decades, reflecting on Niziolek’s past abusive relationship, addictions, her current partner, and her chronic health conditions.

Before the narrative begins, Niziolek greets readers with the definitions of two medical terms, one being “vulvar vestibulitis: a neuro-inflammatory condition in the vestibule, or opening of the vagina, in which inflammation starts from any number of a long list of reasons. This inflammation can cause severe pain during intercourse.” Upon seeing the definition, I was immediately excited to read this book. As a woman who also suffers from chronic vulvar pain, I was eager to hear another person’s experience of the challenges that appear when sex hurts. To my knowledge, the last non-medical publication about vulvodynia (an umbrella term for chronic vulvovaginal pain) is a book called The Camera My Mother Gave Me, written by Susanna Kaysen, who is better known for writing Girl, Interrupted. By simply writing this book, Niziolek contributes to a much-needed dialogue for a community of women that is much larger than one might think, with 16% of women in the U.S. suffering from vulvodynia at some point in their lives.

In a stream-of-consciousness style, Niziolek writes, “I wonder what it’s like to have a sexual body, not just a sexual being trapped inside an unsexual body (14). I felt seen when I read this, both jealous and grateful that this writer found such a succinct way to describe what many women go through when their bodies start saying no, when their minds still want to say yes.

After having vulvodynia for so many years, Niziolek rarely desires physical touch from her partner, which is a common occurrence for women who experience chronic vulvar pain. (Imagine that every time you eat a donut, you get punched in the face—you’re probably going to stop craving donuts at some point.) Thus, instead of moments of in-real-life sexual desire, this book is filled with desirous dreams. It’s almost like a dream journal—but forget the famous Henry James quote, “Tell a dream, lose a reader.” Niziolek poetically dissects her dreams and relates them to her real life, assigning them meaning and pulling in the reader.  

Early on, she questions her dreams and their potency, writing “What kind of woman have I grown to be, who only dreams about bodies on bodies?” (25). After journeying through her dream realms on the page, it seems she arrives at an answer, referring to her dreams as her “double-life, cheating on my waking life with this terrifying and exciting and vibrant and cruel other life” (162). For Niziolek, dreaming is not just playing in the imaginary, but a survival tactic—a brief escape from a bodily existence rooted in illness. The dreams are placed among other non-linear vignettes of her life, both real and imagined; the fragmented style serves as a reflection of the divide between her mind and her body.

At Niziolek’s MFA graduation ceremony, a professor acknowledges her writing, saying, “writing cannot restore the female body, broken into parts, the body in decline, but…writing can regain the body, the words on the page become their own body” (19). Like her dreams, the very act of writing this book is another coping mechanism: a space where she can question her sexuality and attend to every desire that pops up, even the most fleeting. In this way, the words on the page come alive, allowing Niziolek to carry out a version of her life in which she is not chronically ill. Like her dreams, she can love whomever she wants, however she wants, on these pages.

Chronic illness—especially invisible illnesses—can be isolating and lonely. In these pages, Niziolek builds a support system—and not just for herself. This is a must read for any person living with chronic pain, and especially for those living with chronic vulvar pain. It’s a great chance to step away from the medicalization of our bodies and to turn inward, meditating on how this condition affects our innermost being and finding ways to live and love around it.

Fever is available at Querencia Press.

Heather Domenicis (she/her) is an Upper Manhattan based writer and editor. She holds an MFA in Creative Non-Fiction from The New School and her words appear or are forthcoming in HobartJAKE, [sub]liminal, and Anti-Heroin Chic. Born in a jail, she is writing a memoir about all that comes with that. You can follow her on Instagram @13heatherlynn1.

Sundress Reads: Review of Dire Moon Cartoons

John Sullivan’s book, Dire Moon Cartoons (Weasel Press 2021), is an experimental collection of dramas mixes poetry and history lessons with drama to reflect the dangers of imbalances in power and insufficient empathy. Often through straightforward explanations of his work, Sullivan describes this new form as “Poetry, spoken word, and non-realistic/devised theatre are mutually-reinforcing, complementary forms, and the montage process jump-starts a cross-fertilization that often produces really interesting hybrids” (11). The dramatic format lends itself as pedagogical; poetic language captures the attention of mind and soul, ensuring the readers are attuned to Sullivan’s message.

In the first play, “Hey Fritz, Looks Like You Lost It All Again in the Ghosting,” Sullivan reimagines life after death. Memory is a constant figure in many minds; this idea that sticks around for the entirety of the book, personified by various characters’ struggles to achieve “amnesia,” as Sullivan puts it. Fritz Lang, a famous German filmmaker of the 20th century who fled Germany just before WWII and the play’s protagonist, begins with a lamentation. Death is not what he thought it would be: “What dreams may come, indeed,” he says, “Hamlet was right to worry” (Sullivan 16). Even in innocence, even in death, Lang is followed by the memories of this violent past. Lang’s inability to forget the atrocities committed in his home country, even when he had no hand in them, is the main motivator of his guilt-ridden afterlife. Sullivan subsequently reminds readers to hold themselves accountable for crimes against humanity, even as spectators, setting up the rest of the book as a sort of guide on how to (or how not to) lose oneself in empathy.

Sullivan often employs poetic language to set the scene. For example, Fritz Lang describes where he was when the war started, saying, “I was in Los Angeles, then, eating lotus, sucking skin, drinking in the sun, bobbing up and down in the surf like a postcard” (Sullivan 17). Fritz has some stored regret, perhaps survivor’s guilt, from the war. He got out. He’s practically on vacation. But how many millions of people did he leave behind? By using the Brechtian technique in his plays, Sullivan separates the audience from the action, reminding the reader that he intends for someone to learn from this language. Sullivan wants his readers to be aware they are spectating, making things personal.

Each section/scene of the book offers an artful look into the atrocities performed by those traditionally in power: Fritz gets new ears to “hear and do what he’s told to do” (32), actors are treated as props (32), and the “Mad Town Jump Rope Chant” offers another look at commonly used brainwashing techniques (33). Fritz Lang even offers a preparatory remark: “We should all have eyes all around our heads” (61), reminding the reader to pay attention to what’s going on around the world, not only to what they currently see.

As mentioned above, Sullivan discusses “amnesia” (67) as a way to avoid looking at reality head-on. He expertly captures the juxtaposition between what we are told by those in positions of power (i.e. propaganda) and what we can observe ourselves. For example, when the Mouse Van Gogh from the Big White Chair cannot get the “Helmut of Amnesia” over his “big dumb polyethylene ears” (Sullivan 73), he is forced to hear and remember all the violence that follows and all that came before. Over the course of the book, Sullivan also lays out the many ways people (and apparently mice) attempt to escape from reality. If it’s not amnesia, it’s substance abuse in the form of “the ultimate boss cannoli” (Sullivan 74) or objects of denial and power like Grey Sergeant’s “new-new eyes” and his “death wig” (Sullivan 123). When the Baby Rookie’s death is smeared on the white wall in The Baby’s Rookie Year, for example, denial transforms into a struggle to be remembered, even for heinous acts of violence.

Although Sullivan is critical of human actions, he is delicate in his treatment of said criticisms. His writing comes across as helpfully demonstrative and effectively engaging. Kookie word usage, fun sets and props, as well as wild, outlandish characters make for an informative, sometimes necessarily uncomfortable, but always entertaining set of dramas. Sullivan uses real human history to teach lessons on empathy, greed, power, and human nature; he tucks away the lessons in succinct humor and sarcasm interspersed with shocking acts of violence. And so, when Fritz Lang says, “I want a better history right here, right now…” (35), the reader feels it, too.

Dire Moon Cartoons is available through Weasel Press.

Blonde white woman smizes into camera.

Kenli Doss holds a BA in English and a BA in Theatre-Performance from Jacksonville State University. She is a freelance writer and actress based out of Alabama, and she spends her free time painting scenes from nature or writing poetry for her mom. Ken’s works appear in Something Else (a JSU literary arts journal), Bonemilk II by Gutslut Press, Snowflake Magazine, The Shakespeare Project’s Romeo and Juliet Study Guide and A Midsummer Night’s Dream Study Guide, and The White Cresset Arts Journal.

Sundress Reads: Review of Glass Essays

Cover of J.A. Bernstein's Glass Essays. Stormy blue, black, and white watercolors with a grown up spinning a child in a dress around by the arms. The title is at the top in clear block letters and the author's name is at the bottom.

J.A. Bernstein’s Glass Essays (Variant Lit, 2023) centers on a man’s experience in the liminal spaces between soldier-hood and parenthood.

This short essay collection opens with a brief two-page vignette recounting a time when the speaker’s wife bough overpriced watercress at a farmer’s market. The speaker then recalls the Oxford English Dictionary page for watercress, writing, “what a study in contrasts: water and cress; soothing and pain, as it were” (Bernstein 1). Thus begins a meandering thirty pages. Flashing between sweet moments of fatherhood and uncomfortable memories of life or death conflicts, the collection is its own study of moments of soothing and moments of pain.

In the essay “In the Lake, Before Dark,” a Jewish-American foreign volunteer in the Israeli Army describes the world around him in which he is deeply uncomfortable, in which fellow soldiers share explicit videos of women performing sex acts and brag about how many “Arabs” they’ve “gotten” (read: shot or killed) over McDonald’s burgers. In the same essay, fifteen years later, the speaker sits at his kitchen table while his toddler daughter eats breakfast. When her spoon hits the floor, the “discordant clanging” reminds him of the very American-aid-supplied .50-caliber rifles he himself used to fire (Bernstein 4). The reader is transported to the world of armed conflict with the speaker. Just two lines later, separated by a roman numeral, we are with the speaker and his toddler wading naked into a lake somewhere in Wisconsin, his wife looking upon them lovingly. These echoes of war contrasted with what would otherwise be normal, happy parenting moments resound throughout the entire collection.

As the speaker continues meditating on mortality, a new collective trauma unfolds on the page: the COVID-19 pandemic. In the essay “Bug,” which takes place early in the pandemic, he reflects on the fleetingness of childhood memories with his oldest daughter, now three. “‘I’ll always remember you,’ she says. ‘And I’ll always remember this, too,'” he says back (Bernstein 20). Again, speaker finds that performing fatherhood is a welcome distraction to the tragedies he’s hearing on the news. As a reader, I find this essay extra eerie; I know that the pandemic in Italy he only hears of on the news will soon become a reality in his own family’s life too. Thinking of the news, he says, “I remember how desolate the world is, and uncertain and afraid, and I fixate now on [my daughter’s] eyes: the way they almost glow there, so quiet and amused, so contented with the world, and alive” (Bernstein 20). Here, the speaker juxtaposes parenthood, the impending pandemic, and the passing of time so fluidly that it reads with ease. There are no lead pens here, rather a light airiness to the writing in stark contrast to the heavy subjects dissected and examined.

Meditations on the passage of time recur throughout these essays, in part thanks to their structure and placement. Time goes back and forth, ranging from 1984 to 2021. Not every essay is denoted with time, though. In this way, Bernstein potentially lets readers get lost, or perhaps, makes them work harder while reading.

The collection opens with an epigraph from its namesake, Anne Carson’s The Glass Essay:

            It is dawn.
            They are leaving Dover for France.
            My father on the far left is the tallest airman,

            with his collar up,
            one eyebrow at an angle.
            The shadowless light makes him look immortal,

            for all the world like someone who will not weep again.

Here, Carson describes her father as only an airman who is immortal, someone who will never cry. But the speaker in these essays is not immortal, noting that time and time again. He is certainly not someone who holds in his feelings; he pours his emotions onto the pages in this collection. Bernstein’s vulnerability on the page pushes back against Carson’s idea of a hardened soldier, as he shows us that there are other kinds of soldiers too: softer ones who feel conflicted about their violent actions, love for their families, and anxieties about the past, present, and future.

Glass Essays is available for purchase at Variant Literature.

Heather Domenicis (she/her) is an Upper Manhattan based writer and editor moonlighting at a tech startup. She holds an MFA in Creative Non-Fiction from The New School and her words appear in HobartJAKE, and [sub]liminal. Born in a jail, she is writing a memoir about all that comes with that. You can follow her on Instagram @13heatherlynn1.

Sundress Reads: Review of The Names of All The Flowers

Book cover of The Names of All the Flowers by Melissa Valentine. A pink textured wall with a homemade shrine that includes candles, flowers, drinks, and a plastic crown on cement sidewalk

Melissa Valentine’s The Names of All The Flowers is dedicated to her late older brother, Junior. The memoir serves a devastating reminder that gun violence statistics refer to people (often young men of color) who are loved by many and sometimes suffocated by deep-rooted, systemic challenges in the United States.         

In 1990’s Oakland, young Melissa and Junior are two of six children born to a white Quaker man and a Black woman from the deep South. Valentine grips readers from the beginning with prose that sings: “Oakland is home. It is where I was born. It is where I live. Home is where I live and where your heart is supposed to be. Oakland is graffiti and blood-stained cement; it is redwoods and eucalyptus trees; it is rolling hills and the silver, undulating San Francisco Bay that reminds you that you are on the edge, that you are small” (17). She often lingers in a child-like present tense POV; for example, Valentine writes, “I’ve waited all morning for the sun to come out and am celebrating its arrival on the front steps with my dolls. The front door to our house bursts open. A gap-toothed, oversunned Junior fires from it” (18). Here, she drops the reader into the story at an age where she is innocent and deeply admires her older brother, who is still a young boy himself.         

As Valentine gets older, she floats in and out of the naive narrator voice. She begins to notice things about her older brother, writing, “Doing bad things gets you something like attention. Junior had always been recalcitrant––it is his way––but there had been a subtle shift in him since he started middle school” ( Valentine 44). What starts as stealing snacks from neighbors grows into Junior erecting a tough exterior after he starts getting bullied at school. As the incidents grow more intense, his parents try to keep him safe, shuffling him from school to school, hoping that he will land in a better, safer environment. After a violent beating leaves him with bruised ribs, eyes, and a limp, Junior tells his sister he plans to fight back. Valentine’s narrator begins to understand her brother’s situation, yet worries about his safety. She writes, “This is social warfare. This is high school. This is becoming a man. I can feel the fervor in his words, but also the split: my soft brother Junior and the Junior who must survive. Not fighting is not an option. But how will he win against all those boys?” ( Valentine 83). Here, the reader can feel Valentine maturing as she begins to piece together what it means for her brother to be teetering on the edge between boy and man.     

Valentine artfully uses time to structure the book in a way that lets the reader know right from the first page that Junior won’t make it to adulthood, “I see my brother Junior as if he were alive before me. I see him everywhere” (7). By including an introduction that begins in the relative present, she avoids all tropes that might lure the reader into turning pages just to know if Junior will make it or not. She gives away nearly the whole synopsis by page five.         

So why keep reading?         

Because, twenty years after her brother is killed, gun violence is still rampant in the United States, taking lives senselessly. As I sit here, writing this in Harlem, there have been over 400 shootings in Manhattan this year, including three separate incidents in one weekend: a 15-year-old boy playing basketball in Riverbank State Park and a 5-year-old girl sitting in a parked car in the Bronx, outside a vigil for her late 26-year-old neighbor––who had also been shot at the same location just one day prior.         

The Names of All the Flowers uses Junior’s story to force the reader to think critically about gun violence and the school-to-prison pipeline, but it is more than a political statement. In Valentine’s words, “This book is an ode to our collective grief and trauma. It deserves to have a name. It deserves discussion…Burying young people should not be so normal. And yet, we all touch it. We are deeply hurt by it. This book is for all who have touched this and all who suffer in silent trauma and grief either directly or indirectly. Therefore, this book is for all of us” (9).

The book is in intimate portrayal of a boy and a family broken by the very systems meant to protect them.  

The Names of All The Flowers is available at The Feminist Press

Heather Domenicis (she/her) is an Upper Manhattan based writer and editor moonlighting at a tech startup. She holds an MFA in Creative Non-Fiction from The New School and her words appear in HobartJAKE, and [sub]liminal. Born in a jail, she is writing a memoir about all that comes with that. She sometimes tweets @heatherlynnd11.

Sundress Reads: Review of Little Hour

Cover of the book "Little Hour" by Rae Gouirand. The background is a gray color and looks like cement, a stick arches across the center of the image, and a lamp appears in the bottom left hand corner. The title is in white and the authors name is in black.

Rae Gouirand’s chapbook, Little Hour (Swan Scythe Press, 2022), uses poetry as a medium to explore themes of place, space, duality of self, as well as the relationship between nature versus human influence and design.

The collection of 20 poems opens with “Some Place” which encapsulates the speaker’s desire to understand their purpose and place in the universe as illustrated in the lines:

“I was born on a planet
flung off to

yield itself— fingerprints rest

& I hover looking for some place.

I is always the hardest

among the signs that are not

just rock, straw, dark, dust,

shell, spark, wick— everything but I

has use…” (Gouirand 9).

This poem illustrates how the speaker feels like being born on Earth means coming to terms with one’s use or purpose. Gouirand highlights how in nature these purposes are clear for things like rocks or shells—but for the sentient “I,” the ego, the human being, determining purpose and finding the place where that purpose can be of use is challenging. “Some Place” introduces the collection as a whole, with each subsequent poem acting as a further investigation being made by the same speaker, rather than an assortment of different perspectives.

Gouirand expands into an exploration of the relationship between nature and human forms in the second poem, “An Autobiography.” The juxtaposition between word pairings like weather and mouth, snow and hand, and day and eyes makes the reader reflect on their own presence within the larger environment, and conversely, the environment’s impact on them. A similar series of juxtapositions between nature and inorganic or human forms appears in many of the poems including “Early Neighborhoods” and “Canoe and Cicadas.” “An Autobiography,” however, stands apart from the rest of the collection for its unusual structural form. While the majority of poems in the collection are written in first person couplets, “An Autobiography” uses a different approach. Visually, every other line is indented to the center of the page creating a vertical horizon. This stylistic choice may invite the reader to engage with the poem both line by line and by reading the right and left columns separately. With lines like “two voices at once I try,” the latter of these options leads to a more conversational tone and feels connected to the core of this piece which focuses on the duality of self (Gouirand 10).

In the seventh poem, “With Horse,” Gouirand writes:

“The muscle, the teeth, the breath rushing

out of burned throat and through
those teeth into air, where it became

indistinguishable,” (Gouirand 16).

These lines showcase the symbiosis between breathing (a human act) and the air of the natural world. As the concepts of breath and air converge, the reader may consider what is one of these things if not the other? What are these things without the other? Fascinatingly, this piece references racing and running; with these active words the poem accelerates, only slowing in the third to last couplet with the word rest.

In the ninth poem, “Extinction,” the theme of place is transformed into a tangible shape. From this point in the collection forward, Gouirand writes with more specificity and compartmentalization with the repeated use of words including box and bowl—as also seen in “Simply,” “Our Tongue,” and “Far Blue.” Boxes and bowls are both containers in their own ways, and with a touch of mindfulness, these objects symbolize the importance of emptiness. In the same way only an empty box may be filled with belongings, it is only with emptiness that there is space for something to fill it. In these poems, the speaker’s search for a way to define the containment of self seems significant to the thesis of the collection as a whole. These poems present an idea that a home is a container for the self and words like box, bowl, place, land, mine, room, hold, space, outside, and inward solidify this messaging.

Little Hour invites readers to be meditative—slowing down to notice the precarious balance between art, nature, and humans by striving to “know every moment of sunlight, every moment of moonlight…” (Gouirand 20).

Little Hour is available from Swan Scythe Press.

A black and white photo of a woman, the author of this post.

Annie Fay Meitchik is a writer and visual artist with her BA in Creative Writing from The New School and a Certificate in Children’s Book Writing from UC San Diego. Through a career in publishing, Annie aims to amplify the voices of marginalized identities while advocating for equality and inclusivity in art/educational spaces. Her work has been published by Matter Press, 12th Street Literary Journal, and UNiDAYS. To learn more, please visit:

Sundress Reads: Review of In the Hands of the River

A book cover that has a spectral-looking figure standing at the edge of a river against a dark gray and black forest background with a white and gray tree with skeletal branches that reflect on the water and hang over a blue moon that looms on the horizon.

In his debut collection, In the Hands of the River (Hub City Press, 2022), Lucien Darjeun Meadows’ poetry is richly textured with layers of imagery and verdant detail that explores the complexities of growing up queer in Appalachia, a place marked by contradictions and misconceptions—the nexus at which the speaker exists. Through exacting and lush lyric poems Meadows spins a delicate, haunting, and dauntless delineation of this difficult yet beautiful place and what it’s like to grow up queer there. While many poems touch on difficult subject  matter, Meadows skillfully intersperses kernels of light and hope in the midst of tragedy and fear by turning to the effusive beauty of nature, “We are always searching for light / And finding a hoofprint, a heartbeat, the moment / A hill disappears and the tunnels of your blood / Vibrate a golden song just a little too late.”

The speaker exists at an intersection of identities that are ostensibly at odds being that he is of both Cherokee and European ancestors and is Appalachian and queer. He reaches back into thorny memories of a haunted childhood, bringing his ancestors, both long past and immediate, back to the hollers with him as a way of reconciling the difficulties of his upbringing as a “boy made of shards.” It is clear that things like queerness are not often discussed in Appalachia, “Ten thousand silenced stories / Under every tree, /  a home / For a tongue: our exchange.” People’s stories and pain are swept not just under the rug, but underneath the earth. Ultimately, the speaker comes to a resting place with himself—realizing each seemingly disparate shard makes him who he is and he can indeed be all of those things at once.

These poems sprawl across time as vestiges of the past cling to the speaker’s present and the impact of humans threatens the future for all species. Meadows explores multi-generational trauma both in human and environmental terms as he glides effortlessly through temporalities of experience. He is attuned to the flow and the strife of the flora and fauna around him and his ability to compress time is remarkable. In the opening poem “Rust,” Meadows captures feelings of nostalgia: “These yards become indistinguishable— / Porch swing, tomato patch, kiddie pool— / No matter if the kids have grown and gone—” then hits us with the gnawing ache of loss and change with “No matter. Every plastic swimming pool turns / From its original blue to rust pink in a year or two.” Childhood, growing up and leaving home condensed into a few lines. Near the end of the poem, Meadows makes a connection with nature, and the collection’s titular river, “Down by the river’s edge,” in order to link the distant past, “we slip back to Biblical,” with the ever-presence of death looming in the future, “See death as the ultimate baptism—whether lungs fill / With the grit of a collapsing tunnel, riverwater, / Or both.” Meadows uses the long time of the river to elucidate the short time of humans, while also speaking to the reverberations of human exploitation of the landscape with the collapsing tunnel.

Meadows embodies the environment and writes with such precision and care for it. In the poem “Dragonfly,” Meadows writes: “I steal your body from a clutch of blue lupines.. And I swoon into my future corpse, my body / Your body, here, splayed under unforgiving light. / I detach your wings,” shrinking the perceived distance between humans and the natural world, reminding us that we are not hermetically sealed off from it, and ever-so-gently reorienting us with the interconnection of everything. 

I would categorize this collection as queer ecopoetry, an unofficial new limb of poetry that reimagines the heteronormative relationship between humans and the environment. In this unflinching yet tender work, Meadows presents us with a new relationship between humans and nature: a queer relationship. This collection illuminates a way of interacting with nature that is not about control, violence, and endless extraction; that is not patriarchal, heteronormative, and capitalistic. Rather, Meadows provides a path through the Anthropocene landscape of Appalachia, that has been muddied and polluted by mining and greed, that is steeped in love, attention, and care.

Meadows is doing important work in this collection in bringing to light a queer narrative from West Virginia, a place that is too often overlooked. This collection comes at a crucial moment and is much-needed as queerness and transness are increasingly under attack. Stories like this show the multitude of queer experience. Queer people exist everywhere and this collection underscores the importance of  poetry and stories from places like West Virginia that are largely neglected or dismissed due to prejudiced assumptions. In this soaring and incisive debut, Meadows challenges the dominant narratives of West Virginia by providing a precise and aching view of life in a place that is marked by hardship and brutality, yes, but also by the fierce resilience of the people and other species that call the scarred yet luscious and beautiful landscape home. 

In the Hands of the River is available from Hub City Press

Max Stone has an MFA candidate in Poetry at the University of Nevada, Reno, from where he also has a BA in English with a minor in Book Arts and Publication. He is originally from Reno, but has lived in many other places since including, most recently, New York City, and hopes to leave again soon. He has a chapbook, The Bisexual Lighting Makes Everyone Beautiful, forthcoming this summer with Ghost City Press. His poetry has been published in fifth wheel press, &ChangeBlack Moon Magazine, Sandpiper ReviewNight Coffee LitCaustic Frolic, and elsewhere. Max is also a book artist and retired college soccer player.

Sundress Reads: Review of Four in Hand

A book cover that reads "Four in Hand" in white letters against a dark green background with a folded down piece of yellow in the top right-hand corner. "Poems" is written in yellow in a vertical line below the title and the author's name "Alicia Mountain" is written in black letters at the very bottom of the page against a white outline that wraps around the dark green and yellow.

Alicia Mountain’s new poetry collection Four in Hand (BOA Editions, 2023) is comprised of four heroic crown sonnets—a sequence of fifteen interlinking sonnets wherein the last line of the first sonnet is the first line of the next, and so on, and the fifteenth sonnet consists of the first lines of the previous fourteen. Quite a complicated structure indeed, and tricky to pull off, but Mountain does so masterfully. She weaves together eloquent, and at times archaic, language with urgent issues like late-stage capitalism, the pandemic, environmental devastation, LGBTQ issues and discrimination, drone strikes, the 2016 election, etc. with contemporary references and found text. Mountain also offers contemplations of familial structures, her gay poetic lineage, love and loss, as well as investigations of the self and place.  Aside from the political undercurrents and heavier themes, Four in Hand is also tender and personal suffused with numerous kinds of love, including the lingering love that persists even after heartbreak, “I offer to trade you / a poem for the story of the place we pressed / our bodies together.” This book feels like a necessary antidote to the crushing pressures and anxieties facing us today.

A narrative thread is braided through the book, submerging then reemerging signaled by motifs like “train tracks,” “the queen,” and “violet,” “which operate as anchors that ground the poems and refocus the reader’s attention. The form lends itself to this loose, nonlinear narrative and though each heroic crown appears disparate at first you begin to notice the intricate patterns as you read further.

Each sonnet rolls effortlessly into the next, turning the meaning of its last line to mean something completely different—even opposite—when it becomes the first line of the next sonnet. For example, the last line of the ninth sonnet in the first sequence “Train Town Howl” reads “whomever you love. They belong beside you,” which seems to be a lament that their ex-lover likely has a new lover. But in the next sonnet, the same line reads as well-wishing towards the lover rather than lamentation—the speaker is now expressing to their past lover that they deserve to be with someone they love, whomever it may be, and be happy. Mountain achieves this reversal of meaning simply by changing the sentence structure. As a last line “whomever you love” is part of the sentence that begins in the previous line, but as the first line of the tenth stanza, “Whomever you love” is the beginning of the sentence, starting a thought rather than completing one. It’s a tiny change but has a significant impact, which is a testament to the virtuosity of Mountain’s. The syntax is delicately crafted and each period, comma, line break, and word, and is intentional.

On the note of intentionality, while many sonnets in the collection resemble traditional sonnets, the sonnet form never feels tired because of Mountain’s experimentation. In the second sequence “Sparingly,” she pushes the boundaries of the form: each line consists only of a single word. A traditional sonnet puts pressure on the line as a unit, by using one word per line Mountain zeroes in on the word, forcing us to linger with each word and really notice them, hold on to each syllable, savor the sounds.

Despite the dark cloud of political instability, environmental degradation, and loss that permeates, Mountain finds moments of lightness and hope, especially in the “elementary poets” the speaker is teaching poetry. They like “butts and cats and killing” and the girls are “purple princes too.” This childhood silliness and wonder contrasts the “The sinister lever-pull that will not right us / came swift in November,” meaning the election of Donald Trump and the dividedness of the nation. Mountain asks, “How long has it / been since you worked for an hourly wage?” exemplifying the disconnect between the wealthy and the politicians and the rest of us. By posing this question and then going to work with eight-year-old poets, the speaker is deciding to do not be crushed by despair and do the important work of investing hope in the future, represented by the children, and in small but not inconsequential actions. Such a kernel of optimism is found when “Eight-year-old writes, We befriend enemy / countries like we were never enemies.” A vision of a more peaceful world without senseless violence—a better world.

Four in Hand is an epic, ambitious work, the opulent landscapes, gentle intimacy, and acute awareness of corruption and destruction that we are complicit in, “Often, I forget I am a benefactor / of war by birthright,” will percolate in your brain long after you’ve put the book down. It is a perfect alchemy of the personal and the political, of abundance and sparsity, of the quotidian and the extraordinary. Mountain demonstrates dexterity in both form, lyric, and blank verse while retaining a pleasurable cohesiveness. This book is achingly beautiful and exemplifies the magic of poetry—how at its best, poetry can touch you deeply; make you feel, and think, and cry, and hope, and yearn, and be glad to be alive.

Four in Hand is available from BOA Editions

Max Stone is in his final semester as an MFA candidate in Poetry at the University of Nevada, Reno. He received his BA in English with a minor in Book Arts and Publication from UNR in 2019. He is originally from Reno, but has lived in many other places since including, most recently, New York City. His poetry has been published in Black Moon Magazine, & Change, Fifth Wheel Press, Sandpiper ReviewNight Coffee LitCaustic Frolic, and elsewhere. Max is also book artist and retired college soccer player.

Sundress Reads: Review of Ain’t Life Grand

In edie roberts’ Ain’t Life Grand (pitymilk press, 2020), the seething fury of radical youth boils just under a cooled, jaded, midlife critique of contemporary America. roberts pinpoints the surprisingly complex feelings of seemingly normal, bureaucratic experiences, such as going to the doctor and riding on the bus, and delivers them as hot, little coals of poems. In the condensed space of the chapbook, they touch on a heavy range of subjects: healthcare inequality, environmental disaster, hostile architecture, and familial anguish. Ain’t Life Grand begins with a dying cat and ends with a mountain of garbage, and in between, roberts files away the personal, political, and defyingly beautiful events that define our lives. 

“We were never meant to survive,” writes Audre Lorde in the book’s epigraph, and indeed, at first, it does not seem like anyone will. A dense pessimism begins the collection. The cat who cannot “find a comfortable spot / to wretch and foam / convulse then quit” in the first, eponymous poem becomes a framing metaphor for the physical and emotional separation between people imposed on us by a brutal, capitalistic culture. roberts uses a diction almost violently terse and direct to discuss this separation. In “I am going to the doctor in America,” the nurse’s touch is “like a sterile mother / who can’t assure you of anything.” Within the illogical and inhumane healthcare system, marrying a Canadian friend for medical coverage might be the only logical option for a cancer diagnosis.  

Despite the curt bleakness, an underlying attachment to the beauty of life runs through this book. In “Any Greyhound station bathroom,” roberts is “endeared / to every person / in here.” Their struggle to connect despite the bench separators provides a common resistance. That Canadian friend they “love / in a dear and tender way.” Even the human-made terrors have a kind of resigned beauty. In “The gulf is on fire,” the “cellophane / was let to ride / the hungry wind,” which in a way makes it more free than we are.

But beauty alone does not excuse these environmental and societal ills. With language like a staring contest, daring you to look away, roberts calls out their villains. “If people in America / really gave a shit / about babies / They probably wouldn’t have them / Because they don’t have shit to give them / except a mess so big / that the people who are already alive in America / can’t do anything / but ignore it.” And ignoring problems is the central crime of the book. They call out the “woman who seems to think / thinking good thoughts and / having hope / about the future / is all we can do.” Ignored problems pile up. Even the poet is culpable. “[T]hey all knew about / where the / world was going…We built this mountain / in 15 years / You can smell it for miles.”

Yet, there is some hope in Ain’t Life Grand. There is a dream of “some real estate / in the stars / where no one works / for pennies and / gets chased by / debt companies.” There is a sense that “I am / doing a bad job / trying to stay alive / and living at the same time” because we have been asked to live in an unreasonable structure. But hope, like ignorance, is a choice to be made by each individual. “I need things to look forward to,” writes Roberts, “or the future is a numbing jelly.”

Ain’t Life Grand is available from pitymilk press

Robin LaMer Rahija (she/her) did her MFA in poetry at the University of Kentucky. Her work has appeared in Puerto Del Sol, FENCE, Guernica, and elsewhere. She is an Editorial Intern at Sundress Publications. She loves books, trees, and Excel documents.

Sundress Reads: Shade of Blue Trees by Kelly Cressio-Moeller

Kelly Cressio-Moeller’s breathtaking debut poetry collection, Shade of Blue Trees (Two Sylvias Press, 2021), paints a complex tetraptych of grief, loss, and solitude, inviting readers into a space of introspection while singing an ode to the natural world.

Filled with nods to Greek mythology and art history, Cressio-Moeller’s words read like lyrics. The collection is organized into four sections, each boasting its own seasonal “panel” beginning with winter, then traveling through spring, summer, and finishing with autumn. In “Panels from a Deepening Winter” we’re thrust into a desolate environment with the opening lines “Veils of clouds replace the mountain’s ghost-blue / face: snow and fog, a sky of ice – a quiet haunting.” The rest of the poem continues with themes of solitude and bereavement, though in the 4th stanza, we catch a glimmer of hope with a “promise to a white moose” and a “buckeye for luck” – both seemingly good omens. Throughout the rest of the poem, we’re faced with the same feelings of loneliness and a “quiet in the way that online winter is” that doesn’t feel silent at all with moments like “the wind wears heels tonight” and “red-petaled cries, open mouths of cyclamen.” This poem is the third in the collection, thrusting you into the “brumal embrace” of a speaker navigating grief and isolation.

In “Panels from a Courtly Spring,” the speaker tells the story of a woman trapped in “gilt, guilt, geld,” and “Austrian pawn in Versailles,” a “foreigner at court.” The panels are packed with flowery language painting the portrait of this “wilding’s” demise, “barefoot racing, barely outrunning the metal clamor of blades and pikes.” This poem is the finale of its section, following a collection of observations and musings, like “In late afternoon pampas grass tapers shine silver as the hair in my brush.” (“Begin and End at Big Sur”) and “The tree’s arms hold her in the indigo lap of sky.” (“Among Other Things”). It also includes two letters, to low tide and the rain. In the first, the speaker ties herself to the tide, saying “I, too, want / to unhook myself from shore” (“Letter to the Low Tide’). The second, “Letter to the Rain,” starts with a similar sentiment: “Come at me with guillotine sheets, / I will be happy in separation.” The “Courtly Spring” panels feel like a story the speaker has spun or the way in which she sees herself, a “wilding” trapped in the vastly material world.

“Panels from a Blue Summer” takes us to the middle of the third section, and while the last set of panels was fraught with gilded language, these start with the speaker stating “I lack the luster that my lilacs / can muster at any time of year.” This rolls into a second stanza that returns to darker imagery – “torched moods” and the “melancholy shade of blue trees.” We get a reference to Van Eyck’s triptychs as “layers upon layers of brittle meditations.” The speaker’s relationship feels complex and the tone is depressive, matching that of the rest of this section with moments like “Poets and suicide. It’s been done before” (“Southern Gothic”) and “grief rolled up its sleeves” (“Sacrament”).

The final panel, and the penultimate poem of the collection, “Panels from a Celestial Autumn,” continues this darkness, with a speaker who tells us the story of a boy who “fell from oaken arms” when “Jupiter / held the current easy in his hand. Slipped it though / the lad from collar to hip,” and our speaker who “was born when the spark was fading, a gibbous face / turned her cold gaze elsewhere.” In the longest of the panel poems, the speaker transitions from the first- and third-person: “Lake-eyed & wolf-bit, she dead reckons the / hardscape of illness & rough sleep” and is “Somehow…always prepared for winter.” In a lot of ways, this piece offers returns and references to many of the others, like “flares persimmon,” tracing back to the poem titled “Still Life with Persimmons,” and is held together with observations in the form of “body as” statements that trend from dark, “body as dying star,” to the slightly brighter “body as forgotten island.” The rest of this section lives in the same mood: a level of darkness outlined in silver with images like “the hills look blue / in the arms of an old moon” (“Suburnan Aubade with French Horn”) and “a starless sky still shines as bright” (“Dusk at Mt. Diablo”).

The final sentiment of the collection is its best summary: “listen / when she whispers: If you are patient, / your eyes will adjust to the dark.” This moment serves as a reminder, of the capacity to adapt even in the heaviest moments. Traversing through the seasons, Cressio-Moeller’s Shade of Blue Trees takes its reader on a journey through history, grief, and solitude. This structure tells a story that is constantly weaving in and out of itself, showing how complex the process of healing can be, while leaving us with the hope – and the reminder – that somehow, after it all, “even broken glass refracts light” (“Self-Portrait as Empty Reliquary”) and that that light is worth the pain of perseverance.

Shade of Blue Trees is available at Two Slyvias Press

Nicole Bethune Winters (she/her) is a poet, ceramic artist, and yoga teacher. She currently resides in Southern California, where she makes and sells pottery out of her home studio. When she isn’t writing or wheel-throwing, Nicole is likely at the beach, on a trail, or exploring new landscapes. She derives most of the inspiration for her creative work from her interactions with the environment around her, and is always looking for new ways to connect with and understand the earth. Her debut poetry collection, brackish, will be published by Finishing Line Press in August 2022.