Sundress Reads: Review of Matryoshka Houses

Matryoshka Houses

Reading Matryoshka Houses (Kelsay Books, 2020) in the Midwest suburbs is like reading Mary Oliver in Provincetown, or Frank O’Hara in New York, or Flannery O’Connor in the Deep South. They just make everything you’re looking at more beautiful, more important somehow. I’m not convinced that’s because Lynn Pattison wrote the collection with my city-planned exurb in mind, or simply because I am surrounded by houses.

It may be true that any place surrounded by homes is a place rich with the textures and dualities of the human experience, the unscrutinized beauty of a hundred little lives—big lives, to the ones living them. I find this dichotomy so profound, that as I look across the street to the house parallel to mine, I see the husband through the window. I watch their fluffy white Samoyed jumping up and down, and I find everything there so tangible, so easy to process and comprehend. By contrast, in my own, everything is out of proportion. I cannot make sense of this life I am experiencing, its complexities virtuous and maddening. Yet, from the view across the street, through their window, I am a college kid on my little computer sipping tea and watching the light come in. I bet you I am very small to him, too. This smallness and bigness is what Pattison acutely capitalizes on in her stunning collection, an amalgamation of life, of objects, of characters and props, of a three dimensional, fully formed human experience as lived through distinct setting. A picture of life through the home.

When tackling as huge a subject as the metaphor of a house, there is much to be said about taking it apart, dissecting this monster of a motif into digestible pieces of imagery—a hairbrush here, a litter box there, an empty milk carton, etc. That is one way to illustrate a personhood. Yet, Pattison seems to argue against this methodology, especially with early lines of “Elusive”: “The story / of home can’t be unearthed by orderly excavation, / studied one stratum at a time.” By deliberately using words like excavation, with a sort of scientific cadence, she contends that a home (and by extended metaphor, a life) isn’t an impersonal stack of objects, the bare bones of the matter, or its earth underneath. That though these things hold pieces, fractured bits of a reality, they can never surmise its true, lush fullness. Nevertheless, she exemplifies the impactfulness of this stylistic list form, following the above-mentioned line with a montage of prose-filled imagery. In what seems like direct opposition to her ideology surrounding the way we discuss the vast emotional and physical presence of homes, she indulges the audience in visuals that triumphantly glorify the ordinary, channeling time, change, and history. Moments like, “wax pilgrims and jewelry boxes with dancers // on the lids, framed diplomas and watering cans, / sump pumps and inner tubes” take objects that, while having no clear ties to one another, become a forcibly linked and united front to deliver a picture of what an overflowing, real, functional home looks like. 

It isn’t just the commitment to this grand idea that makes this collection so powerful—it’s Pattison’s narrative voice. An influx between personal and omnipotent, there is a balanced authority and loss of authority sustained throughout. In poems like “Rustbeltasana” and “At Last,” the author carries the poem with confidence, assuredness we relax in and listen to. Conversely, poems like “The dog, if I had one. Maybe my pillow.” and “Cleaning the birdhouse” contrast it with what can often be the fragility of our limited perspective, paired with the forced all-knowingness of a matriarch. In weaving these frames of view, we find the humanness at the center, the deeply maternal struggle between having answers and grasping for them. As Pattison writes, “There are so many things / A mother can’t explain.”

At the center of the whirlwind of life that is harnessed in this text, there is a gracefulness, a fight against cynicism, a battle sometimes lost, an intentional awareness, a paying attention, a gratitude and a tentativeness, the home and what’s inside. Pattison is an expert at this art, of illuminating reality, of allowing it full figuration and, as a result, we exit her world feeling deeper and more profoundly about our own homes, and the ones across the street.

Matryoshka Houses is available at Kelsay Books


Finnegan Angelos is a poet and essayist originally from northern Maryland, now residing in Chicago. His work often concentrates on the dichotomy between those two places, dealing heavily in nostalgia and naturalism—as well as queerness, interpersonal relationships, and spirituality. His work has been published in the Beyond Queer Words Anthology, Thistle Magazine, and FRANCES, among others. He loves his dog, hibiscus tea, and the banjo.

Interview with Mackenzie Berry, Author of Slack Tongue City

With the recent publication of her debut poetry collection, Slack Tongue City, Sundress Publications author Mackenzie Berry sat down with our intern, Katherine DeCoste, to discuss how her Southern roots, food, and regionality inform her writing. This collection of poetry explores sensory manifestations of longing, transforming ideas of the “homeland” from a physical place to a place of memory.

Katherine DeCoste: The poems in this collection frequently returns to food—grits, coffee, mac & cheese. Can you speak to how food informs identity and community in your work?

Mackenzie Berry: To know any place, I think you have to taste it. And it feels especially important when talking about the U.S. South. So, I had to talk about it when talking about Louisville. At every church potluck, it was all on the table—who made what, hurrying up to get something before it’s gone. Food is so transitory and still so important. Food feels like the concrete manifestation of nostalgia and longing, and my writing has a lot of longing.

KD: You use a wide range of forms here, from prose poem to ghazal, sestina, and pantoum. How did you arrive at these specific forms, and how did they shape these poems?

MB: Honestly, the form poems came out of assignments to write specific form poems in college, when I wrote most of the manuscript. I used the space of form as a means to have musicality or give direction to particular content I wanted to write about. The jug band poem felt like it had to be a sestina because the repeating six words could tell a long story but remain with emphasis. The ghazal is my favorite form, because it’s so musical, so there are a couple of them. It has a chorus built in—something to return to and anchor the poem. The forms also gave the poems a direction to arrive at by the end of a line, something to write toward, so that helped the poems come into being. Writing some of them was writing a puzzle, which felt accurate to the content.

KD: Can you tell me more about the “after” poems in this collection, and how other creatives influenced your work?

MB: Sure—the “after” poems here are citations. A few gesture to some poets I’ve read and their work—John Murillo, Frank X Walker, Brigit Pegeen Kelly. A couple others reference an event as a starting point, as a head of the poem, and don’t return to it in the body of the poem. I’ve drawn from so many poets for their music, for their song. Joy Priest was the first Louisville poet I read on the page, and her work Horsepower has the hum and the engine, as the title suggests.

KD: In “Mama Said Louisville’s not the South Because it Dresses Grits Fancy,” you tease out tension around regionality, especially concerning the South and Midwest. Can you speak more to this?

MB: Louisville’s always been in a geographic struggle with which region it belongs to, and with its relationship with Kentucky as a whole, so I wanted to play that out in this poem with some humor and with specificity. It was funny to me that my mom’s singular and unequivocal criteria for why Louisville is not the South is on account of grits. And yet, of course it is.

KD: Tell me about the book’s three sections. What moved you to structure the collection this way? 

MB: I saw three clear groupings of poems—Louisville poems, childhood/upbringing poems, and grief/heartbreak poems. I tried weaving them all together so that the collection wouldn’t read as disconnected, then tried sections, then returned to no sections, but once my editor Tennison suggested putting them into sections to see how it read, it felt like each one built on the last and that the collection had a clear arc.

KD: You write “if a city is a body it’s redrawing its anatomy” in “Three Truths & A Lie.” How do you see Louisville as a character, as well as a place or setting, in these poems?

MB: I see Louisville as a sky, as an overlook, as an underground, as actually an arbitrary thing—a defined city with borders—as another place which only exists from displacing Indigenous peoples, and that is where I come from. It has many people acting upon it and stretching it into something else, and all it can do is watch it happen in some instances, but in other instances other actors refuse that.

KD: “On Being From Nobody” details a violent encounter between the speaker and “the boy who is almost a man.” Can you tell me how you see femininity and masculinity at play in this poem, as well as throughout the collection?

MB: I don’t see masculinity in this poem but a caricature of it. This caricature is used by “the body who is almost a man” as leverage and as a threat, as something that rages and laughs about it. In the collection as a whole, girlhood and womanhood is something that multiplies and becomes abundant the more it feeds itself. It makes itself, in the absence of and in the howling for. 

KD: Slack Tongue City is as concerned with history as it is with location and place. With that in mind, how do you see these poems engaging with the notion of being “from” a place?

MB: Yes. I’m caught up with archives, and I felt such a need to archive this place as I’ve known it and put my finger on the map, knowing it will never return back there. I think these poems live at the tension of simultaneously being from a place and being beyond it. Of being attached to a physical place as a reference point, as a landing ground, and knowing that ground is ever shaking. I’ve always thought that the best way to read history is to read the poets of the time. Because poetry will bring you into the house, into the kitchen, whereas other depictions may stop at the street, or only go as far as the front door. I’ve always thought of poets as historians from the first collection I ever read, which was Head Off & Split by Nikky Finney.

KD: The collection’s second section presents several recollections from the speaker’s childhood, like their mother’s cookies and purchasing a bike at a garage sale. What is poetry’s role in engaging with these kinds of memories?

MB: Poetry can be used as an archive of the personal. I certainly use it for that. It’s great for memory because by genre it can be incoherent and jarring and parsed and jumpy, which memories often are. Poetry is good for making a quilt. 

Order your copy of Slack Tongue City today!


Mackenzie Berry’s poetry is inspired by Louisville, Kentucky, her hometown and subject of her debut poetry collection, Slack Tongue City. Her poetry has been published in Vinyl, Up the Staircase Quarterly, Hobart, and Blood Orange Review, among others. She is currently pursuing an MFA in Poetry at Cornell University.

Katherine DeCoste is an MA student at the University of Victoria, on the stolen lands of the Lekwungen-speaking peoples and the WSANEC peoples. Their poems have appeared in Grain MagazineThe Antigonish ReviewContemporary Verse 2, and elsewhere, and their play “many hollow mercies” won the 2020 Alberta Playwriting Competition Novitiate Prize. When not writing, reading, or answering emails, you can find them baking vegan snacks and forcing their friends to play Dungeons and Dragons.

Doubleback Books Announces the Release of Wendy Carlisle’s Discount Fireworks

Doubleback Books announces the release of Wendy Carlisle’s Discount Fireworks. Originally published in 2008 by Jacaranda Press, Discount Fireworks is grounded in the specific and personal, showing the universal truth of emotion that extends beyond the speaker and the situation of the poem.

Wendy Carlisle’s poems explore the minutiae of contemporary life, from a childhood in the 1950s to Hurricane Katrina and the thinning glaciers of the twenty-first century. Haunted by the Ozarks of her native Arkansas, the poet explores topics ranging from vampires to Adam and Eve to life in the Andromeda Galaxy. Carlisle’s poems range from sonnets to syllabics to free verse, taking us through an Arkansas landscape touched by wind and water, patois and the rocky Ozark soil. Discount Fireworks is a hymn to landscape and personal identity, a reminder of the interconnectedness of daily existence. Haunting and beautiful, Carlisle’s poems will transport you into an otherworldly plane grounded in everyday joys.

Download your copy of Discount Fireworks on the Doubleback Books website: https://doublebackbooks.wordpress.com/discount-fireworks-by-wendy-t-carlisle/

Wendy Taylor Carlisle lives and writes in the Arkansas Ozarks. She is the author of four books, Reading Berryman to the Dog, Discount Fireworks, The Mercy of Traffic, and On the Way to the Promised Land Zoo, and five chapbooks. See her work online and in print in Persimmon Tree, pacificREVIEW, 2RiverView, Mom Egg, San Pedro River Review, Atlanta Review, and others. She has an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts, has been anthologized, and has 12 times been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. For more information, her website is www.wendytaylorcarlisle.com.