The title is set in Visby, but I think it is more apt to fondly call it an Avril Lavigne font. The cover of That Ex by Rachelle Toarmino (Big Lucks, 2020) immediately sets a loud, confident, unapologetically femme tone that I cannot disengage from. Toarmino masterfully layers dozens of clever, understated cultural references to create a cohesive and fun portrait of the life of a 20-something in 2020s America. That Ex, Toarmino explains, is titled as such because every man has a story about a “crazy ex” who, more likely than not, was human, and her poems reflect the human intimacy of sincere self-confidence others may look down upon. Toarmino’s engagement with form helps the book embody a wholly contemporary experience, immersing her audience in the emotional weight of finding love, family, and yourself while being bombarded by phone notifications and the plight of social media.
Toarmino, Editor-in-Chief of Peach Magazine, swiftly summarizes this experience in 103 weighty pages of poetry. While the collection moves quickly, themes and emotions building between pages, each poem is worth sitting with individually. Holistically, this book reads like tending to a plant stretching up under the neon purple of a grow light—something tender, assisting natural growth and life through artificial means to supplement that which we cannot get otherwise. Individual poems read like lip gloss shimmer catching the light from below in a bar; the light that cracks through pre-installed starter apartment curtain blinds; streetlights smearing onto the wet pavement of an empty parking lot at night. Lines become enjambed and run over each other, interrupting one thought with another, fast callbacks and callouts and calls for attention to the minutiae of daily turmoil. And it is beautiful.
With references from Anne Carson to the Twitter account @SheRatesDogs (which posts anonymous screencaps of male entitlement, often in dating app screenshots or private messages on social media), from Anish Kapoor and Stuart Semple’s color privatization disputes to Marie Kondo’s concept of items sparking joy, Toarmino captures the whirlwind of constant cultural references that comes with living in the digital age. These references come in quick succession, and the reader is expected to keep up. Both of the above sets of references occur within the same line, rocketing us back and forth between flickers of the cultural imagination. Toarmino’s spry connections are not just for immersion, but to lend an anchor point for empathy: understanding the subversions, inversions, and thick vacillations between optimism and pessimism about the situations at hand often feels like staring at someone else’s life through a thick pane of glass. In “People You May Know,” the speaker calls interpersonal interactions “looking at each other / through the wrong end / of binoculars” and comments that “it is so gaudy / and gruesome.” Toarmino is right, and That Ex consolidates this experience, tracing the move from putting yourself together to falling back apart to putting yourself back together but for real this time, I promise.
That Ex uses physical forms, in all its shifts and breaks and shapes, to its advantage throughout the book. For example, “If You Love Attention Make Some Noise,” is composed only of one phrase—“I am easy to love,”—that is repeated 104 times. The final line cuts off the phrase partway through: “I am easy.” The repetition creates a perfect block of text, a rectangle easy enough to skim through like a mantra you have to tell yourself even when you don’t believe it, followed by an interjection, or perhaps an intrusion, of what you really do believe, or what others tell you that you should believe.
“I Said Okay” is the first of two poems where single lines and stanzas stand on their own, spread across eighteen pages, a handful of words and images swimming in blank space. The last image, “okay / I said okay / I will Okay” uses capitalization for emphasis, as though we’re hearing one side of a phone conversation with a disgruntled mother. These fragments feel like reading texts pop up on someone else’s phone screen—stripped of context, yet deeply intimate and emotional. You cannot know what that context is without intruding, and Toarmino doesn’t shy away from the bombardment and interference that has become a cornerstone of young contemporary lives. Other shapes, literal images of a ravioli food truck or a computer mouse bringing the speaker’s body to the trash described as bracketed asides in “Week of Waking Thoughts No. 2” or the lightning-bolt zig-zag of alternatingly off-centered lines in “You Up?”, are emotional touchstones without ever feeling self-serving or self-sacrificing. In particular, “[visual of mouse cursor dragging my body to Trash] / mark yourself safe” from “You Up?” highlights the speaker’s feelings of catastrophe by moving herself to the electronic disposal system and, in the very next line, clarifying that she is okay by means of Facebook’s algorithm for updating family and friends after a disaster.
“there is the first moment / when you realize // that someday you will know this person / very intimately // but it will feel like / returning to something.” That Ex brought me back to shuffling through profiles on Tinder, keeping my fingers crossed for the prospect of finding someone worth my love, and trying to convince myself that I was just as worthy of it as others. Its lyric stirrings brought that purple light overhead, returning me to an intimate corner of myself I’d nearly forgotten about, but never truly could.
Lee Anderson is a nonbinary MFA student at Northern Arizona University, where they are the Managing Editor of Thin Air Magazine. They have been published sporadically but with zest, with work appearing or forthcoming in The Rumpus, Columbia Journal, and Back Patio Press.