Sundress Reads: Review of The Temple

Michael Bazzett’s The Temple (Bull City Press, 2020) invites readers to enter a realm where the stone is rolled away, revealing a space for musings, mystery, curiosity, and the type of humor that feels wise and natural. Bazzett effortlessly grapples with the bewilderment that the body has in a world where very few things are certain, and everything is waiting.

In a collection of 20 short poems, The Temple introduces a God who is equipped with dark humor, a nonchalant attitude, and even a cigar. Made up of two parts, the collection explores the stance I imagine many people come across with the topic of faith: how it sways from strong truth to a subtle wondering to, sometimes, disbelief. I imagine the speaker of these poems has walked a beach and searched for a set of footprints but instead saw only the crest of a swell wash them away. With this use of imagery and language, it’s no wonder American poet Maggie Smith says of the book, “Of poets writing today, I can’t think of any whose metaphors are more satisfying than Michael Bazzett—and The Temple is his best work yet.”

Belief is the heart of the collection and appears in the poem it’s named after, but these poems are accessible to anyone—including those without a background in religion. Pondering belief and meaning—the same unknowns that make us all human—its concerns surround the actual body we possess and the places we take them and leave them, momentarily, curious about what any of it will result in or for what purpose.

These poems are part confessional, part dramatic monologue, part history, part cryptid tale bestowed from a place of wisdom, all making the collection strange and inspiring. The musicality of the pieces flow and spill over the page and onto the lap of the reader. Here, anything is possible: an empty city living inside the body, a dog writing poetry, a blue-toothed woman, miracles. The narratives in these poems are so evocative you could reach out and touch them, or mistake the voices for someone you know intimately well, forcing both reader and poem to sit together in grief, a desperate longing, or casual conversation. Here, a God eats old candy and compares it to tinfoil, “All that aching naked hope.”

The poem “My Body Tells Me What To Do” spits the reader into the thickness of vulnerable honesty with the lines “There is still a meaty part of me / that yearns to rest / in dirt and grow soft as a mashed root.” The piece then wanders into the ponderings of turning to ash, going under the ground, and the eventual and unavoidable concept of nothingness. “The Ones Who Aren’t Mentioned” introduces characters like the dog of a serial killer, a small mouse witnessing a city burn, and a God with a reluctance to self-identify, ending on the lines “Imagine laying down / a rusty knife and calling it love.”

Many of the poems include running titles that lead into the first line, yet each piece in this book feels as if you are at a sermon rediscovering your deepest self, your soul split open to the will of the words, imagery, and rhythm. Bazzett begins The Temple with a poem titled “The End,” which is a giveaway for how topsy turvy the world is within this surreal collection. The Temple symbolizes all the things people often worship, whether it be religion, a God, a body, or a place. The title of the collection couldn’t be more fitting, with Bazzett acting as its interpreter. The complexity of this writing is wrapped up in such a brief collection gracefully, with the ending poem “The Follower” encountering a run in with an older version of the self but choosing to watch them disappear. This ending ultimately leaves the reader with a different version of themselves prior to reading it, as we sit with our body, reflecting on the exquisite peculiarities in our own lives we choose to worship or believe in. Reading this book will encourage you to reflect on what resigns within your own temple.

The Temple is available at Bull City Press

Ryleigh Wann (she/her/hers) is an MFA poetry candidate at UNC Wilmington. Her past experiences include reading poetry for Ecotone, editing with Lookout Books, teaching creative writing, and working for the Parks and Recreation Department in Michigan. Her writing can be found in Rejection Letters, Flypaper Lit, and Kissing Dynamite Poetry, among others.

Sundress Reads: Review of Grieving for Guava

In her collection of short stories Grieving for Guava (The University Press of Kentucky, 2020), Cecilia M. Fernandez captures the grief, longing, and hope of Cuban immigrants and diaspora in 10 poignant vignettes. These stories, though different in length, style, and perspective, are connected by lingering yearning and loss. The title Grieving for Guava hints at the evocative imagery that highlights the vivid, small details that the characters long for—that sweet scent of guava in their homes.

Home. The word, though often unspoken, permeates these stories, which span the divide between two countries, offering glimpses into the lives of those who are leaving, have left, or are returning to Cuba. The nostalgia-tinged prose of each narrative allows readers to experience the sense of both community and isolation felt by immigrants old and young and in between. 

In her foreword, Fernandez speaks about capturing the stories of the past before it is “utterly lost.” Although fictional stories, the truth of each family’s struggle comes through; so much so that one feels as if they are reading real-life accounts of various lives. Fernandez’s love—for her family, for these first waves of Cuban people coming to America, for these lives—is evident in her thoughtful, earnest prose and detailed characterization. 

Grieving for Guava opens with the story of the three Marusas in “Marusa’s Beach.” Both memories and yearning span their generations, where Cuban immigrants find community with each other amidst their own dashed hopes, struggles, and dreams. Multiple families are broken—both during and after the move to Cuba—and many are separated by distance, time, or beliefs. The story ends with a sense of irrevocable change, grief, and regret that carries through the rest of the stories.

The next stories, “Mad Magi” and “The Last Girl,” surprised me. They move from the powerful first story’s thoughtful, reflective grief into an ever-present sense of restlessness and dissatisfaction. These stories detail the stagnancy and confusion of trying to adapt to lives different than what one may have hoped for and expected. As the book moves forward, so do the characters, and watching them realize that what has changed is not only their circumstances but also themselves is striking.

“Summer of My Father’s Gun” focuses on another young girl trying desperately to regain stability, safety, and belonging. She lives in a neighborhood of many Cubans, and Fernandez briefly but effectively tells stories within this story, detailing the backgrounds of each family in the community. Though the story is from one person’s perspective, it showcases an experience shared by many. I felt the communion of shared past and present similarities, and the division that even those can cause.

“Button Box” shows the trailing sense of loss and confusion upheavals leave behind. The story gives us our first real-time glimpse within the book at Cuba, which has changed significantly since Castro’s takeover. Details and plot unfold to reveal the loss felt by both those who left and those left behind, along with the solace of memories and loved ones as we watch someone visit the island and reunite with family. The character’s hope kept me hooked. Seeing her revisit previously familiar places and people reminded me of my own trips to my mother’s home country where I grew up—that fear that everything will have changed, combined with the knowledge that some things inevitably have already, is one I imagine is familiar to many immigrant families.

“Where Do You Go, My Lovely?” veers back to younger diaspora, this time painting the differences between generations of immigrants. Whereas the Marusas are connected by their longing for home, Susana and her parents and grandparents grapple with their contrasting backgrounds and goals. Fernandez shows how the struggles and stories of first-generation immigrants sometimes get lost down the road, harkening back to the foreword’s statement that the past must be written before it is lost. Susana’s story itself seemed symbolic of this, a way to preserve the past while moving forward.

In two former lovers’ dual perspectives, “Flags and Rafts” crosses back and forth between the port of Cojímar and the shores of Miami. One left for America near the beginning of Castro’s takeover, while the other stayed, yet both hoped for a better future. The story is a tribute to the hopes maintained and thwarted over time, uniting Cuban people on and off the island even while separating them, and the endurance of hope sustained through love. :Flags and Rafts” delves into old loves, while “Rocking Chair Love” explores the discovery of new love after loss, painting a picture of renewal found even through grief.

“Dime-Store Date” reveals the trickling effect of an older generation’s struggles and trauma. Amid the disappointment and isolation of a broken family is a younger teenager driven by the same desire for love and belonging and wounded by its loss. The glimpse into young Mari’s world traces a day that Mari will not remember but that I and other readers certainly will. With subtle heartbreak and narrative, Fernandez implores readers not to forget.

The stories come full circle with “Here in Havana.” Decades after the events of “Marusa’s Beach,” Iraidita continues to hold close her memories of the day, her longing for home, and her hope for a better life. As we make the journey with her back to Havana, seeing Cuba and the world change through her eyes, we learn what it means to rediscover home.

Overall, the collection is full of gripping, moving vignettes that tugged at my heartstrings. I felt deeply invested in many of the characters, feeling as if I were hoping, grieving, and wondering with them. Fernandez painted a vivid picture of that unsettling restlessness that comes with the yearning for something we can’t have; in the characters’ case, it’s their old lives. Whenever I’ve missed the smell of Taiwanese pork chop or the sweetness of aiyu, what I’ve really missed is home. This collection took me through every step of that vivid nostalgia. In Grieving for Guava, all the details—the smells of local guava, the sounds of family members in casual conversation, the sights of the ocean from a Cuban coast—captured the pervasiveness of the constant longing that stays forever, and the comfort of all that’s left.

Grieving for Guava is available at The University Press of Kentucky

Stephi Cham holds a BM in Music Therapy with a Minor in Psychology from Southern Methodist University. She is currently working toward her MA in Publishing at Rosemont College, where she manages the publishing program’s communications as a graduate assistant. She is a freelance editor and the author of the Great Asian-American series published by Capstone Press, and her work has appeared in Strange Horizons.

Sundress Reads: Review of The Death Spiral

How do reflections of a past humanity co-exist with the present, or grow into our future? Author and professor Sara Giragosian asks this question between the lines of her poetry collection, The Death Spiral (Black Lawrence Press, 2020). By evoking visceral convergences, repetitions, and breakdowns of organic matter, Girgosian situates America in the Anthropocene—not just as a space of mass extinction and climate change, but also as a point of political upheaval, colonialization, and cultural erasure.

Nomadically waltzing between seedpods, crosswinds, rock membranes and raptors (both extinct and living), The Death Spiral recognizes the Paleolithic and present as migratory states rather than time periods. In this malleable temporality, love and death become ingesting and ingested things that creep into us all, causing us to ask of our surroundings, “If there are cracks in the world where spirits pass through, slow this scene—let me live in the still / when you hover in mid-air to drink the honeysuckle in.” You will find this stillness at the closure of the collection, after forming a truer understanding of the fossilized and forgotten—the echoes of national mistakes Giragosian amplifies with words that rip and free.

The Death Spiral is divided into three sections, each with its own balance of urgency and upliftment. In the first section, “Emergency Procedures,” Girgosian brings awareness to the exile of the Yup’ik (the earth’s first climate refugees), the deep traces of systematic racism present in the US Law Enforcement Oath of Honor, and her great-grandmother’s story as a survivor of the Armenian Genocide. Amongst these considerations, Giragosian presents family history as a victim to colonialism, terror as a person with favorites, and God as a force as “anonymous / and intimate as a nurse who can deliver pain / or take it away.” In this open-faced recognition of cruelty and fear, Girgosian reminds us that “Nature is neither cruel nor moral, / but she’s irrepressible / as a kink in the nervous system”. The presentation of this ambivalent yet unstoppable natural force feels like the modem by which we are told to trace our truest form of history with tactile diligence, remapping the ancestral land that has been too often erased. It is a triumphant, if pained, call for justice.

The second section, “To Kingdom Come”, makes its presence known with the gentle propositional poem “Origins.” Here, the first line theorizes, “suppose we / were intimate / before the Bang / all of us / you and me / and the cosmos / cramped in at a point / finer than an atom.” The connectivity of a collective comes to the forefront, making us aware of the ways our dreams, movements, and actions pulse out a vibration we are capable of feeling with humble acuteness. Traversing dark and dirty energy to travel through towns including Terlingua Texas, Beacon New York, and the Rio Grande, Giragosian encompasses the experiences of immigrant families facing a “wild-eyed” America “rehearsing his blunt sand trap quiz.”

This presentation of a restrictive, nationalistic consciousness contrast the moments of connectivity Giragosian proposes at the beginning of this section. By doing so, Giragosian shifts between first, second, third person plural perspectives, as well as the anonymity of a character called E., in order to dare exclusionists to “private tour your way around my mind / too gaslighted by Sparkle the Racist, Boo Boo the Homophobe, and Frisky the Sexist / to be any good to you now.” The multiplicity of perspectives allows readers to hold an orbital view of American discrimination at the same time that Giragosian asserts connectivity as a source of understanding and love. Ultimately it is the hopeful message of connection that makes headway through the title poem, “The Death Spiral”. Here, Giragosian evokes the courtship ritual of eagles to propose, “Suppose that to marry is to defy death / talon to talon, / to promise to learn together the art / of freefalling as mutual deference.” The feeling of interlocking talons—another instance of deep connection—is not just a plummeting force in this poem, but a mutual respect with the power to fall upwards. By spotlighting this action, Giragosian suggests a similar move for our communities—an activism which freefalls with mutual deference.

Thus, in the final section, “Father Absence,” The Death Spiral  takes a step past connectivity to ingestion—embrace. Here, Giragosian writes of a sort of decomposition in which nature fits into humanity, and vice versa. She writes to a T-Rex stillborn to say, “And when your ghost squirms / in my spleen, I know the foreboding’s inbred.” Backcountry situates in a human “I” narrator with gill slits, bat bones resembling a grandmother’s hand, and memories are either from a former life as a Galapagos Marine Iguana, or as the detritus of organic matter. What Giragosian accomplishes in her final section, and throughout The Death Spiral as a whole, is a sensation that our history, pain, deaths, memories, and mistakes are all shared, traceable, organic matter. In writing The Death Spiral, Sara Giragosian illustrates the past that we, as a community, must recognize as traceable, breathing, and still waiting for honest representation.

The Death Spiral is available at Black Lawrence Press

Hannah Olsson holds a double BA in Cinema and Creative Writing English from the University of Iowa. During her time in Iowa, Hannah was the president of The Translate Iowa Project and its publication boundless, a magazine devoted to publishing translated poetry, drama, and prose. Her work, both in English and Swedish, has been featured in boundless, earthwords magazine, InkLit Mag, and the University of Iowa’s Ten-Minute Play Festival.

Sundress Reads: Review of Sisyphusina

Sisyphusina by Shira Dentz ([PANK] Books, 2020) spirals through several concentric circles in 96 pages, each rotation getting closer to the question of what happens when a woman is deemed no longer socially “useful.” Between the normal aging process, never marrying or having children, and not meeting standards of conventional attractiveness, layers of this normative deviation begin to stack. Troubling social acceptability involves stepping outside of our own personal boundaries into the realm of the new, watching the speaker (revealed to be Dentz herself) embrace her own features: “Even, straight, white teeth are a sign of class. Why do I cover my gray then? Is gray a different kind of mark? // Tiny white hairs on my chin, fish bones. Lined up in a row, like teeth” (61). Sisyphusina uses unique, intertwined forms—such as visual art, copier scans of hands, and a QR code that links to an instrumental composition—to try and answer the question of what happens when the world decides it is done with us. Ultimately, it arrives at the answer that there is no answer and the best we can do is carry on.

Sisyphusina’s engagement with form is the most immediately recognizable aspect of the text. Directly following the acknowledgements, Dentz writes a letter to her readers explaining that her formal decisions are guided by “consistency not in terms of uniformity, evenness, and constancy; but consistency in terms of texture.” (ix) Punctuation and stylistic conventions are subverted in order to engage a sense of volume and voice; text is placed around the page to emphasize the breath between them. After all, it is about the “relationship between plasticity and order, spurred by the muse/lyric impulse of what [Dentz] seeks to give expression;” that “form is sculptural.” (ix) This sculptural tendency is abundantly clear after the first poem, which begins with different fonts for the title and body but is otherwise relatively standard in form. However, the second poem ratchets in intensity—and it only increases from there. At this point, the words become stream-of-consciousness, large-blocked prose poems with shifting capitalization. In particular, the pronoun “I” is capitalized inconsistently in “Eva 1,” leading to textural lulls and a misplacement of subject, which becomes a common theme throughout the book.                              

Once a norm has been introduced—whether textual or metatextual—it dances, weaving and wavering around, becoming more visible and repeated within a few poems, before dipping away and then returning. This orbital dance helps to create the circular movement around Dentz’s commentary, particularly her integration of visual art and music into the book itself. Lines arrive around and within the poems by page 7, drawing the eye to what would otherwise be white space around explications and poems-within-poems, quickly becoming as much a part of the text as the words themselves by showing physical movement and the beginning of the collection’s elliptical movement. Pages 10 and 11 feature the same image of a photocopied left hand with two rings on the middle and ring finger; the first iteration is the hand alone but the second is accompanied by a poem titled “copy.” The poetry and images work together to create textures and repetition, imparting meaning through visceral feeling, much like abstract visual art, which makes particular sense when considering Dentz’s inclusions of lines, shapes, and visual art pieces within and around the writing—after all, what are words if not lines and shapes on a page? The poem “FLOUNDERS,” for example, dissects the same scene nine times in nine different ways using the same words, like kaleidoscopic blackout prose poetry that never touches color.

While the formal elements of Sisyphusina are one of its strongest suits, there are repeated images and concepts that circle around. The feeling of isolation permeates both the use of color—grays and greens in particular, referencing both age in terms of “graying hair” and “iridescent gray branches preserved”—and female hair, especially chin hair. The speaker plucks chin hair because she wants “skin soft and smooth so that when my imaginary lover touches it’s baby soft.” (4) There are dissertations referencing women’s relationships to facial hair, newspaper clippings about Ancient Egyptians’ relationships to hair (dying with henna, shaving it, braiding it) and how they considered hair “a supreme form of self-expression.” (13) Parallel on the page, the speaker lists every expression she can think of relating to hair: “isn’t there anything else on your mind besides food and hair?” she asks.

Aside from the introduction and firm separations from norms and what is considered “acceptable,” Dentz suggests a metadiscussion on writing and how form contributes to what is acceptable to say about writing as an art. After being told that people like to read about the body and finding that this was the case in the 1970s (and is a trend that has resurfaced and circled back in popularity): “I usually don’t include these kinds of sentences because it’s not good form to write about writing, except in metafiction. One’s supposed to act like the voice is disembodied. There is no author here. Thing is, no one will even know that these words exist except if they’re read. So why pretend someone isn’t reading (you) / writing this?” (24) These forms of standardization and silence—that writers aren’t supposed to discuss ourselves in our writing, even when the writing itself is intrinsically personal—parallel the collection’s exploration of women’s beauty standards. In order for either to be considered classically beautiful, it must appear as if the person behind it all does not exist.

With regards to both the death of the author and falling in line with social norms for the sake of doing so, Dentz poses the question: “why pretend someone isn’t right for the colors.” (21) The disruption of these classical beauty ideas and inherent “correctness” of art, as seen through the mediums of writing, visual art, composition, and the human body, lies at the heart of Sisyphusina. In compiling this multimedia and cross-genre collection, each genre’s work lies just a hair beyond what some may view as “correct” for the style (the audience in “Aging Music” may be aware of the score, and microphones may be placed near windows to pick up sounds of the natural environment, for example), but it remains art. The beauty of art is something intrinsic, beyond what is deemed socially acceptable as beautiful. Sisyphusina is a beautiful piece; it asks its audience to work for its meanings, parsing through pages of stream-of-consciousness writing and swirling images to reach its impressive, rich core. As the female version of Sisyphus, constantly rolling the boulder up the hill to no avail, Dentz creates a lush landscape in order to question the rules and roles of acceptable women, and implies women are art that may never be framed.

Sisyphusina is available at [PANK]

Lee Anderson is a nonbinary writer from the American -west with an MFA from Northern Arizona University. They have been published sporadically but with zest, appearing or forthcoming in places such as The Rumpus, Columbia Journal, and Unstamatic Magazine.

Sundress Reads: Review of Capable Monsters

In a work of queer Black boyhood and manhood, Capable Monsters (Bull City Press, 2020), a chapbook by Minnesota-based poet Marlin M. Jenkins, directly engages with the Pokémon franchise. This collection interrogates what it means to be drawn as a monster, bringing a fresh and animated perspective to the Black experience in America. It is playful and familiar, especially for fans of the Poké-world, whether that’s the movies, the games, or even the television show, yet it stands on its own merit, too. While Jenkins’ love for these creatures shines through (he names Umbreon as his favorite Pokémon in his bio), the Pokémon are merely a cultural touchstone that serves to open up this movement from boyhood to entry into a harsher, more ruthless environment where all must learn to evolve.

Yes, the Pokémon act as a framework, a backbone, a spine of this work, all while examining class and race structures. A handful of these poems bear regular titles, like “Tall Grass” and “Evolution”, but all of the others are labeled by their Pokédex names, i.e. “Pokédex Entry #1: Bulbasaur”. Following these titles, each creature is introduced by what characterizes them, not merely their color or power but a larger description that gives room for reader curiosity and edifying ambiguity. For Lapras: “People have driven Lapras almost to the point of extinction” (19). For Jigglypuff: “When this Pokémon sings, it never pauses to breathe. If it is in a battle against an /opponent that does not easily fall asleep, Jigglypuff cannot breathe, endangering its life” (20). The allusions to Black adversity are subtle yet deep-rooted—Jigglypuff’s description recalls the dying words of Eric Garner, Elijah McClain, and George Floyd.

Early on, Jenkins sets the stage with markers of class that serve to link childhood to adulthood:

Boy-man proclaimed man
of the house—with second-hand clothes
from black garbage bag, used copy
of Pokémon Blue Version (4).

This game and all of its characters act as a key for the speaker(s) of these poems to make sense of memory and trauma. Much of the language is informal, and Jenkins does not shy away from contemporary references—one poem speaks to Kendrick Lamar and the death of Michael Brown, pushed up against the disconcerting experience of being “the only Black person in the room” at a party (19).

Forms are varied throughout—Jenkins makes use of white space in some pieces, and works creatively with the use of obliques that splinter and conjure thought-provoking line breaks. In “All The Better”, Jenkins alludes to Red Riding Hood:

Boy with TV screens
for eyes / with
pixeled frown / What big holes
there are
in your memory / (17)

To place a young Black boy in the position of prey reveals a deep measure of vulnerability, and this clever back-and-forth and undercutting of expected syntax is complicated and richly rewarding—it feels as if the reader and Jenkins are developing inside jokes together on the page.

A concrete poem bears Squirtle’s shape, its two stanzas forming the sleek curve of a shell, without feeling gimmicky or forced. The shell acts as a comment on the poem’s content—Jenkins’ speaker is self-indicting and fearful, learning to craft protection from his own physicality. This poem (and many others) must have been created to be read aloud—there is quick word play, smart cuts, and tight language to bolster a rhythm that feels reminiscent of spoken word poetry. His sense of cadence is enviable.

Like all remarkable first chapbooks, this work is not just a collection of poems with a good hook, but drills down much deeper. Jenkins flawlessly braids aspects of the Poké-world with the bitter realities and small joys of his speaker’s real world. In the final piece, which takes its name from Generation I Pokémon, Clefairy, we see that same bearing-down on language and rhythm, with a searingly sharp, and somehow hopeful, outlook:

they want to hear
our cries, keep us
owned and docile,
but they can’t
follow us home.
We have learned (35)

In Capable Monsters, the monsters are all around us, and they are us. The Pokémon embody the speaker’s multifaceted life and the way he is able or forced to adapt, whether it is social convergence at a party lacking diversity or watching gas stations in Milwaukee go up in flames. Being a Pokémon fan is certainly not a requirement to read and enjoy this collection, but it does feel like Jenkins has written the book he wanted to read himself—anyone who has loved Pokémon will find a kinship with the figures in these pages, and remember too, how they recognized themselves in the softly drawn lines of monsters on the screen of a handheld Game Boy.

Capable Monsters is available at Bull City Press

Shannon Wolf is a British writer living in Denver, Colorado. She received a joint MA-MFA in Poetry at McNeese State University and also has degrees from Lancaster University and the University of Chichester. She is the Non-Fiction Editor of The McNeese Review, and Social Media Intern for Sundress Publications. Her poetry, short fiction, and non-fiction (which can also be found under the name Shannon Bushby) have appeared in The Forge, Great Weather for MEDIA, and No Contact Mag, among others. You can find her on social media @helloshanwolf.

Sundress Reads: Review of Behind This Mirror

Fairy tales are ripe for adaptation, with their morals explicitly laid out and traditional character archetypes strong. Granted, not every fairy tale retelling captures the spirit of the original tale while troubling them, reshaping a known story into something wholly unique, but when they do, they stick around. A well-crafted fable retelling suggests these same morals extend into the present day like Behind This Mirror by Lena Bertone (Bull City Press, 2020) does, accomplishing this through its complex points of view, proclivity to the flash fiction form, and contemporary feminist lens.

Bertone gathers 22 pieces of flash and short fiction into 54 concise pages in Behind This Mirror. Almost all of these stories are one or two pages long; the longest (“Constants”) maxes out at nine pages long. Rather than following a traditional story arc or Freytag’s pyramid, Bertone uses the power of flash to offer an impactful glimpse rather than the full story. These differences from traditional forms continue into point of view, which is constantly shifting. Some stories are told in close first, others in distant third or omniscient, some narrators known and described, others never named. The unknowability of these narrators as we see glimpses into their lives adds to the inherent relatability at the core of these stories: a good fable, after all, portrays a moral lesson that anyone reading it can pick up, and the fluidity of narrators allows for greater opportunities for self-insertion.

Behind This Mirror slides easily into conversation with Angela Carter’s work, particularly her similar collection of short fairy tale retellings, The Bloody Chamber. Published in 1979, Carter relies on an image of femininity that goes directly against social prescriptions: women are not only strong and independent, saving themselves, they save each other through familial relationships, friendships, and literal acts of strength, such as in the titular story based on Perrault’s original Bluebeard myth, in which the protagonist is saved by her mother rather than her brothers. Almost all of Carter’s protagonists, whether they are good or morally gray, are women. Behind This Mirror’s protagonists are similarly female-dominated and portrayed as strong women, but are developed beyond Carter’s archetype disruptions: they have desires, feelings, and actions that go both with and against the social grain. Where Carter’s protagonists are sexual femme fatales, Bertone’s protagonists are often seen as unattractive by society but embrace the things that make them unique. Put simply, Behind This Mirror disrupts the idea that the archetype of a strong woman is one who is tough. Even when they are not brave or strong or able to stand up for themselves, or are, again, not physically attractive—such as in “Seven Sisters,” where each of the sisters’ major source of beauty is described in contrast to the stark ugliness of the rest of their bodies, like the sister Sesta whose “eyebrows take minimal grooming, and then they are like artwork on her otherwise hideous face” (15)—Bertone shows that these women have value not in spite of their unattractive features but by simply being alive.

The gender politics of this collection are nuanced and do their best to promote women’s empowerment but also show the disempowerment of individuals, particularly queer and transgender people, that comes frequently in romantic situations. In many traditional fairy tales, the story arc follows a heterosexual couple falling truly and deeply in love, and the story ends at the beginning of the romance, where “happily ever after” is not only achievable but the only answer. Each of the relationships in Behind This Mirror are either framed at the end of the relationship (such as in the opening story, “Stories for Next Time,” and “Self-Portrait”) or feature a non-romantic familial relationship (particularly between mothers and daughters, such as in “Patch” and “Missing”). There are a few sideways glances towards the idea of queer relationships or the existence of transgender individuals. However, this is primarily through threesomes to please a king-turned-husband and going to Thailand for “the operation [Rumpelstiltskin] was sure would make him the person he was meant to be” (10). Even in revisionist fairy tales where transformation is not uncommon and the socially unattractive embrace their features with compelling self-acceptance and love, traditional social norms still hold strong influence over what is and isn’t possible.

What Bertone does to disrupt the idea of falling in love being a linear path held forever, on the other hand, is strong. One of the best examples lies in two parallel stories: “The Woman Who Waxed and Waned” and “Exactly 69% of This Sad, True Story is True.” In the former, two childhood sweethearts marry and have a daughter but the wife falls ill, her husband leaves her, but she heals and they get back together to have a happy family. In the latter, it is the exact same text, but 30% of the ending has been crossed out: “But, instead of [her life] ending, years passed, and as they did, her gaunt cheeks began to fill again with flesh and fat, and sometimes, when she spoke, words came perfectly formed from her lips.” (35) The truth that comes from the 69% of the story that is supposedly true is that the happy ending isn’t actually achievable, despite what one may hope.

Behind This Mirror opens a brief window into what the gritty reality of fairy tales may look like in contemporary contexts with grace. It touches upon the grit and dust of our world delicately, leaving that space behind the magic mirror for us to explore.

Behind This Mirror is available at Bull City Press

Lee Anderson is a nonbinary writer from the American -west with an MFA from Northern Arizona University. They have been published sporadically but with zest, forthcoming or appearing in places such as The Rumpus, Columbia Journal, and Unstamatic Magazine.

Sundress Reads: Review of Book of Levitations

Anne Champion and Jenny Sadre-Orafai’s arresting new collection Book of Levitations (Trembling Pillow Press, 2020) is an intricate dance of spellwork, incantations, curses, and ghosts. Containing instructions on how to resurrect a dead animal, make a voodoo doll, and become a mermaid, these enigmatic poems both startle and spellbind. Champion and Sadre-Ofarai’s words conjure the mystic energy of divine female power, where girls shapeshift into wolves and women use magic to ensnare and enchant. Filled with both the ordinary—trampolines, moths, roadkill, and the underwire of bras—and the occult power of witchcraft and ritual, this collection is alive with the unexpected and the charmed.

Book of Levitations is an ode to the girls who experimented with Ouija boards and told fortunes with tea leaves and tarot cards. The opening poem of the collection, “Predictions,” is dedicated to the girls who “like boys, you too were born with power— / you just didn’t know how to steal, / asking politely, your fingertips / under your friend’s body, chanting / light as a feather, stiff as a board, waiting / for her to hover, searching the night / for hidden constellations.” In these poems, witchcraft becomes a source of hidden strength that releases women from their assigned gender roles, a divine female power universal in its scope. The women in Book of Levitations draw on the matriarchal lineage of power to subvert ideals of feminine beauty in order to harness the mythical power of womanhood. In “Mermaid Spell,” the speaker imagines her daughter seducing and killing men with her charms: “Your daughter will tell you she’s a mermaid / and you won’t disagree—every woman / is born into an ocean full of baits and hooks / and traps… You need her to transform mythical— / napping on coral and seducing lonely / sailors with her sexless body / only to drag them under and bind / them in seaweed.” Champion and Sadre-Orafai resist the romanticized image of a passive, beautiful mermaid by embracing the original legend warning of their danger, a reclamation of narrative control that recognizes the autonomy and power of mythical female figures.

Throughout Book of Levitations, the authors invoke spellwork as a means to counteract sexual harassment and empower women. In “Spell to Stop Harassment,” the speaker instructs the reader to collect a sachet of baby teeth, then “when you have a shiny row / of vagina fangs, fling your legs / open like an umbrella in a thunderstorm.” “Curse for Men Who Hurt Women” is a ritual for counteracting domestic abuse, harnessing the power of witchcraft to achieve autonomy and empowerment: “If he hunts you, bathe in gasoline and threaten / him with a match—if you must / set yourself on fire to escape, do it on your knees, / tell him sorry, sorry, sorry.” The spells in Book of Levitations are grounded in the tangible and ordinary, a recurring narrative thread of everyday objects that include baby teeth, chandeliers, saltwater, and flames. The ensuing imagery is both startling and memorable, a vivid depiction of the power of witchcraft to both enchant and repel.

The pages of this collection are haunted by the ghosts of dead lovers and the disappeared, who “stay / gone, disappeared bodies, / bone in dirt closets.” In “The Gone, the Disappeared,” the spell is dedicated to the families of missing people, “who keep / your pictures pinned / in sacred rooms, who / burn tall candles / at church, who roll / milagros at dinner tables.” Another poem, “Spell for a Widow,” begins: “Hear how the wind mouths the names of the vanished. It never / stops. No one answers it back. The widow’s chair creaks through / long dusks and unthinkable daylights… There’s no such thing as resurrection, only endurance.” The authors explore absence as not simply a state of departure with the potential for new growth but an all-encompassing condition that consumes the present and future. In “Spell for Dead Lovers,” the speaker reflects on the haunting nature of deceased lovers with each new encounter: “Skin regenerates / every few years, so the selves we used / to touch had already departed. / If I smell like dead / flowers, he won’t notice the scent of dead / names on my tongue. Were you hoping / for a spell that halts grief?”

A collaborative effort between Champion and Sadre-Orafai, Book of Levitations is an enchanting spellbook haunted by the witchy magic of girlhood. Filled with fairytale sorceresses, Ouija boards, and red blood moons, these poems are otherworldly and magical, a meditation on the enduring association between witchcraft and womanhood: “In every myth, there’s a good girl and a witch— / you already know which one is more real.” Here, the poets propose an alternate vision of femininity that allows women to harness full control of their romantic lives, dreams, and desires. The collection closes with an incantation to “burn a dollhouse back to ember. / Swallow the ash,” a haunting command reminiscent of Sylvia Plath’s “Lady Lazarus”—“Out of the ash / I rise with my red hair / And I eat men like air”—as well as the witch burnings of medieval Europe. Only through trial by fire, Champion and Sadre-Orafai suggest, will these women seize full control of their power and emerge anew.

Book of Levitations is available at Trembling Pillow Press

Eliza Browning is a student at Wheaton College in Massachusetts, where she studies English and art history. Her work has previously appeared in Rust + MothVagabond City LitContrary Magazine, and Up the Staircase Quarterly, among others. She is a poetry editor for EX/POST Magazine and reads poetry for COUNTERCLOCK Journal.

Sundress Reads: Review of Greyhound

Greyhound by Aeon Ginsberg (Noemi Press, 2020) was recently nominated for a Lambda Literary Award in Transgender Poetry, and from the poem’s first breaths it’s clear to see why. Walking in the footsteps of Nevada by Imogen Binnie and other self-exploration-beyond-transition transgender narratives, Greyhound follows its speaker through the bus system into somewhere new, a phenomenological reorientation where “me being a bitch is not a possibility / but a definitive fixed point.” (30)

Greyhound is, quite literally, an epic poem from the beginning of its semi-circular journey: while Ginsberg does not end up in the same place where they started, moving from the concrete notion of getting on a bus to an ending defined by its definitions of prisms, desire, and the self, they journey through the psyche and reorient themselves through new relationships to both animate and inanimate others. Much like the wheels of its titular Greyhound bus, the one poem that luxuriates through 63 pages cycles through and circles back to a few major thematic categories: travel, transition, platonic intimacy (with others and the self), dogs, and sustenance.

The cycle reveals itself through what could most aptly be called a wheel metaphor. No one concept is explored in its entirety before the poem glitters in a different direction, shifting fragments, yet no concept is fully dropped after it has been introduced. Like a spoke of a wheel, each of these major themes and concepts hold the poem together and are featured in succession: travel, and then animals, and then definitions, and then transition, and then intimacy, and then travel again. Nothing is left alone to rot.

One of the blurbs for Greyhound mentions the work’s similarity to Sara Ahmed’s Queer Phenomenology, going as far as to use Ahmed’s metaphor of a desk as a way of making orientation tangible. This relationship between Greyhound and Queer Phenomenology cannot be understated: “Even my prescriptions / have my name in parentheses. / This makes sense too—that my identity / is on the periphery of a perception of it.” (8). From the beginning of their poem, Ginsberg identifies this transient relationship to space that queerness both allows and requires and dances with it. Phenomenology, particularly the queer kind discussed by Ahmed and other scholars, relates to the physical location of and relationship to objects from one to another. Through their exploration of relationships, striving to find home, and renaming (one of the most fun parts of early transition, that rebranding of the self), Ginsberg uses phenomenology to lay the asphalt of the open road ahead of them. “Why do all the words relating to my body / have to do with movement?” they ask. “Passing privilege, / transitioning. One thing, and then another thing.” (13) This movement and the way that travel has infused the trans lexicon is cleaved open in one sharp stanza.              

But Ginsberg doesn’t stop there. Rather, this troubling of travel through language also clearly shows their love for the possibility that physical travel allows. “I tell another trans person / I feel most in my skin / in Greyhound bus terminals. / Neither of us talks / about what it means to only be seen in a liminal way— / to only be seen when we are in movement, between two points.” (19) Movement is not always beautiful, though, they remind us. “…the conversation must recognize / movement that happens without our urgency— / in fact, regardless of our urgency or agency. / The movement of militarization. / The movement of police. / The movement of borders. / The movement of bodies.” (55). Not all bodies are allowed to move in the ways they need to, and the recognitions of the world’s glittering nuance becomes a call to action. It takes a certain level of freedom to be able to live alongside the wild road as Ginsberg has— something they both recognize and willingly admit within the poem itself.

Alongside the strength and depth with which they tackle the complex ideas of bodily autonomy and power, among other concepts, in this poem, Ginsberg is also hilarious. Their dry, witty humor cracks through just about every line. “When I get a car,” they state, “I will never wear pants / again and no one can stop me.” (28) Their legs are “two kissing hairless cats,” they “have 20/20 Gender Vision.” At times, their humor is self-deprecating, but what trans person, who’s felt free under the weight of systemic oppression, isn’t? The humorous moments are extraordinarily dry, but linger nevertheless. It serves as not only a reminder of their humanity among the nebulosity they present themselves as, but as a source of strength and self-protection in the face of a world that continues to try and beat us down.

A Greyhound: the dog, the bus, the bus as related to dog, the dog as related to speaker, the speaker as related to bus. There is no singular subject in this long, complex, gorgeous poem; rather, every permutation of speaker and self works as a spoke in the wheel, pushing the poem ahead as it lays down the road it drives upon. I, for one, hope to be along for the ride, wherever Aeon Ginsberg is taking us.

Greyhound is available at Noemi Press

Lee Anderson is a nonbinary MFA candidate 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 Unstamatic Magazine.

Sundress Reads: Review of Future Sarcasm

In Future Sarcasm (Tolsun Books, 2020) through a series of short, connected poems, Michael Buckius prophesizes a future where all is bleak and desolate. The speaker acts as a tour guide to this reality, guiding the reader through a dystopic new normal, where donuts at a conference table are a nostalgia of the past, and body cryogenics is a favored hobby. Each scene is mimicked or depicted in some way through Doug Bale’s explosive art, line-drawn figures, and faces that are made strange by floods of color and oddities like clouds within heads or tree trunks as skeletons. Most of these interlinked, title-less poems are anaphoric, including the book’s refrain “in the future.” All of the poems—or perhaps it’s one poem cutting in and out like an old static radio—are fairly prosaic in their language and simple in their forms: short stanzas with conventional line breaks. The title of the collection plays prominently across the poems, sarcasm dripping heavily through the scenes Buckius depicts. In one, he writes:

Before the world ends
consider investing
in a suit of glass
It isn’t very comfortable
but damn, it looks good
Sometimes you have to suffer
for fashion (35)

Though the imagery is unrelenting and ominous, there is a dark wit that makes the sharpness of this future feel bearable or navigable. It’s as if the new landscape is an amalgam of George Orwell’s 1984 and Mitchell and Webb’s Peep Show; yes, “The future is a rat race” (3) but those who remain still have humor in their grasp: “Check out the / end of the world! / Bummer” (21). Much of Buckius’ future world is unidentifiable and foreign to people today:

In the future we will have four brains
a regular one
the government one
the one attached to your hand
and the heart-brain (13)

This strange concept is accompanied by its own illustration from Bale of a colorfully-headed person with a brain full of easter egg shapes, picked out in all the shades of a child’s paint pot, with additional faces and brains spilling forth, line-drawn in black and white. Indeed, every short poem by Buckius is preceded by an image from Bale in some vibrant hue, blasting back against the mundanity of the proposed future, as if the images have pilfered the color right from the words. But that is not to say that Buckius’ poems are bland or completely bleak.  A personal favorite is one of the only poems that points back to the America we know and love to critique, centering on New York City. Buckius declares: 

New York City is a great place to live
if you have a cool hat
That’s true now
and especially in the future (7)

This time the preceding image is not of Manhattan’s skyline—as one might expect—but a male figure fading into a desert heatwave, upending the reader’s understanding of how this text operates. America has been reimagined into a climate change wasteland, and these figures are barely existing in it.  There is a charm to this mundane new way of living, though many of the images are haunting or horrifying or both. The everyday has been turned on its head: the public pool has become “a suicide chamber” (19), implants “turn / multiple personalities / into multiple people,” (17) and “physical intimacy” is just a link back to the familiarity of the womb, easily replaced by computers (29). But there is still an impulse of humanity here, a sense of belonging or wanting to belong to something bigger, among this society’s chaos and collapse. 

Yes, these poems capture the memetic, pseudo-destructive energy that seems to have become the fight song of the Millenial generation. Towards the close, Buckius decrees:

It also shows your indifference
to the end of the world
Like, whatever dude
right? (33)

Buckius has a brilliant ability to build a world by using language sparingly, and Bale somehow pulls the seeds of these scenes into vibrant and vivid depictions that satiate even as they surprise. Buckius is a writer and filmmaker from Pennsylvania, who earned his MFA at Northern Arizona University, while Bale is a multimedia artist who illustrates, paints, and murals in his local Phoenix community. The poems in this peculiar and eclectic collection will tickle you and fill you with dread and delusion all at once. Welcome to the future.

Future Sarcasm is available at Tolsun Books

Shannon Wolf is a British writer and teacher, living in Louisiana. She is currently a joint MA-MFA candidate in Poetry at McNeese State University. She is the Non-Fiction Editor of The McNeese Review and Social Media Intern for Sundress Publications. She also holds an MA in Creative Writing from Lancaster University. Her poetry, short fiction, and non-fiction (which can also be found under the name Shannon Bushby) have appeared in The Forge and Great Weather for Media, among others. You can find her on social media @helloshanwolf.

Sundress Reads: Review of Gravity & Spectacle

Half-photography and half-poetry, Gravity & Spectacle is the killer combo that you didn’t know you needed. This collection is a truly cinematic experience made possible by a collaboration between self-professed college dropout and poet Shawnte Orion and Asian American poet and photographer Jia Oak Baker, both based in Arizona. This work seeks to make sense of its atmosphere: at times thick and suffocating, at others, colorful and intriguing. These pieces work in cohesion, like the cogs of a turning, anti-capitalist wheel, in order to critique the world in which they find themselves. As Orion writes: “we will begin by taking scissors to the strings of kites” (55).

The first half of this collection—Gravity—is filled with Baker’s photos, often featuring metropolitan locales or arid dustbowls, where light and contrast set the tone at every stage. What’s most striking is the central figure, the same in each photograph, a man (presumably Orion from interviews given), wearing a gigantic mask on his head. This almost Orwellian mask, created by Phoenix artist J.J. Horner, resembles something between a many-eyed octopus behemoth, or a mutant saguaro. Saguaros and Arizona’s Sonoran Desert feature prominently in both these photos and Orion’s own lines in the second half of the book: Spectacle. Even urban Arizona becomes some recast version of this barren wilderness: “the official / State Bird of Arizona / is the Ceiling Fan” (46). The masked figure becomes a looming presence, both speaker and spectator as the reader moves back and forth between image and lyric.

Certainly, these connections are distinct and vibrant. In Baker’s “Elliptical Proximity,” the masked figure takes a selfie at a fairground, mid-air with just a few inches of himself in the frame, a disconnected father and son in the background, lit by brightly colored bulbs that juxtapose a sense of American nostalgia beside many of the more muted photographs (29). This same photograph is nodded to in Orion’s poem “You’ve Gone Supernova but Nothing Burns Brighter Than Itself,” where he alludes to the discovery of Neptune: “like how the presence of other people in your elliptical proximity is the only way to understand that you are alone” (56). Many of the poems contain winks, nudges, and nods to the images that precede them.  There is something both cheeky and somber about Baker and Orion’s united perspective.

Orion’s poems are as close to punk rock as we can get in 2021. When he isn’t taking shots at a certain former president—“Make Orwellian Dystopia Science Fiction Again (79)”—he’s unspooling social and class commentary: “a guide to which fifty states in America / women who care about their rights should avoid / ranked in no particular order” (64). This collection is witty and wry even as it is biting. In a piece where the speaker wonders about the flat earth conspiracy, Orion grounds us in reality, back to blue-collar workers and the mundanity of the everyday: 

My supervisor still believes
the earth is flat and we fall
off the edge every night
when we clock out (59)

It is the outliers who are the key players for Orion and Baker. The reader cannot take their eyes away from the masked stranger in the grayscale laundromat (18) or under the lit-up letterboard at Phoenix’s Rebel Lounge (5). With short clipped consonant sounds that call to mind the grinding skaters who are dotted throughout these pages (perhaps pro-boarder Rodney Mullen, whose name and words crop up once or twice) as well as piled-on metaphors that are somehow both sumptuous and gritty, every Arizonian doldrum is made sharp, funny, and irreverent.

Should you read this collection? If not for the strangeness of Baker’s composition, or Orion’s “Desert Tarot Six-Card Spread”—first in Spanish and then in English—that so perfectly recalls that familiar, rehearsed mystic phrasing, then do it for those striking, heartbreaking moments tucked away amidst the cleverly virgule-d prose poems:

don’t wait for second responders / like you waited for dad to return
from the bar with that elusive gallon of milk / like you waited
for mom’s hair and smile / to return from the oncologist’s office
don’t wait for the world to stop spinning (53)

You might end up with repetitive strain injury after flipping back and forth so often to search for the photographs that link to the poems you’re immersed in. You’ll find yourself unable to forget that alien-headed man under the fairground lights. Orion writes that “The eye is the quickest muscle” (49). It’s clear that in Gravity and Spectacle, perspective is everything. 

Gravity and Spectacle is available at Tolsun Books

Shannon Wolf is a British writer and teacher, living in Louisiana. She is currently a joint MA-MFA candidate in Poetry at McNeese State University. She is the Non-Fiction Editor of The McNeese Review and Social Media Intern for Sundress Publications. She also holds an MA in Creative Writing from Lancaster University. Her poetry, short fiction, and non-fiction (which can also be found under the name Shannon Bushby) have appeared in The Forge and Great Weather for Media, among others. You can find her on social media @helloshanwolf.