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.
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 Hobart, JAKE, [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.
Stephanie Sauer’s Almonds are Members of the Peach Family (Noemi Press, 2019) is a masterful multimedia project that weaves together prose and craftsmanship, bringing light to buried historical narratives. While this is her second traditional prose book, Sauer also has multiple art books that demonstrate her experience with a wide variety of mediums, such as quilting, archiving other’s works, and stitching, specifically of clothing. Her writing is skillful, untangling her family’s history, but it merely accompanies the quilt she crafts throughout the book, the true star of the show. This quilt serves as a work of healing as she begins to reconcile the history all around her.
From the first paragraph, Sauer establishes the idea of quilting as suture, a word typically used for stitches used to hold a wound together. Her first chapter, “Patchwork” opens with pictures of the messy back stitching of something Sauer has sewed. Counterposing these images, Sauer moves readers to Rio, one of the many places the author has lived through her travels. She describes the city as hungry, its sharp mouths constantly searching for bones and blood. She writes, “I bump into one on the way to buy groceries and it slices my arm. I hold the cut with my opposing hand and an incision form from the inside of my skin, letting air in but no blood out” (Sauer 4). Sauer uses suture here to refer to her attempts to find healing via crafting.
She returns to the concept again on page 103, acknowledging that she can not be the first woman to make this connection. Sauer always makes sure to credit those who came before, saying, “Education, I find, has less to do with knowing things and more to do with the crafting and recrafting of oneself” (Sauer 104). She references Dr. Gladys-Marie Fy’s Preface to Stitched from the Soul: Slave Quilts from the Ante-Bellum South, which documents how slave women would quilt their diaries due to being denied traditional educations.
As a whole, Almonds are Members of the Peach Family pulls historical vignettes through time. Sauer carefully intertwines the story of her grandparents with her own life. Their lives mostly exist in Nevada County, California, where readers are introduced to the version of her grandmother, or Billimae, that Sauer is most familiar with—the caretaker: “She ladles the brine into a bowl and serves it with oyster crackers. She spreads the heart with a butter knife on toast and tells the child to eat, to help herself to more” (Sauer 8). Sauer’s writing peels back these small, tender moments for readers to reveal their quiet intimacy.
The descriptions are transparently honest, transitioning from the above heart-wrenching moment of connection between a younger Sauer and her grandmother, to her grandmother’s description of domestic abuse at the hands of her husband. The transition is jarring, laying out her Grandpa’s veteran status and referencing a friend once saying, “‘Where is my purple heart? My father got one in Vietnam, but what about the rest of us who still have to fight the war he brought back home?’” (Sauer 9). The audience isn’t spared her grandparents’ suffering, and by the end of the section readers are primed to see Sauer coping by way of the sound of her sewing machine.
The collection expands as it continues, becoming less interdisciplinary and more plain prose as Sauer tells Billimae’s tale. Here, the writing is truly given a chance to breathe comfortably, showcasing every side of Billimae, even the uglier ones. “It is family shorthand to call Grandma crazy. The screaming, the secrets, the lies, the sneaking of sweet things into hidden places all over the house, into her mouth. The cussing at and blaming of Grandpa for everything,” Sauer explains (59). The family villainizes this woman in her old age, some waving away any mention of domestic abuse towards her as fabricated. Sauer writes, “Now, Grandma is crazy because calling her this is easier on us. Pinning it on the woman excuses our own complicity in the normalizing of her pain” (59). She criticizes this simplification of everything her grandmother is, recognizing the depth in her past that has shaped her into who she is now.
Sauer is constantly reckoning with her history and family lineage, crafting and writing in an attempt to find some kind of answer. Between stories, readers watch her turn “pulp into pages… stitch linen thread between their creases and bind them to one another” (Sauer 71). Her language around the act is gorgeous, finding imagery in the household chores she idolizes through her words, reclaiming work that patriarchal society deems less than. For example, “I haul up bones from the river and sit, listen to the screaming left in them. I hold up each bone to the light, wipe it clean of debris, realign it back into its skeletal form” (Sauer 146). While her word choice turns morbid at points, it only adds to the passion behind her work and her desire to make something of it all.
Things do not end for Sauer here. After uncovering the bones from the graveyard, one can never truly be the same. Seams weaken over time, and eventually they’ll need to be reinforced: “I wake up late (6:50am), read for a few hours. I make coffee, toast a slice of bread, scrub the sink with borax, shoo away ants, re-hang the quilt, write in my slip, alternate between pushing back and suturing a heartache” (Sauer 149). In the face of it all, though, what Sauer has to do, and what we all have to do, is keep on living.
Izzy Astuto (he/they) is a writer majoring in Creative Writing at Emerson College, with a specific interest in screenwriting. When not in Boston for college, they live in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. His work has previously been published by Hearth and Coffin, Sage Cigarettes, and Renesme Literary, amongst others. He currently works as an intern for Sundress Publications, and a reader for journals such as hand picked poetry, PRISM international, and Alien Magazine. You can find more of their work on their website, at https://izzyastuto.weebly.com/. Their Instagram is izzyastuto2.0 and Twitter is adivine_tragedy.
Based on its title, I had assumed Elaine Sexton’s collection, Drive (Grid Books, 2022), would take me on a journey, but I hadn’t quite expected the way its individual poems would move me through time and space—tangible and intangible, emotional and physical landscapes. Take, for example, the opening poem, which appears with no title:
The most beautiful thing about my car is the
beach, and the most beautiful thing about the
beach is watercolor, and the most beautiful
thing about water is the word, and the most
beautiful thing about the word is pigment,
and the most beautiful thing about pigment
is the soil, and the most beautiful thing about
soil is the earth, and the most beautiful thing
about the earth is the sea, and the most beau-
tiful thing about the sea is the drive. (Sexton 11)
This poem starts with the car and the beach and ends with the sea and the drive. The cyclical movement calls to mind the feeling of going out for a trip, taking in the scenery before returning home to where you started. “A Thing or Two,” starts with a leaf and ends with the tree. “Predator / Bait,” starts with a splash and ends with a splash. These poems travel but don’t forget where they came from. The speaker travels as well, from Boston to Rome, from the sea to the sky, from the past to the future.
Sexton’s poems feel like driving with the windows down on a spring day. The language, crisp and gentle, takes its time. Coupled with the poems’ short lines, some just a word or two, these poems slowed me down. They are not destination focused; they invited me to enjoy the ride.
As a person who travels full time and spends many days behind the wheel, I felt a camaraderie with the speaker of these poems. Reading them felt like trading stories with a new friend at a rest stop. I too have traveled through the “dead zones / in America / where no one lives / and satellites turn a deaf ear … in one of those red states / shaped like a box” (Sexton 69). I know the ups and downs of a road trip, “the soaring, the breakdown, jumpstarts, the brand new, and old reliable” (Sexton 20). These images invite in all those who are drawn to the road, those who might be caught “Downshifting for the view” (Sexton 23), those who roll down their windows, as Sexton does, to let “The dead / ends of my hair / dragged through the air, / pull their roots / alive” (26). And when Sexton writes, “she is free not to be / where she’s expected to go” (17), my heart flips with recognition.
Despite the romantic descriptions of a good drive, Drive is not all light and breezy. Early on, Sexton introduces the prominent theme of death. The second poem, “This,” ends with: “Everything is about / gravity, the grave / pulling / for us. Each day / it starts with a bark / calling our name” (Sexton 15). While awareness of a looming mortality lingers throughout the early section, I explicitly felt the impact of an early loss in the poem “Ignition.” Sexton writes,
I remember my hand
on the car’s smooth blue
lining, the Rambler’s
door as it opened
to the damp grass
of the lawn
to the new house.
I was three
close to four
years old, my father,
and my mother
to drive.” ( 27)
Here, driving is not about freedom or escape. Driving is about survival. Similarly, the poem, “Drive” explains, “We are old, / old enough, / to equate mobility / with independence” (Sexton 19). I began to understand more intimately the deeper role driving has played in the speaker’s life.
Just as a car eventually begins to break down with use, so do our human bodies. In “Self-Portrait: Between the Car and the Sea,” Sexton writes, “the engine strains in first gear the way on foot my body climbing the last few steps does … How long will these parts last?” (23). The speaker grapples with her own mortality, her own body slowing down with age. This grappling, though, is not morose or despondent. The speaker matter-of-factly tracks these changes. In the poem, “Run,” the speaker begins to pick up the pace on a walk “until a clicking / reminds me that fuel / which is matter / which is mind / which is idea / is not endless / and only as fertile / as the working / brain / allows— / the brain we take / for granted / which could fail / at any time” (21). Though many of these poems address mortality, they seem to argue for presence and appreciation for what is. There is a sense that we are meant to grasp the moment we are in, rather than worry about the future.
I mention above that these poems feel like a spring day, and they do in that they are refreshing in their honesty. They gave me room to breathe. They are not, however, necessarily all happy or full of new hope. One of my favorite poems in the collection, “Self as Hypotaxis,” points to this nuance: “I am happier than I was / when spring equaled death, / so many wakes, so many silences, / equal and un-equal. Spring / sometimes operates / in opposition / to her contract with the earth, and / is not always the birth / of something good” (Sexton 80). These poems are full of life, but they are also full of death. They do not shy away from the truth of our human experience.
Jen Gayda Gupta is a poet, educator, and wanderer. She earned her BA in English at the University of Connecticut and her MA in Teaching English from New York University. Jen lives, writes, and travels across the U.S. in a tiny camper with her husband and their dog. Her work has been published in Up the Staircase, Rattle, Jellyfish Review, Sky Island Journal, The Shore, and others. You can find her @jengaydagupta and jengaydagupta.com.
“I think I am ready for a rim job” (Vine 1)—the opening line slams into readers. Jade Vine (it/its) pulls no punches in Everybody’s Favorite Hoe & Then Some (Ginger Bug Press, 2023). On the surface, both the title of the collection and the introductory stanzas can be viewed as salacious and intentionally inappropriate. Western societal norms have historically framed sex, especially queer love and sensuality, as taboo, dirty, and heretical. Vine, a queer, transgender/agender anarchist, aims to disrupt the status quo and embrace love, sex, and fluidity through its writings.
Everybody’s Favorite Hoe & Then Some goes beyond presenting the notions of kinky intimacies. It examines the human condition in the way of comfortability and real, tangible tenderness. In the same opening poem, “hmu for anal play regular play plain old loving,” the speaker reflects on the pure love and happiness of their relationship. The relationship, the bond, is deeper than sexual pursuits. It’s about closeness and the expectation of simple intimacy between people in love.
Sex, in this context, is a vessel for love. No matter how sex-positive Generation Z presents itself, the undercurrents of judgment and shame still flow through our conversations. This generation is still petrified of thoughts of sex. We cower away from them until they nestle behind our ribcage as a festering hurt. The way sex is communicated in our lives leaves room for humiliation. But, as Vine asserts, there is nothing perverse about love, as long as it is expressed safely and consensually.
Vine isn’t afraid of rawness. Vine loves unabashedly and without shame. It writes with a cadence stemming from unfiltered consciousness. The traditional narrative structure is abandoned for an effusive way of expression. The collection is reminiscent of a FaceTime call with a close friend rather than a poet miles away from the audience. Reading this book means stepping inside of Vine’s mind and, instead of intruding, you are welcomed into its innermost thoughts.
Everybody’s Favorite Hoe & Then Some isnot just a stream of randomized thoughts or the mechanisms of a sex-obsessed author. There’s relatability in its quick pace, which mimics racing thoughts and the gathering of sensibilities. The book conveys a passion that most people are afraid to articulate, yet exists inside of all of us: romantic, sexual, or, an artistic and fraying blend of both. Vine leaves the audience to decide.
In “everybody is my love interest and i’m interested,”the reader is forced into a sense of isolation. The speaker can only yearn from afar, yielding their emotions to another person across the room. They imagine an entire life together, carve out a space in the universe for them and this other person to exist freely and entirely. Vine writes:
“i let the oranges full with their disgusting pulp fall where they fall
i catch persimmons & ur glance in the break time
when you look away i admire ur shadow’s form so burly and so fragile
it could break if i stepped on it” (Vine 1-4).
It has become their thoughts. They’re reminded of their time of longing, of vying for the attention of someone so close they felt galaxies away. It’s lust. It’s love. It’s the freedom that comes with imagination. They live out their entire life with this person in a matter of seconds.
Moreover, Vine collects snippets of humanity in its poems. Love is all-consuming. It sears you from the inside out, leaving not even a husk behind. Vine encapsulates longing, loss, and a sense of desperation in its work. The overwhelming desire to belong to someone. As an equal. As a lover.
“oh god, i accidentally cut my pussy trying to shave it” introduces a new kind of melancholy. There’s solitude from inside the speaker’s body. Vine writes:
“my lashes don’t curl up the way my toes do
every boy i have brought home smelled like cigarettes & borrowed time
all my beautiful dresses are borrowed from my more beautiful mother” (Vine 7-9).
No doubt this is a genderqueer/trans allegory, which I acknowledge I am ill-equipped to effectively comment on. How they interact with the world and themselves is revealed through longer lines, replacing the rushing motions of their mind.
Everybody’s Favorite Hoe & Then Some follows a speaker through the dizzying tale of lust and love, and what it feels like to be completely entranced and bewitched. Vine’s poetry is brazen in its queerness and kinkiness. Love should not be hidden behind hushed whispers and critical glances. Queer love should be celebrated in the public eye.
K Slade (she/her) is a Black gothic and speculative fiction writer pursuing a BS in Digital Journalism and a Japanese minor at Appalachian State University. She currently serves as Visual Managing Editor for The Appalachian, her collegiate newspaper, and specializes in multimedia journalism. Horror media deeply inspired her love for the craft and in the future, K wants to write a script for a horror game. After undergrad, she hopes to move to New York and pursue an MFA in Creative Writing.
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 Essaysis 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 Hobart, JAKE, 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.
In No Spare People (Black Lawrence Press, 2023), Erin Hoover immerses us readers in two different worlds—the intimately familial mother-daughter relationship and the external society of American reality. Within the walls of the home, “there are only two, no / spare people” (Hoover 78). Through this collection, however, we see the many ways patriarchal norms make some people feel “spare.”
Hoover widely explores what it means to be a woman in America, specifically the American South. In “White woman” she describes a reality where “some days, I’m the pioneer wife, / keeper of the homestead, but others / I’m absurdly educated for a uterus” (Hoover 43). I feel the impact of living in a post-Roe world through these poems. There is a frank portrayal of the ways in which a woman’s value, in many places, feels like it is measured by her reproductive potential. Hoover writes, “a woman / pregnant is a farm animal / only caring to alternate between trough / and pen. Treated as such / by doctors. How easily they could put away / a mother thought dangerous. For the baby” (46). As a woman of childbearing age, and as someone who has fielded frequent questions around my own hesitation to have children, I find Hoover’s frustration familiar. In sharing this speaker’s experience, women who hold their own fears around pregnancy can feel justified.
There is danger and violence lurking within these poems. For example, “Three weeks” is about the impact of the O.J Simpson trial on a fifteen year old speaker watching the verdict. Hoover writes, “I’d like to say I learned that day / about men who don’t think women / are people at all, / but I already knew, all over the country, / girls like me knew” (19). We live in a world where we read news story after story about violence against women. Additionally, a recent poll reported 64% of OBGYNs say the Dobbs ruling has increased pregnancy related mortality. As women in America, it is easy to feel that our safety is deprioritized; Hoover gives voice to this inequity.
Many of the poems from No Spare People hint at men being a primary cause of the danger women face. In “Forms and materials,” this blame is more explicitly stated. “Perhaps, in the shadow / of Dobbs v. Jackson, / I could use some distance from men” (Hoover 72). The distance the speaker craves seems to be a way for them to seek safety. This poem clearly states the potential consequences of interacting with men: “Dear sweet, please fit neatly / into our shared hetero void and behave / wife-like or we will fucking kill you / with celluloid and forced birth / and a fetus made into a god” (Hoover 72). In this sweeping eleven page poem, Hoover goes on to say:
“There is too much sperm in America,
America is run by sperm,
but the vial I bought sprung me
from the Romance-Industrial Complex
that kept me docile for many years,
and as an exit fee, it worked” (73).
The speaker pays this exit fee in order to freely raise her child on her own, and many poems within No Spare People explore the life of a solo-parent. In “To be a mother in this economy,” the speaker is “not always home, / department store suit creased / into my luggage, phone jacked into an airport / wall, all those hotel stays hopeful for the job / on the horizon” (Hoover 58). We’ve heard of “mom guilt,” but Hoover distills these vague and overused ideas into a heartbreaking image. The poem ends with, “I wonder if my absence lives inside / her, if the babies are about that, / they are everything to her, these beloveds, / until she walks away” (Hoover 59). Mothers are expected to make their children their “everything,” and this poem expertly grapples with the struggle of being financially unable to fulfill the expectation as a single mother.
It would be far too neat to say Hoover paints the outside world as dangerous and the inside as a soft, safe haven. “But for the hours I didn’t care if I lived” is a poem about alcohol abuse and the impact it has on a parent’s ability to care for their child. Hoover writes, “I’ve not yet / told my daughter / to fear my nights, that while / she sleeps I disappear / into a grave I create, / evening by evening, / cover myself / with punishing dirt, / laugh like a sorceress, / and the next day climb out” (53). Yes, the speaker too can be a danger to her family, and she questions how parenting is often sold as a cure for our ailments: “Do we have children as a kind / of insurance, to guard / our minds like this, stop us / from ruining ourselves?” (Hoover 54). Hoover’s writing implies that even the noble act of parenting can’t save us from ourselves.
Throughout No Spare People, Hoover brings to light many unflattering truths about the maddening hypocrisy of our world. In “Death parade,” Hoover writes, “At first the pandemic was all of the things we couldn’t / have. Then, it just was. A cough was a harbinger of death. / Then, it was a cough” (22). Hoover brilliantly sheds light on all we have accepted as normal, the parts of life that have become what just is—parts that, when explored, are revealed to be anything but normal.
There is power in agency and in creating an authentic life, one that may be far from expectation. There is also so much pressure put on women to exist in a way that often includes a stereotypical family. As Hoover writes: “A perfect circle is hard to imagine / (except if you have imagination), / but it’s obvious: my daughter and I are / complete by ourselves.” (75). These poems seem to suggest that a sense of wholeness is possible once this societal pressure is shed.
Jen Gayda Gupta is a poet, educator, and wanderer. She earned her BA in English at the University of Connecticut and her MA in Teaching English from New York University. Jen lives, writes, and travels across the U.S. in a tiny camper with her husband and their dog. Her work has been published in Up the Staircase, Rattle, Jellyfish Review, Sky Island Journal, The Shore, and others. You can find her @jengaydagupta and jengaydagupta.com.
Former Sundress Editorial Interns Jillian A. Fantin and Max Stone were messaging on Instagram and realized they both have micro-chapbooks being released by Ghost City Press in their 2023 Summer Series. They decided it would be fun to review each other’s micro-chapbooks. Though seemingly dissonant in content and form, Stone and Fantin’s micro-chapbooks support each other with their complementary takes on queerness.
Max Stone’s The Bisexual Lighting Makes Everyone Beautiful
‘Oh my God, look.’ … [He] show[ed] them something in his hands…a handful of dust. ‘There’s glitter in it!’ he said. A man Fiona didn’t know peered over Yale’s shoulder. ‘That’s not glitter. Where?’ It just looked like dust.” —Rebecca Makkai, The Great Believers
In The Bisexual Lighting Makes Everyone Beautiful, Max Stone worldbuilds their queer experience through the words of a speaker sculpting their human and planetary body. Through personal, intimate experiences with moment(s) of anti-queer political and social violence, Stone’s speaker fleshes themselves into a queer corpus containing the delicate anxiety and the search for kinship that is the human experience. As the collection continues, so does the speaker’s development into an active, wise, and nearly eternal observer of the beings and bodies within their orbit, akin to the experience of a planet’s moon.
Max Stone opens his chapbook concretely by establishing the speaker’s queer identity and physical presence(s) within their world. In “Coming Out Ad Infinitum,” the speaker’s words in the coming out cycle disrupt their oral communication before forming their body: “Throat all choked up, / too much bread, something” becomes “Tight corset chest. Heartbeat extra violent” (Stone 3). Stone’s recalling tense, painful moments is especially masterful because of the way the “you” directly speaks to the “I” of their same body. Coming out is repetition in a world where you “can’t be open… / Not yet” (Stone 3). Meeting “a new person” or “a new doctor” implies the queer speaker’s ceaseless sculpting of their physical body (Stone 3). The intensity of this repetition is driven home with a final disruption of any created rhythm: “Again and again and again… / You’ll come out and come out / And come out and—” (Stone 4). Stone continues building solid ground with an explication of a public tragedy in “Waking up to News of a Mass Shooting at Club Q on Trans Day of Remembrance” and “Beaux,” which features a figure both grounded in human reality and elevated to nearly-unattainable ideal of transmasculinity. In just three poems, Stone establishes a distinct speaker while also leaving room for further self-transformation.
By the time we reach the micro-chapbook’s end, the speaker completes their aforementioned transfiguration to a body that is both fully man and fully moon. Like our moon, the speaker remains bound to the tides of a planetary body’s unique orbit and thus may only observe, act, and experience within those orbital boundaries. To be a moon is to contain billions of years, to be cratered with time and knowledge.
Nevertheless, the titular poem, “The Bisexual Lighting Makes Everyone Beautiful,” is the true moment of corporeal and cosmic transformation. In a final scene, the speaker and their queer friends move from the domestic party sphere into the memory of a woody naturescape:
Everyone else was in the river,
I was on the bank, watching
the moon reflecting on the water,
watching their limbs stir
up the light. (Stone 10)
The speaker leaves us to consider their queer duality and the implications of that existence. Stone’s speaker seems to reside on the fringes of their community, a lonely existence of distance and observation. Still, The Bisexual Lighting Makes Everyone Beautiful is nuanced in a final depiction of its speaker who refuses to stay in shadows. “Watching” becomes an act of love, like the dependable orbit of “the moon reflecting on the water” (Stone 16). Further, Stone’s speaker isin the water within everyone else. Their human body may be on the bank, but their planetary body is clearly reflected in the water and, thus, illuminated by the same titular beautifying light. And unlike “everyone else,” Stone’s speaker can see the light that reveals everyone’s beauty! Ultimately, Max Stone’s The Bisexual Lighting Makes Everyone Beautiful ends with a speaker’s self-made dual existence as fully human and fully moon, allowing them to balance experiences of queer oppression and systemic bigotry while still knowing and hoping for the beauty inherent within the true queer experience.
At the start of this review, I quoted a scene from The Great Believers, wherein a woman watches a video featuring Yale Tishman, a gay man who died decades earlier from AIDS-related complications, eagerly showing the camera and his onlookers the glitter in the dust. Max Stone sees the glitter in the dust. He knows beauty because he is beautiful. He sees beauty because everything this bisexual lighting touches is beautiful. And he writes the beauty of the queer experience while still delving into public and personal pain and oppression because he knows the true queer experience is inherently, definitionally, and fundamentally beautiful. Stone and his micro-chapbook do not ignore the existence of the dust. By identifying the dustier aspects of his worlds and treating his work with formal and thematic care, Stone makes the glitter that is queer beauty and queer experience sparkle even more.
I remain shocked at how consistently buoyed I felt upon starting and finishing The Bisexual Lighting Makes Everyone Beautiful. Very rarely does feeling “beautiful” elicit positivity given imposed cisheteronormative connotations of appearance and identity. Stone, though, makes me and my poetry feel beautiful—that is, “masculine but in the peacock way” (8)—and I truly believe that every queer reader will shine a little brighter after basking in the light of Max Stone’s queer poetics.
Jillian A. Fantin (they/them) is a poet with roots in the American South and north central England. They are a 2021 Martha’s Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing Poet Fellow, a 2020 Jefferson County Memorial Project Research Fellow, and the co-founder and Editor-in-Chief of RENESME LITERARY. Jillian received an MFA in Poetry with a minor in Gender Studies from the University of Notre Dame. Their writing appears in American Journal of Poetry, Spectra Poets, Barrelhouse, and poetry.onl.
Jillian A. Fantin’s A Playdough Symposium
Jillian A. Fantin’s micro-chapbook Playdough Symposium (Ghost City Press, 2023) is a queer, contemporary re-imagining of Plato’s dialogues through a series of prose poems. The collection features two main characters that appear in each poem and engage in conversation, sissyfist (a play on words of Sisyphus) and two-piece suitor, who are based on Socrates and Phaedrus from Plato’s dialogues combined with Johnny Knoxville and Steve-O of the Jackass franchise. Sounds weird, right? Well, it is weird—in the best way. With two epigraphs, Fantin sets up a dichotomy between Ancient Greek philosophy and modern pop culture, the first being a quote from Plato’s dialogues and the second from Steve-O. The epigraphs set the stage and tone for the symposium, which is a delightful intermingling of so-called high and low culture as complicated philosophical concepts are superimposed on contemporary culture.
Each poem’s title is a concept from Greek philosophy, such as “Xenia,” the Ancient Greek concept of hospitality; “Eudaimonia,” the condition of human flourishing; and “Kleos,” which means eternal glory. Beneath the framework of these ancient philosophical concepts, sissyfist and two-piece suitor engage in strange, stimulating, and often crass dialogues.
Playdough Symposium is an apt title, as the world and characters are highly malleable and mercurial—nothing is stable. The reality of a liminal world both timeless and of the present day is constantly created, shaped, and re-shaped through the dialogue between two-piece suitor and sissyfist. For example, in this world, “AD means After Diane that is After Diane Keaton’s Bowler Hat,” (Fantin 5) which weirdly makes sense. Fantin’s work is deeply intelligent and sharply funny, packed with clever turns of phrase such as “so Medusa just made men rock hard?”, “hydraplaning,” and “Ice capades” (9). Nouns are used as verbs like “embryoing;” familiar phrases and cultural markers like brands are turned on their head, including when “sissyfist sucks two-piece suitor’s tootsies like he rolls his pop,” (Fantin 7). So much is packed into this short collection: misheard David Bowie lyrics, Jessica Rabbit, Zeus eating pita chips, and Buffalo Bill protesting no shirt no shoes no service.
sissyfist and two-piece suitor are hilarious and crude and their personalities leap of the page. A distinct undercurrent of sexual tension and homoeroticism courses through the poems: “a long soft kiss in the business district, two-piece suitor profiteroles back down the curve of sissyfist’s spine oh scoliosis groans two-piece suitor make me in your image” (Fantin 11). It’s unclear what sissyfist and two-piece suitor’s relationship is exactly, but it’s definitely queer-coded. sissyfist and two-piece suitor both use he/him pronouns yet neither seems to fit distinctly in the male category, which is exemplified when “two-piece suitor strokes the cervix in the hole in his thigh postpartum depression sissyfist nestles within that musculature,” (Fantin 8). That slightly unsettling image presents two-piece suitor as being both male and female or neither. sissyfist’s name alone is very queer, and his actions match as he “hissyfits” and “sissyshrieks.” Playdough Symposium also troubles and blurs the lines of gender. Above all, this work is deeply original. I can confidently say I have never read anything like it. Playdough Symposium is a delicacy of language, pop culture, philosophy, queerness, and mythology. Each poem is layered with jewels of sound, word play, and genius turns of phrase. Each sentence is surprising—you’ll never guess one that begins with “ostrich egged,” will lead to two-piece suitor plaiting “pinkies into radishes,” (9). This collection may be playful, sexy, and funny, but there is also a poignant emotional depth. Fantin proves that Jackass can be philosophical and that the Ancient Greeks have a certain jackass-ness beneath the historical veneer of intelligence and sophistication. This is the micro-chapbook you never knew you wanted but definitely need to read. Right now!
Max Stone is a queer poet from Reno, Nevada. He holds an MFA in poetry and a BA in English with a minor in Book Arts and Publication from the University of Nevada, Reno. He played soccer at Queens College. Max is the author of two chapbooks: The Bisexual Lighting Makes Everyone Beautiful (Ghost City Press) and Temporary Preparations (Bottlecap Press).
Sundress Reads: Review of The Bisexual Lighting Makes Everyone Beautiful and A Playdough Symposium
It isn’t every day I’m offered the chance to discover a new favorite book, and I am pleased to say I have found exactly that in Ashley Hajimirsadeghi’s Cartography of Trauma. Published by Dancing Girl Press in 2021, the collection has a handsome cover featuring a feminine silhouette mapped out in green lines in the topographical style. What’s on the inside captured my attention even further.
Cartography of Trauma depicts the way all generations of people, specifically women, navigate traumatic situations. Through metaphor, Hajimirsadeghi reveals common coping mechanisms to find where those experiences fit into everyday. Conceptually, the chapbook can be organized into three categories: Stranger poems (the subject of the poem does not appear to be related to the speaker in any way), Family poems (what it looks like when families are purged from their homes, uprooted in violence), and Self poems (snapshots of each speaker at one moment in time). These separate storytelling methods combine flawlessly in Cartography of Trauma to reflect the reader’s own hurt disguised as the trauma of a stranger.
One of the Stranger poems, “His mother was strange,” reveals a mother’s sorrow in one tight column. Grief permeates the air around this poem like Chanel No.5 wafting from the poem’s subject – “Mad Molly” – who has a moment of inspiration. Hajimirsadeghi writes, “She says a mother’s / grief rings with the clamor of the / rusting church bells in the square / but no one listens” (5). It’s almost as if the reader experiences this silence like a thick cloud of perfume, strong and invasive and completely invisible.
The poem “Diorama,” focuses readers’ attention onto the ills born into a family hardened by the violence of men. Hajimirsadeghi explores an imagined life where the speaker takes the place of family members wronged, a past where “Grandmother is alive and healthy, three-dimensional” and “Grandfather, too, isn’t an old revolutionary haunt” (8). Probably the most haunting line of this poem is just after the speaker imagines taking Grandfather’s place, saying, “I am bleeding in 1978 Iran,” and “I am bleeding in 2020 America” (8). The speaker compares this trauma, this fear and resentment which springs from the violence of men’s decisions, to life in America with just two lines.
“Encoded” features an American tradition, the “how are you” greeting which many know to be rhetorical, and the speaker’s response, both internal and external. In the poem, the greeting (“how are you?”) and the answer (“I’m fine,”) are separated by the speaker’s real truth: “I think I’m splintering” (Hajimirsadeghi 13). Hajimirsadeghi continues, “if Sylvia were alive she’d laugh… I think I’m eroding, dying to throw myself into the incinerator, end this hunger–” (13). To the speaker, “I’m fine” includes all of these hurts and wants and givings up, but all that a stranger hears is that “I’m fine.” This is sometimes how we cope, by lying to the world and pretending we are okay; Hajimirsadeghi’s poem captures this innocent need to appear okay even when we’re burning inside.
“Self-portrait in youth” is presented “in Technicolor” that is colored after the fact. When the reader imagines scenes depicting youthful romance, it is through the goggles of Technicolor; the past looks brighter and more colorful. “Self-portrait as lady vengeance” is directly opposite “in black & white.” It is stark, honest, simply representative. There is no romance, no fantasy. The speaker is dark and smudged and real. The last line hits the reader like a freight: “stop filming me. I don’t want you to see me cry” (Hajimirsadeghi 26). There is a lost fantasy here which leads to a crippling vulnerability. Nothing hides in black and white, so we use Technicolor to escape, to cope with reality.
The final Self poem, “Self-portrait as erasure,” is possibly the most brutally powerful of them all. The speaker describes “[bleeding] blue out on the patio, barefoot & dancing in the rainstorm” (27), a scene conflicted. A generally joyful activity such as dancing is depicted simultaneously with precious and dangerous loss, and this is the truth of Cartography of Trauma. This poem is the anthem of the world, especially the world of women, a world in which women dance in the storms we did not create and bleed black and blue for a sliver of joy in life’s great tempest.
Cartography of Trauma uses accessible language and creative formatting to tell the story of women by a woman for women. And what an anthem it is. The last line of “Self-portrait as erasure” (and the entire book) sticks with me even in my sleep: “Ma, you wouldn’t // believe me if I set this place on fire tonight… just wait–” (27). The reader is left to wait in violent anticipation for the flames of this book to catch the world.
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.
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.
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 Hobart, JAKE, and [sub]liminal. Born in a jail, she is writing a memoir about all that comes with that. She sometimes tweets @heatherlynnd11.
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).
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: www.anniefay.com.