Sundress Reads: Review of She Has Dreamt Again of Water

Stephanie Niu’s chapbook, She Has Dreamt Again of Water

Stephanie Niu’s chapbook, She Has Dreamt Again of Water, conjures both a dreamer’s perspective and longing for freedom, as well as a clear-eyed understanding of how it can be restricted. She searches for some balance between nourishing other people and relationships, and self-preservation. No answer to that question could be straightforward, and Niu’s thoughtful exploration of it ensures its emotional dimensions remain intact. 

The first two poems of the collection (following a mythic sort of prologue) immediately set up some essential themes, with the motif of water carrying particular weight. “Water Dreams” pulls the central mother-daughter connection in and out of focus, like a tide. “Her relief that I can conjure, / even in sleep, what she cannot give me—good rest, / good luck, an ocean to dream in.” This care, as well as the discomfort of it at times, is evident throughout the chapbook, with the speaker frequently drawn in and away from the mother’s gravity. “She is always in motion, urgent for something / she cannot name.”

Both qualities of the relationship become more apparent in “Midden / Appetite,” the first of many poems that center less around water and more around themes of food and, more significantly, “trash” or “garbage,” as the mother identifies herself. These more potent metaphors reappear throughout the poems. Love is intertwined in what is consumed, as when the speaker notes the mother “eats what we won’t,” despite her complaint that “no one wants to be garbage.” Later, the mother wishes, “If someone loved me more, / maybe I wouldn’t gain weight.

Finding a connection between the mystic ocean themes and the more mundane question of nourishment, Niu draws a sketch of a dead whale’s remains becoming an “ecosystem,” contradicting her mother’s wish not to “become food”—illustrating a fear that love means being consumed. What power do we have, or do we not have, to choose to linger in the lives of others? To sustain our loved ones in whatever way they may need?

In the next poem, “Garbage Boogie,” the speaker notes that she has “trash guilt” and will “discard what [she] can’t carry”—a stark contrast. More crucially, she believes that “the system / can’t need us to be superhuman” as she watches “the ways we still overflow / with hunger, so much hunger / with nowhere to go.” It doesn’t feel quite like a judgment on the mother, but perhaps a rejection of that model for herself after witnessing the wear on her bones.

Later, in “Before Desire,” the speaker makes this conflict a bit clearer. She uses the metaphor of pelicans filling their mouths with fish, accepting that “our way of being in the world / was the only one we wanted,” knowing that “we had no dreams.” The reader can’t help but think of the collection’s title, however, and the speaker’s insistence on dreaming, even if it’s almost apologetic.

In later poems, the speaker’s father appears to be the opposite, somehow: struggling to find the right way to nourish those in his care, misfeeding parakeets who don’t know to “keep their bellies full” like chickens do—an apparent metaphor for himself. In the next poem, however, the speaker reconsiders, noting that “he has learned to fly,” thoughtfully providing her two pears for travel; they have the “sharp crunch of water” and nourish her more fully, while being more acceptable on a plane than liquids.

The narrative of her father is clearer than that of the mother, perhaps. But maybe painting such a clear portrait of each of them is enough.

Through the three parts of “Diver Walks into the Sea and Stays,” the speaker finally creates a narrative for herself, slowly “learn[ing] to clear [her] ears,” and then beginning to explore, finding “everything […] worthy of devotion.” She concludes, “I need / nothing. I survive” in the image of an angler fish. Then, in the collection’s titular poem, she longs for exile, for the moon (“What better home / for her lonely body than another lonely, / celestial body?”)

One of the chapbook’s highlights, “Migration,” carries the reader from that longing and exploration into the collection’s final quiet moments. The poem is a sestina, using the end-words of each line to pull together many thematic elements and details that have flowed like driftwood through the collection, like “mother” and “free” and “swell.” 

In one stanza, the speaker’s mother seems to accept her “early desire to be free,” at which the mother “swell[s]/with pride;” later, that acceptance is reciprocated, when the speaker realizes, “I wish I could say what I needed to be free/from, what thing. Not any particular, even my mother.” She promises to “show [her] mother the swells” of the ocean someday.

Clear, cleansing prose runs through these poems like a river. They are not simple or transparent, yet the reader’s mind doesn’t stumble over the words. They are musical, but also purer than that, spoken with a clear throat yet an exploring mind. The language invites us to spend time with it, inside of it, like opening our eyes underwater and examining an unknown landscape. The vision is sharp, translucent. 

Much of this language is used to create the ethereal atmosphere of many poems, a similar magic to the title. At other times, though, it finds other purposes, even play. “Garbage boogie,” for instance, is aptly named after its musical qualities: “the sound of hollow boxes” dancing with “and old bottles of booze / lulls me, confused, into its groove”; “culpable” ricocheting off of “compost” and “recyclables”—all this just in the first few moments of the poem.

Although the ocean metaphors were unsurprising, I didn’t anticipate the themes centered around food and remains. At times, there is emptiness and hunger, while at others, fullness and the act of consuming. There is a clear contrast in these themes, the mysticism of water and the practical care of feeding. Yet, moments of connection are scattered throughout, such as the whale’s corpse becoming sustenance. In other cases, food and water act as both sources of life and nourishment (literal food, and metaphorical spiritual freedom of the ocean) as well as, perhaps, suffocation (consumed and being consumed; dreams being put to rest).

The final poem, “I Drive As My Family Sleeps,” offers some resolution of these themes. The images of this poem are quiet, nearly still, except for the lullaby hum of the road beneath the words. Something intangible lingers there, in the space this family creates for each other. “But for now, /this quiet mile is the only thing on earth that is ours.”

Purchase your copy of She Has Dreamt Again of Water here.


Laurel Elizabeth is a writing tutor and success coach for Kennebec Valley Community College’s TRIO program, where she recently earned an associate degree in liberal arts. Additionally, she is a graduate of Vassar College’s Exploring Transfer summer program, and aims to begin a BA in English this fall. An emerging writer and aspiring English teacher, she has a special interest in the role of creative empowerment in education.

Sundress Reads: Review of Bath by Jen Silverman

The Sundress Reads logo is black and white and features a fluffy sheep drinking a mug of tea, reading a book, and sitting cross-legged on a stool.
The cover of Bath by Jen Silverman centers a photograph of a shadowy white woman with closed eyes and wet skin and hair. The image is in dark and blue tones and the title and author's name is in a silver, linear font that fades at the edges.

In an interview with Jerrod Schwarz included at the end of the collection, Jen Silverman explains that she “wanted to contend with a multitude of possibilities” surrounding baths. “You can be immersed or submerged. You can be bathed in sensation, you can be deluged in light.” Water surrounds us in bathtubs and fills us as we drink; the language of Jen Silverman’s Bath (Driftwood Press, 2022) similarly surrounds and fills.

The purpose of water and other liquids shifts throughout Bath. Water may “quiver like a fugitive” as it flashes a reflection. Speakers are “treading water” or use “each hand cupped / on a different set of promises.” Water creates “ocean-memory / sharp as brine” and sparks “the fountain of youth.”

Nevertheless, “the fountain of youth” has “a limit” and is described as “a steam-choked pool.” In Bath, water is not only a regenerator or refresher; baths are threatening and ominous, even deadly. This subversion is seen most clearly in Silverman’s twisting of baptism, a holy and divine type of bath. In “Bath 6,” “they dropped you in the river. They said / Praise Jesus, Praise Him. You bobbed up / half-drowned… Somewhere in / the river mud, you lost your God.” Or, similarly, in “Bath 3,” “you baptize yourself in sorrow, again and again. / You baptize yourself with bourbon and brandy.” Here, baths are not spiritual experiences, but a destructive power that traps and chokes.

Most poems take place in a specified location, like “Boston,” “Louisville,” or “Cairo.” These locations help differentiate poems that investigate similar themes and often include nameless characters. Silverman explains that “there’s a lot of truth to be found in the details—what a place looks and smells like, the quality of its light—but also the specificity of… language.” The setting, like water itself, is fluid and changing. The reader can’t know where the speaker most belongs, where they are most at home, or where they were raised. 

In “The Devil Dogs My Steps, but if it Weren’t Him, it Would Just be Someone Else,” the speaker of the poem is “living in Cincinnati.” She isn’t sure that Cincinnati is home—she even asks “if you can call this living.” But, in Cincinnati, the Devil “calls” and “lingers.” The Devil and the speaker walk and talk together, even as he oversteps and complicates. “He isn’t invited per se, / but also, / he isn’t not.” “The Devil says: / I like to come home because it reminds me / what a disaster we make / of what’s ours.” But where is home for the speaker of this poem, or the speakers of Bath? Does the speaker avoid home to avoid her created disasters, as the Devil suggests, or is home found in relationships, in all their chaos and their miracles? As “a beefy woman at the bar says: / I like to travel because it reminds me / how great it is to be home.”

From this perspective, the role of water seems to foster connection. For example, “when I shower, you sit on the floor, / only steam between us.” Water fills the space between people, and a father’s love for his newborn daughter in “Bath 8” “becomes a weather-system / of love.” A few weeks later “he has panic attacks / all the time.” Relationships, and the delight and terror they cause, are as necessary as drinking water. The speaker explains that they “can’t stop thinking / that I’m going to die.” “Groceries, laundry, / bills of course, / but even the good stuff / …that stuff too: / gonna die.” Death anxiety follows the delight of interpersonal connection; this becomes a metaphor for humanity’s relationship with water, where the very thing we need to survive can kill so easily.

In “Bath 11,” the final poem of the collection, the speaker wonders “how strange it is: all the ways we are given to make / family.” For all the heartache of community, the speaker does not isolate herself. She spends New Year’s Eve with a kind of family, and her “ex’s wife tells us about giving birth / to their daughter.” On one hand, the scene seems full of fractured connection: the ex that married someone else, the foreshadowing of “B and I… breaking up,” and “my partner… that has yet to arrive.” And yet, when asked “to explain all this, / …what could I say but: Love.” In all of this, Silverman keeps bathing, even in the face of every potential loss.

Bath is available at Driftwood Press


A white woman with red hair, round, tortoise shell glasses, and a blue coat sits on a stone bench against a stone wall and looks directly at the camera.

Hailey Small is based in Wilmore, Kentucky, where she writes lyric prose and watches gingko leaves turn soft each November. Hailey is a junior at Asbury University, working towards a BA in English and History. She enjoys working in Asbury’s writing center, where she partners with remedial English students to make academia and creative writing more accessible. Most recently, Hailey was published in The Asbury Review, where she also serves as the creative non-fiction editor, and anthrowcircus.com

Sundress Reads: A Review of Matryoshka Houses

Matryoshka Houses

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

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

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

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

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

Purchase your copy of Matryoshka Houses from Kelsay Books!


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

Sundress Reads: Review of Corner Shrine

Chloe Martinez’s chapbook Corner Shrine (Backbone Press, 2020) is a poetry collection that plots a vibrant historical timeline, inviting readers to embark on a journey across South Asia while focusing on the ephemerality of life. As the winner of the 2020 Backbone Press Chapbook Contest, Corner Shrine evokes existential questions, challenging grandiose perceptions of human civilizations by drawing upon imagery of ancient shrines and nature’s transience. At its heart, Martinez’s collection acts as a dialogue between tourists and the places they travel to as she complicates modern conceptions of spatial history.

This collection of poems finds its strength by fabricating a tangible world marked by Kabul’s gardens, monkey-filled train stations, and the sounds of India’s fishermen toiling away as tourists rest on balconies overhead. Martinez touches on unspoken aspects of tourism against beautiful portraits of South Asian realism. Through an intrinsic link between this foreign place and its history, an overarching narrative drives Corner Shrine by plotting the tourist’s development from self-interested to self-aware. By the end of the collection, the tourist contextualizes their place in history. In the first poem, the narrator addresses the reader as a tourist who takes a photo—”Not a story. Not an image. It is a map. At the end of the hallway, / a balcony” (“The Mirror Room, Mehranagarh Fort”). The image of the balcony reoccurs throughout the collection, referring to biases tourists often hold when they visit a country for the first time. Moreover, through class privilege, the tourist is physically “above” India’s fishermen and working class.

The narrator goes on, “[the] Mirror Palace… it wants an audience. / Here you are, alone with your ten thousand selves” (“The Mirror Room, Mehranagarh Fort”). The mirror, like the image of Sheeh Mahal, is a map that will lead the tourist to self-realization. In fact, Martinez exposes a paradox in her collection: the tourist, too, is a spectacle. When the tourist is alone and standing against the historical backdrop of the places they visit, they must face all the parts of themselves, including their biases and class privilege. In the collection’s first section, the tourist is not just an unreachable spectator, which is an idea that Martinez plays with in “Learning Experience.” Here, the narrator retells the moment she first interacts with the Indian landscape—she falls from a train, which is perhaps a nod to the collection’s second section, appropriately titled “Disorientation,” and represents the tourist’s journey to self-awareness.

 Although each poem stands alone, the collection is divided into three sections. The first section, “Ten Thousand Selves,” humanizes the founders of ancient empires by reimagining the creation of architectural marvels. Here, Martinez weaves together poems from the imagined perspective of Babur and Shah Jahan with the tourist’s perspective. In this way, the narrator both minimizes and aggrandizes the tourist’s presence by contrasting their perspective with that of royalty. In “Babur at Agra,” the narrator imagines that he “walked the fragrant pathways, / thinking of where he slept in the open air.” Similarly, the narrator describes that the reader “[arrives] at night. The road snakes up the mountain / to cool air” (“Reaching Hills Station in Late August in Rajasthan”). Martinez masterfully shifts the sentence subjects to complicate power dynamics between the tourist and their landscape. In the previously stated line, the narrator grants Babur agency as the subject. However, the road—i.e., a part of the South Asian landscape—becomes the subject when the narrator tells of the tourist’s arrival. This shift suggests that, although the tourist previously possessed a sense of hubris, a country’s natural history always acts with agency, preceding the present.   

The second section, “Disorientation,” engages with the Indian landscape more intimately, reflecting the beginning of deep cultural recognition. She writes, “It’s Diwali… / …the strange light makes / bicycles, poster-gods and me look ethereal and cheap” (“Diwali”). Here, Martinez makes an interesting link between the bicycle, perhaps a symbol of modernist progression, false poster-idols, and the tourists themselves—compared to the elegant tradition of Diwali, these objects lose their value. Similarly, in “Eight Past Lives, As I Recall Them,” we see a radical shift toward transcendentalism. The tourist finally contextualizes, not only themselves, but the many who comprise the South Asian landscape, into its grand history. This section romanticizes the labour of the many by making them subjects of poems: the thief, the killer, and the painter, to name a few. The narrator compares themselves to the woman in Rilke’s Die Gazelle, who “stood in a lake, naked. Her face / gewendeten: turned back to look at you” (“The Poem”). Naked, stripped of material security, the tourist finally sees themselves belonging to the landscape.

Chloe Martinez’s Corner Shrine paints a vibrant picture of South Asia’s most historic sites, nestling travelogue-style poems between reminscences of its colourful landscape. A poignant analysis of the tourism industry informs her command of language and imagery, made up of India’s “gorgeous ruins” diffused by dynamic wordplay. Stressing the importance of belonging—that even the most minute details have a purpose—the narrator memorializes color while using homophones to add layers of meaning: “Red a ring I stole / from a gift shop in high school,” later continuing, “Red the sandstone palace, / even under whitewash. I never stole anything else” (“Palace Gate”). The narrator suggests here that once they “read” or perceive India’s beauty, they experience a radical change in values. Like the tourist’s journey from indulgence to awareness, this collection will inspire readers to reflect on their own spiritual journey. 

Corner Shrine is available at Backbone Press


Crysta Montiel is an undergraduate student at the University of Toronto in Canada, where she studies English Literature and Philosophy. She previously worked as an editorial intern at Ayesha Pande Literary Agency. When Crysta’s not digging through treasure troves of queries, she’s completing her Criterion Collection bucket list and playing with her cat.

Sundress Reads: Review of The Convert’s Heart is Good to Eat

The Sundress Reads logo is black and white and features a fluffy sheep drinking a mug of tea, reading a book, and sitting cross-legged on a stool.
The title of the chapbook and the author's name fill the entire page in thick block letters. In the silhouette of the letters, a stained glass window and three small congregants are visible.

In Melody S. Gee’s The Convert’s Heart is Good to Eat (Driftwood Press, 2022), her conversion experience becomes as tangible as a warm meal. Gee, a Chinese American and convert to Catholicism in adulthood, sees the generosity of God in overflowing dishes of Chinese food: “fill rice over the lip, / A strained seal says, see how much / was poured out for you?” (“Liturgy”).

Through The Convert’s Heart is Good to Eat, Gee collects pre- and post-conversion stories and asks, as she does in the interview section of the book, “is there room for all the past and the present?” Can “the immigrants’ daughter [who] doesn’t know Easter / or egg hunts” (“The Convert Receives the Sign of the Cross on Her Feet”) hold onto her childhood while also full-heartedly embracing “Jesus… / eternally / wounded, eternally weeping / from his gashes” (“The Convert Wants Wounds, Not Scars”)?

 In order to explore these questions, Gee starts with her childhood. She describes Easter egg hunts, games of hide and seek, and grade school science experiments. These stories show how Gee, even as a convert, is separated from American Christian traditions, like Easter egg hunting for “silver wrappings / or shiny plastics.” (“The Convert Receives the Sign of the Cross on Her Feet.”) “No one has told her these eggs will not be / the raw, white ones / her dutiful mother tucked by the longbeans.” As a child, Gee is separated from the Christian community around her, distinctly set apart from their traditions, especially surrounding Christian holidays and food. Inevitably, the speaker of “And So More” calls the reader to “Begin with before you / are made.” As Gee reaches adulthood, wonderings about what came before childhood leads Gee to discover “some directive” that speaks to bodies and “says heart and not nail.” Gee begins the conversion process when she considers her earliest being.

Yet, regardless of her faith, there is still a separation between the pre- and post-conversion selves. Gee repeatedly turns to food to bridge this divide. From the first line of the opening poem of the chapbook, “The convert hid within her grandfather’s / restaurant… / while their mothers fried in oil and sweet / and sour.” Food becomes a comfort, a sustenance, and a connection to childhood, family, and spirituality. Gee uses imagery and metaphor to shift not only “wine” and “wafer” (“The Convert Receives the Sign of the Cross on Her Feet”), but also “celery slices and chicken cubes” (“Liturgy”), into spiritual food. Gee’s otherwise “non-religious” family and upbringing become spiritual in “The Convert Desires Her Way Into a First Prayer,” where “her mother’s first lesson / was chew your wants and spit / the pulp…”. This lesson was always relevant to the speaker, but becomes distinctly religious after her conversion. Food is the spirituality of Gee’s non-religious childhood, and through the culture, relationships, and traditions surrounding food, Gee reunites her childhood and adulthood.

Gee’s faith also gives her a new understanding of struggle. In “The Convert’s Heart is Good to Eat,” she reminds the reader that “What happens inside a body happens / in darkness.” Why “Does the Lord ask her what she wants / when he already knows its name?” (“The Convert Desires Her Way Into a First Prayer”). The Lord is the provider, and the speaker wonders why He does not provide. Nevertheless, it is in struggle where she sees the Lord revealed. She is not only thankful for struggle, but prays for it: “Let me oil. Let me wash. / Let me want with a full throat / even of hopeless warbling. / Let You do nothing about any of it.” Darkness and hiding shift when there is a “Lord… in the garden calling,” but “The girl knows being found is the part / you wait for but is not the best part” (“The Convert Learns to Play Hide and Seek”). The speaker does not only want to be found; somehow, in some way, they also want to wander and be lost.

The Convert’s Heart is Good to Eat is unquestionably about the divine; Gee nudges and considers God through and after her conversion experience. However, the chapbook’s vividness comes from its distinct humanity. In “Love Outnumbers Us,” Gee writes that “pain exposed will blend with tender fingers / sealing the bandage over salve.” Human pain does not disappear in the face of Gee’s Lord. In fact, the presence of pain becomes perhaps more pronounced through the Lord’s healing of her. Nevertheless, Gee’s experiences are concrete, complicated, and nuanced. The Convert’s Heart is Good to Eat does not preach about identity and spirituality, but explores these topics with all the honesty of a confession.

The Convert’s Heart is Good to Eat is available at Driftwood Press


A white woman with red hair, round, tortoise shell glasses, and a blue coat sits on a stone bench against a stone wall and looks directly at the camera.

Hailey Small is based in Wilmore, Kentucky, where she writes lyric prose and watches gingko leaves turn soft each November. Hailey is a junior at Asbury University working towards a BA in English and History. She enjoys working in Asbury’s writing center, where she partners with remedial English students to make academia and creative writing more accessible. Most recently, Hailey was published in The Asbury Review, where she also serves as the creative non-fiction editor, and anthrowcircus.com

Sundress Reads: Review of the end is not apocalypse but another morning where everyone tells me I’m dead

The Sundress Reads logo is black and white and features a fluffy sheep drinking a mug of tea, reading a book, and sitting cross-legged on a stool.
A young girl sits in the middle of an abandoned street with her arms wrapped around her legs and her head hidden in her knees. The scene is digitally drawn and in grayscale, except for a fire blazing in the sky behind her.

In the end is not apocalypse but another morning where everyone tells me I’m dead (Yavanika Press, 2021), Tanya Singh’s most recent poetry chapbook, they use concise, first-person, lyric narratives to decipher cultural trauma. Singh wrote these fifteen prose poems in response to the 1984 Sikh Genocide; each poem is historically specific, yet also timeless and contemporary in their exploration of memory, the supernatural, death, and what comes after. 

According to official governments reports 3,000 Sikhs were murdered throughout India within the first three days of the 1984 Sikh Genocide. Other unofficial death estimates are much higher. In June of the same year, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi ordered a military assault on Darbar Sahib, one of the most significant Sikh religious centers. In October, the Prime Minister was assassinated by two of her Sikh bodyguards. The assassination triggered the next several days of violence, where thousands of Sikh men were burned alive or beaten to death with wooden clubs.

the end is not apocalypse but another morning where everyone tells me I’m dead is not a strictly nonfiction retelling of this event; instead, it shows how Singh—and the poetic speakers they create—process trauma over time. The chapbook is separated into three acts: ”I have felt love before so I recognize the absence of it,” “Is there anything untouched by death?”, and “The end of the body is where it begins.” Each section starts with an epigraph from news articles, either direct quotes from survivors or descriptions of the violence. 

The first section, “I have felt love before so I recognize the absence of it,” imagines the conflict from within the event. The speakers of “I”, “II”, “III”, “IV”, and “V” hide in neighbors’ houses, under tables, or in churches. This world is silent except for “my father crying” in “III” and the sound of crackling fire, reminiscent of the way many Sikhs were murdered by being burned alive. This section forces the reader to see cultural tragedy and trauma in the present tense, rather than as historical events. Nevertheless, the speakers ask questions about a mysterious and already haunting future. In “III”: “Does evil come from god, too? Does evil die? I’m afraid I might already know the answer. I’m afraid the light at the end of the tunnel will consume us before we even see it.”

Sections two and three, “Is there anything untouched by death?” and “The end of the body is where it begins” are, to some extent, an answer to these questions. They are more contemporary in setting, or at least more contemporary than the 1984 days of violence. “X” explores how the memory of the 1984 Sikh Genocide affects the speaker after the event. The speaker is “all safe. It’s a joke and the audience laughs.” “When the doorbell rings, no one’s home. That’s how we make it alive.” There is tension between the past and the present here; does living past a traumatic event require the speaker to forget?

Death, in reality and in the chapbook, touches all things. Death is a background that, when connected to other included themes like religion or family, shifts in different shades with a nevertheless consistent tone. In “I,” “the quiet rubbed. It ached so full of ghosts, bodies scattered like crumbs.” By “IV,” those bodies take a different form: “The faces of dead people shine bright… I sleep with a knife inside my mouth, my tongue a nest of blood calling every song holy.” Specifically in section two, “Is there anything untouched by death?”, but also throughout the collection, connections to death allow for a more significant and nuanced understanding of Singh’s other subjects. 

Memory is perhaps a less clear theme of the chapbook, but its presence is implicit in the subject matter. In itself, this book is a way of remembering. Singh takes on serious responsibility to remember and convey the memory of the 1984 Sikh Genocide well. Attar Kaur, the subject the article referenced in the first epigraph, lost her husband and eleven members of her extended family in the genocide. “Unlike others in the colony, who have stopped speaking to the press, too tired to go through the pain again, Kaur never turns down anybody.” Like many other Sikhs in the region, Kaur still experiences intense grief because she remembers. However, she uses her retellings to invite others to grieve with her.

In “VI,” the poem from which the chapbook takes its title, the speaker explains that “Dead is the name for people we love from a distance so it doesn’t hurt much, or at all. Dead is the name you don’t remember. Because remembering, like everything else, is too heavy to carry its own weight.” It may be less painful to forget, but, through their writing of this chapbook, Singh choses to remember anyway. They ask the reader questions about the importance and value of remembering historic grieving, both for the outsider and the griever. 

the end is not apocalypse but another morning where everyone tells me I’m dead is available at Yavanika Press


A white woman with red hair, round, tortoise shell glasses, and a blue coat sits on a stone bench against a stone wall and looks directly at the camera.

Hailey Small is based in Wilmore, Kentucky, where she writes lyric prose and watches gingko leaves turn soft each November. Hailey is a junior at Asbury University, working towards a BA in English and History. She enjoys working in Asbury’s writing center, where she partners with remedial English students to make academia and creative writing more accessible. Most recently, Hailey was published in The Asbury Review, where she also serves as the creative non-fiction editor, and anthrowcircus.com

Sundress Reads: Review of An Accidental American Odyssey

In western Russia, a young Catherine Morland-esque woman mingles with “American princes” in exchange for a ticket west. Meanwhile, across the Bering Sea, a refugee couple and their neighbors desperately shuffle into a claustrophobic white van to escape America’s untimely end. 

Mark Budman, in his latest short story collection, An Accidental American Odyssey (Livingston Press, 2021), weaves unique voices together to create an immigrant hero’s journey. Budman’s collection exposes the inescapability of the immigrant identity and the perpetual longing for something more secure than that which we already have—a feeling that migrants often carry overseas. 

Born in the former Soviet Russia, and currently living in America, Mark Budman is no stranger to the immigrant experience. His first semi-autobiographical novel, My Life at First Try (Counterpoint, 2008), follows Alex and his family as they move from Siberia to America. Similarly, An Accidental American Odyssey further explores themes of migration and the meaning of the homeland by introducing a diverse array of characters. Out of chronological order, each short story details a different phase in a character’s immigration journey. Budman describes the moment Vera Sirotina attempts to make her dreams of leaving Russia come true, as well as the grueling reality of American capitalism that the Titan is subject to at his office job in “The Titan. An Office Romance.” Budman’s collection creates a new hero archetype that centers on the immigrant’s journey while emphasizing the obstacles one endures while immigrating from one’s homeland. 

Budman’s witty narrative focus offers a unique perspective on the conflicting emotions that his characters feel when they uproot their lives. His narrative style frequently toes the lines of absurdity—In “Influencer, C’est Moi,” Ivan Ivanovich Ivanov is a minuscule personal advisor who lives behind the ears of kings. He exchanges his advice to Napoleon for the promise of French citizenship. The active choice to retell this story from the perspective of a political advisor who subjects can neither see nor hear hints at the futility that citizens often feel under certain forms of government. Ivan complains that the French rulers ignore his suggestions and fail miserably in their campaigns. He says, “I moved to the US. Everyone listens to you there, if you belong to the same political party, and if you say that the other party’s leader is an asshole” (41). Ivan notes the hypocrisy of American politics, but still prefers the ease with which one can assimilate into the masses. He acknowledges that conformity, as a migrant, allows Americans to take you seriously. Within the collection, Ivan’s story functions as an unfortunate reality check regarding the fact that, although the countries that many of Budman’s characters hail from have corrupt governments, America’s democracy is far from perfect. 

In fact, we find his characters in all sorts of strange circumstances. Vera signs up for a Tinder-like dating service, dreaming of being a mail-order bride. In “Scarabaeus Simplex,” Greg Sampson’s dreams turn him into a Volkswagen New Beetle. Absurdist story-telling functions to make abstract concepts like consumerism more accessible to readers. For Sampson, an American who hopes to vacation in Russia while so many Russians must leave, becoming an old German car symbolizes the limitations of American capitalism. 

Sampson, like so many Americans, dreams of the material—once he realizes he’s a car, he immediately hopes he is a Mercedes or Rolls Royce. Essentially, his family’s upward mobility is halted because he’s now stuck as a Volkswagen. A recently immigrated couple who “won the visa lottery” purchase him from a car dealership, ecstatic over their brand-new Volkswagen. Budman’s absurdity functions to simplify the actual absurdity of the American dream. 

Likewise, many of the collection’s female characters are passive subjects against the overarching “American dream” myth, which subtly flattens them into tropes. We perceive characters like Vera and the waitress through the male gaze—though Budman seems to do this purposefully, exposing the limiting scope of American faux diversification. In “A Perfect Rhyme Translated from Scratch,” the protagonist imagines the waitress “sitting in the lotus position,” questioning if he’s perhaps mistaken about which nation the imagery is from. The narrator admits, “[the restauranteur] forgot if haiku is Chinese or Vietnamese? He has to look it up” (10). The narrator exposes the protagonist as an ignorant authority figure whose “compassion” for a Chinese waitress is entrenched in orientalism, both exoticizing and othering the migrant.  

An Accidental American Odyssey recreates foundational myths by centering migrants as new Odysseus and Aeneas-types. When the getaway driver in “The Selfless Quarantine” asks the protagonist where they’re from, the protagonist replies, “our countries ceased to exist”—Budman’s collection implies that, when we leave our countries, we are perpetually in search of a homeland that ceases to exist. An American odyssey goes beyond an immigrant’s arrival to their destination. Like Aeneas, whose founding of Rome is undermined by the empire’s untimely end, Budman’s protagonists discover that their longing for a homeland is made insistent by America’s instability. 

An Accidental American Odyssey is available at Small Press Distribution.


Crysta Montiel is an undergraduate student at the University of Toronto in Canada, where she studies English Literature and Philosophy. She previously worked as an editorial intern at Ayesha Pande Literary Agency. When Crysta’s not digging through treasure troves of queries, she’s completing her Criterion Collection bucket list and playing with her cat.

Sundress Reads: Review of Luz at Midnight

Somewhere in the night, a dog wanders. Somewhere in South Texas during a blackout, the dog gives birth. Somewhere in America during a global climate crisis, a man finds the dog and brings her home.

In her genre-hopping novel Luz at Midnight (FlowerSong Press, 2020), Marisol Cortez tells a story of the passionate, exhausting search for hope and perseverance against desperation, frustration, injustice, and hopelessness. In this striking climate fiction book with a love story, idealistic and thoughtful Citlali “Lali” Sanchez-O’Connor falls fervently—and in her mind, unfortunately—in love with journalist Joel Champlain, who uncovers the slow-acting political and economic leaders in a fast-moving climate crisis affecting the inhabitants of San Antonio. Lali has a husband, a child, and a job lined up across the country, and she grapples with the badly-timed discovery of a passion she had never felt before. Both Lali and Joel are navigating their dissatisfaction with unfulfilled promises—within their lives and from the people who have the power to stop the climate crisis they are both fighting in personal and professional capacities.

Lali’s confessional opening hints at the passion, reflection, and uncertainty to come. Her discovery of love dawns with the realization that it is “something that in its very inexplicability could not be controlled or reckoned with or understood.” Joel’s introduction is striking, too, presented in second-person point of view with vivid details. We learn about his struggles with mental health and the cognitive dissonance between his ideals and the reality of his work. He questions himself, and his ennui permeates his narrative, speaking to those who have ever questioned their impact, especially those who work against injustice. He struggles to belong and find connection with like-minded people, asking “How can I be part of something but not of something?”

Weaving masterfully between numerous narrative styles and genres—including poetic prose, contemporary storytelling, poetry, theatrical script, musings on physics and human interconnection, research notes, and even news articles—Cortez takes us through multiple perspectives, seeing romance and climate change through various lenses. Lali’s growing understanding of “the complex political interweaving of oil and water and money and color” tie the book’s many elements together. Stylistic choices also treat the text like artwork; dialogue isn’t set off by quotation marks, and the characters’ speech blends into the narrative. The text invites readers to place themselves into the story, using focus and context to derive its meaning. It shifts between past and present tense, showing time’s many links to itself. Every new section begins with another Chapter One—a resetting of time, an acknowledgement of a new beginning amidst many beginnings and endings.

The many characters of Luz at Midnight are well fleshed-out, both memorable and familiar. With stories told with nuance and empathy, these characters comprise people from all backgrounds, from activists to those simply doing their jobs and hoping they do them well. For a brief time, we walk with each character, seeing the world through their eyes and understanding how their experiences have shaped their views and dreams. We see how these characters interact with each other and how their stories intertwine, always drawing back to the idea of connection. The story highlights connections between people, between history and the future, between nature and humanity, and between legacy and damage. Human thought and relationships are explored with artistic, whimsical writing that is at times thoughtful, solemn, or humorous. The characters lean on humor in some of their darkest moments, especially when they feel they have nothing else—yet instances of this humor, like those in the narrative, are weighed down by more sobering realities:         
                                                                                        
“He laughs and waves back. Alto a los rate hikes!
But it really wasn’t funny.”

The characters fight for and live in a San Antonio that is both realistic and fictionalized. Multiple references are made that show the author’s familiarity with the city, and the setting imagines what might happen as the city’s political and economic leaders and citizens respond to issues brought about by climate change—and ultimately by the people themselves. As they delve into the issues plaguing the city, Joel, Lali, and their colleagues grapple with the knowledge that “whoever decided what happened to the land decided the future.” The story’s timeliness and relevance are uncanny; just months before a snowstorm and Texas’ electrical system would lead to prolonged blackouts in multiple areas, disproportionately affecting poorer and more marginalized communities, Cortez warns of those very risks in Texas’ electrical grid plans. These incidents are described in compelling language that personifies nature with “her” instead of “it,” and the narrative frequently ponders nature’s overarching power, extending into every life and permeating the landscape.

Ultimately, Luz at Midnight is thought-provoking, and its many twists and forays into multiple narrative styles ensured my constant reflection and focus. The characters are raw and genuine, and I deeply felt their passion and exhaustion as I followed their stories. The story lovingly and thoughtfully explores human relationships, how they impact and are in turn impacted by the earth, and imagines a near future dealing with climate issues, but ultimately, it is a book about desire and love, whether those are between characters, between people and their city, between animals and humans, or between humans and our world. “When we’re held like that, unconditionally—that’s when our pain becomes endurance, courage. That’s what allows us to survive in the face of violence and to do this work year after year, decade after decade.”

Luz at Midnight is available at FlowerSong Press


Stephi Cham is a freelance editor and author. She received her BM in Music Therapy and Minor in Psychology from Southern Methodist University and is pursuing her MA in Publishing at Rosemont College, where she is the Fiction Editor of Rathalla Review. She wrote the Great Asian-Americans series, published in 2018 by Capstone Press, and her writing has been featured in Strange Horizons.

Sundress Reads: Review of The Body He Left Behind

Are there nuanced steps—complicated travels—between the shapes of vulnerability and viciousness, prey and predator? How do we, as humans, form these shapes when we face loss? These are only a few questions that arise from Reese Conner’s debut poetry collection, The Body He Left Behind (Cider Press Review, 2021). An homage to Conner’s father and his cat Lewis, The Body He Left Behind provides a unique space where animalistic movements initiate a poetic voice that calls attention to the way grief, love, or violence can shape us just as tangibly as our own bones.

The Body He Left Behind pulls from a kaleidoscope of observances about human and animal nature that weave together so interchangeably throughout the collection’s five parts that they seem causal and interdependent. In repeating images of toothpicks, rubber bands, spillages, and balsa wood, Conner constructs human and animal bodies according to a material vulnerability, thus exposing the way that humankind stands to bind both themselves, and the nature surrounding them, to a physical compartmentalization and self-imagined organization. “The Rapture”, for instance, illustrates a vomiting ocean as analogy to our view of an exposed human materialism: “a gentle murmur / spread in the bellies of the observant, / who saw even the ugly things begin to ascend—blobfish, Smart Cars, murder weapons, every issue of Us Weekly—and they began to think: / What about us?” In “The Necessary”, Conner points to the losses that occur at the intersection between nature and humanity’s material constructions: “if roads, cars, and quick commutes / mean one, two, one thousand dead cats, then / the choice is still clear: It would be far too expensive, / not to mention logistically irresponsible, / to make cat-retardant roads, so, of course, / a run-over tabby or two is necessary / unpleasantness.” By so clearly pointing to the downfall of human efficiency, Conner makes congruencies between human and animal survival—both of which, at times, reach towards the same beauty—the same menace.

Throughout The Body He Left Behind, the tricky intersection between nature, nurture, and survival becomes the similarity between humans and animals. The need for humans to build their world, to frame the bodies of other people, holds the same mindset as a cat with a dying chipmunk, urging its prey “[t]o move differently, / willing her back to the life he took / so that his purchase / might be made again”. Similarly, the way emotions are sharpened, changed, and buried within a person’s mind holds the same survivalist instincts as a cat licking the cyst on his forepaw: “It is the logic he knows, but it will not work. He’ll lick. It will blue… He’ll lick. It will burst”. The speaker of this collection not only acknowledges these similarities, but takes ownership in the connection, confessing, “I am the reason / the cat, domestic and heavy / with wet food, still kills the cockroach—tears it limb by limb by limb, by limb… Forgive him, he is a violent shape.” In weaving between these images, Conner grants all the room necessary to air the true dichotomy of violent shapes in our world, creating ruminations that ask whether, “desire, even with menace / has meaning”, “how many monsters suffocate / the things they love, and how many / call it kindness,” or if “Frost was right about gold, / about every type of happiness ending / in a quiet violence.”

The dichotomies in The Body He Left Behind not only lead to a forgiving tone throughout the collection, they contribute to a dynamic contemplation about the self and its relationship to loss. As the speaker ruminates on the death of their father and the passing of their cat Lewis, they also question how one reacts to an encounter with impermanence, and how there could ever be a right way to do so. This is particularly prominent in the poem “Thank You,” when the speaker notes that their father: “received the bag / full of Lewis, / who, / like all dead cats / that are carried, / became broken rubber bands / heavy as ball bearings, / and said thank you / as if it were a kindness / to yank a dog / from the cat it killed, (13-21).

Speaking to another loss in the title poem “The Body He Left Behind”, the speaker moves from the act of politely concealing emotion in “Thank You” to describing the adamant desire to let go of a loved one’s image: “It’s time to let go / of the body he left behind, / the one that’s lodged / in your eye like a floater…Yes, it’s time to let go / of the body he left behind. / It’s lodged / in your throat—you mistake it for breath.” It is the struggle to both intimately feel and pull beyond the absence of a loss, the stress in both knowing of an end and ignoring it, that Conner places as a centerpiece in his work. In recognizing the loss of their cat Lewis, for example, the speaker comes to the bittersweet understanding that, “My father told me the saddest stories / are not about broken things—no, the saddest stories are the happy ones / told in past tense because we know everything is broken and we have to see it untouched first, we have to do the breaking ourselves.” By so dynamically illustrating the feeling of recognizing a goodbye that is already in the room, Conner looks unflinchingly towards grief, while also allowing it to hold its own gentle, dismantling character—just as humans, just as animals. “I am lonely for my father,” the speaker says in “Bring Flowers to What You Love.” “I am lonely for my cat” they say in “Lost Cat”. These statements, if any, encompass The Body He Left Behind—they speak to the violent, beautiful impressions humans and animals trace into one another and the way naming that impression, claiming it, is powerful for the same reason naming a cat is: “because naming a cat / does not make him ours, / it makes him us.” Conner’s work shows us how we do that naming, over and over again. 

The Body He Left Behind is available at Cider Press Review


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, among others.

Sundress Reads Review Series Looking for Recently Published Books

As part of Sundress’s ongoing commitment to service, we recognize that COVID-19 has caused hardship by cancelling readings, launches, tours, and other needed promotional efforts. To combat this, Sundress Publications continues to accept submissions for consideration for inclusion in our review series, Sundress Reads. We’re looking to write featured reviews for any books published or to be published from July 2021 to June 2022. We at Sundress hope to champion writers whose work highlights human struggle and challenges misconceptions.

Authors or publishers of books published within this date range are invited to submit books, chapbooks, or anthologies in any genre for consideration by our reviewers who are standing by. Submissions will be considered on a rolling basis.

For immediate consideration, please forward an electronic copy of the book (PDFs preferred), author bio, photo of the cover, and a link to the publisher’s website to sundresspublications@gmail.com with “Sundress Reads: Title” as the subject line. In addition, we request that one print copy be mailed to Sundress Academy for the Arts, ATTN: Sundress Reads, 195 Tobby Hollow Lane, Knoxville, TN 37931.

Submissions to Sundress Reads will remain eligible for selection for one year. Hard copies will become a permanent part of the Sundress Academy for the Arts library and will be made available to SAFTA residents and staff as well as by request to affiliate journals for further reviews.