Sundress Reads: Review of Bird Body

Content warning: Sexual assault mentioned

A sketched bird lies in the center of the book cover amid drawn ferns. Bird Body is written above in lowercase italics. Below the image is written "poems by Zoë Fay-Stindt"

What does it mean to inhabit a woman’s body in a world that tries to break it? This is what Zoë Fay-Stindt explores in their poetry chapbook, Bird Body. Fay-Stindt weaves intricately between birds and the stories of women to shine a light on women’s and femme’s experience in our misogynistic world. Fay-Stindt writes of the speaker’s emotional pain and exhaustion following their sexual assault. Here, healing can take the form of being picked apart by birds even as our speaker is devastated by their own inability to help others with their pain.   

Birds, Fay-Stindt appears to say, have levels of meaning and such a depth of representation that even we are birds. Sometimes we are brutal, then too-easily crushed by the world, yet containing within the cages of our ribs wrathful howls and cries of mourning and the ability to, despite it all, keep “opening [our] eyes every morning.” In such exploration, Fay-Stindt offers us the great gift of understanding what it is to survive in our problematic world.

Much of the chapbook is around the assault of the speaker and the emotional aftermath, although the assault is itself never described in much detail. Instead, much of the focus is on the effects and the ways that society compounds them by teaching the speaker to invalidate her own experience, even telling her (when she does begin to write about it in poetry) that she speaks of it too much. Bird Body dives deep into the emotional effects of something that is so innate to many women’s experiences, as 1 out of 6 women in the U.S. face sexual assault in their lifetime and 90% of sexual assault victims are women (“Scope of the Problem: Statistics.” RAINN).    

In “that’s it, now” Fay-Stindt compares the speaker to the mourning dove in her grief and exhaustion, imploring the reader to not pity the dove (or, perhaps, the woman) as she weaves laments yet still opens her eyes each morning, holding her “tremor and her great loud voice / in the same body.” This emotional depth and exploration makes clear the impact of an event that many still invalidate, bringing forth shockwaves from the event in all directions so that it can be fully felt—and understood—by the reader.

Bird Body also looks at the way terrible events echo backward, affecting the speaker long before it even happened through the fear women must live with. Through such writings, Fay-Stindt connects us in community, building bridges between us in order to share often overlooked and unspoken experiences. Fay-Stindt writes of the prelude to the rape, “I’ve been training for a lifetime—my body / knows the drill: I won’t yell. Instead, / offer a bargain: not tonight, or I promise / I’ll make it better next time, or I owe you one.” As a woman, this line had a profound effect on me because it touched on something not often discussed; the way that we spend our lives preparing for the possibility of an assault, finding responses to catcalls and men who approach us, finding the ways to battle our own instincts of rage in an attempt at survival. And this prevalence makes it all the more necessary to discuss.

Fay-Stindt expands the examination to include our human fallibility, broadening the chapbook’s relevance for all potential readers. They write in “a robin at the bus station” of the devastating inability in the face of others’ pain to do more than “build beds, soft spaces to land,” and show how our best attempts at help can make matters worse when the speaker accidentally kills a robin in “swallow.”

Yet, as the chapbook explores, there is so much more to a woman’s experience. From their relationship with their mother, to breast cancer, to pap smears, to finding a connection with and healing in nature, to having one’s body picked apart and prodded like it’s nothing more than a vessel, Fay-Stindt touches on much important and often-overlooked aspects of what it means to be a woman or femme in their poems.

But let us not evade how the speaker’s body is treated as a visceral vessel throughout. Their body is picked apart by a heron, washed clean, then squeezed and entered by a doctor during a pap smear. In this way, although both situations are geared toward healing, a comment is made on the objectification of women and femmes as nothing more than a body, how they are treated as such by society.

Bird Body is a vital read since it shows these experiences without flinching away, and makes obvious that you cannot completely tell a woman’s story—or understand it—without showing the grief, the connection to nature, our helplessness to aid each other, our objectification by society, and so much more. Fay-Stindt creates a vibrant, moving ode to women, femme people, and our bodily experiences by shining the spotlight on aspects of our lives that are often overlooked, and in so doing allows us to understand ourselves, and even humanity in all of its cruelty and struggle.   

Bird Body is available at Cordella Magazine

Solstice Black (she/they) is a queer poet and novelist living in the Pacific Northwest. They are currently undertaking a bachelor’s degree in creative writing. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in ChautauquaThe Fantastic Other, and A Forest of Words, among others. They hope to pursue an MFA in creative writing and a BFA in visual art in the next few years. Her cat is both her greatest joy and torment.

Sundress Reads: Review of Faraway Places

The title of Teow Lim Goh’s Faraway Places (Diode Editions, 2021) is at once truthful and misleading—a collection concerning intimate natural places and the profound emotional memories that accompany them, it honestly, heartbreakingly reflects on how our man-made creations have distanced us from said places and ourselves. Goh’s deliberate, attentive poetry asks us to reckon with our current notions of the natural world as a thing to control, while also relating these notions to womanhood and more broadly to love itself. In Faraway Places, the world is imbued with an aching sense of loss, but not one that is irreparable, as Goh simply and beautifully shows us how to cherish the world with wonder again. 

The collection almost immediately begins with the radical reimagination of the natural world that we find time and time again in Goh’s work. In “Black Orchid,” for instance, she states that “We look at flowers as a way to know / where we are.” Flowers, which we might perceive as purely aesthetic additions to land, are here imbued with deeper meaning: they exist to provide intimate insight into the landscape itself. Everything in nature has a significant message for us, Goh implies, if we take the time to look, to pay attention. Another natural space the collection frequently meditates on—the sea—is also repeatedly reimagined, beginning with the poem “Borders,” which declares, “The sea is the edge of land / and the beginning of another world.” Rather than allowing the sea to be a definitive end to explorable territory, Goh eagerly enters it: “the water will hold me— / I learn to swim.” Here, she reminds us that no border is impermeable, that even the most intimidating of natural spaces can welcome us as long as we learn its ways.

But while Faraway Places loves to show us the rich meaning natural spaces are saturated with and their wild openness to those who truly seek to understand them, it also depicts the painful reality of man-made spaces—gardens, houses, fences—and their accompanying sense of profound loss. These spaces all have one thing in common: they are created to divide, to control, to tame the natural world. Goh shows us that it is this human compulsion to force partitions where they would not naturally occur that utterly obscures our understanding of nature itself. “Stars” is where she first mourns the loss of shared memory and experience, plaintively reflecting that “Those / who know the lore can use [stars] / to find their way / in the world. But I cannot seem / to remember.” This absence, this want, is more explicitly linked to man-made space in “Split,” where she tells us that in her memory, “I can see the house I lived in, the schools / I went to, the gardens I walked in the evenings. / What I don’t remember is how it all felt, / the textures of the sea and sky.” Artificial spaces—the house, the school, the gardens—are able to be visually remembered at the surface level, but Goh emphasizes their destruction of the deeper emotional connection with sea and sky.

However, Goh is not without hope, acknowledging the ways in which nature is not a passive victim of man-made creation but a quietly resistant force. Her poem “Island” describes the garden of the speaker’s childhood as “overgrown,” subtly implying the ways nature continues to evolve despite the limits we place around it, and it concludes with the lines “The coconut / fell and bobbed in the waves, too dry / and hard to eat, the shell broken / only by a knife,” which give even the coconut a semblance of agency, refusing to allow itself to be harvested and broken as humans perhaps intended to do with it. In “Birdsong,” too, Goh demonstrates the wordless resistance of nature with the opening lines “At the tropical aviary, I wanted to listen / to the birds, look / at their splendid feathers. / I find instead silence. Macaws / hang their heads.” The power of the birds is their very silence, denying the human onlookers their voice, refusing to serve as captive entertainment. Towards the end of Faraway Places, we see Goh bring to light a parallel we might have subconsciously picked up on: the way the experience of nature, captured and controlled, uncannily resembles the experience of being a woman. “Wings” explicitly makes this comparison, opening with “Maybe she is a dancer, or a bird—,” and, similar to “Birdsong,” Goh suggests that the main form of female power is the power to withhold, stating that “She never reveals her silhouette.”

More broadly, the collection bears a universal message about love: that to love is to release the compulsion to control. “January,” one of the collection’s concluding poems, ends with the speaker’s reflection that perhaps “bearing / witness is the deepest form of love.” Goh shows us the ways we lose our intimacy with nature through our addiction to dominion and the ways nature silently but forcefully pushes back, but she also illuminates a solution through which we can live in harmony: by allowing nature to do what it wants. Through Goh’s words, then, we see the world as a friend, a lover—constantly evolving, calling us to reimagine it with wonder, and most importantly, to let it be. 

Faraway Places is available at Diode Editions

Kaylee Jeong is a Korean American writer, currently studying English at Columbia University. She edits for Quarto, Columbia’s official undergraduate literary magazine, and serves as a poetry reader for the Columbia Journal’s Incarcerated Writers Initiative. A 2019 Sundress Best of the Net finalist in poetry, her work has been featured in diodeBOAAT, and Hyphen, among others.

Sundress Reads: Review of Plumes and Other Flights of Fancy

“Outside, stretched out on the grass beneath the cooling canopy of a willow and staring up at the seafoam sky” is precisely how I felt reading Andrena Zawinski’s Plumes and Other Flights of Fancy (Writing Knights Press, 2022).

“And that’s a true story—well, almost.”

Consisting of 31 flash fictions/memoirs, each piece is ripe with detail, beautifully constructed, and fills the soul with a sweet (and sometimes sour) taste of reminiscence. Zawinski seems to want readers to understand life for how it is, but to also push through the clouds to see what it could be. With just the first sentence, Zawinski propels the reader into another scene, another time, another world, her world:

From “Wayward:” It was already 108 degrees when Valentina and I were dropped at the 5th and Juárez bus stop after an hour’s ride from Cancún to Playa del Carmen. From “Cherie:” “How’s t’day’s gumbo, chérie?” he said in a low Louisiana drawl, leaning over from his table toward hers. From “Lights Out:” The red wine must be getting to my head because I find myself alone and scribbling in the dark in Paris. From “Woodstock:” We stuck out our thumbs at the nearest highway entrance to leave Yasgur’s Farm. From “The Diamond Cutter’s Daughter:” Rachel’s father died young, but her elderly Rabbi grandfather survived him and the Holocaust, faded numbers tattooed on his wrist he made no effort to hide. From “Bella Mia:” Alegria lived small like most college students, her only indulgence a rowboat she’d rescued and restored that she would toss into Sarasota Bay.

With this collection, you never know where you’ll end up as Zawinski takes her readers on a combination of homey and extraordinary locations. One may find themselves in small-town America watching an ignorant father mentally abuse his child, or in a metropolis city bar where there’s plenty of booze but not seating, or in a delivery room with a tuxedo-dressed doctor, or along a European road where you’ll meet an unsuspecting shoe thief in the next.

And with every location comes some new lesson, implication, or hard truth. Zawinski is gifted at threading her stories with these revelations, often presenting them at the end: “This story is about finding a way.” “All of us crossing boundaries.” “You were only waiting for this moment to be free.” “Gone, but now less afraid of extinction by hook, line, and sinker than by the pink
plastic bag.” “She was last seen wearing her Sunday best, not walking on the road to church, but barefoot along the path toward the roses at the coal drifts, all their petals laced with black dust.” “Let’s keep this between the two of us, a secret.”
There are no shortages of these simple, yet powerful messages in this collection, and I guarantee readers will reevaluate their past, present, and future while on their journey with Plumes and Other Flights of Fancy as I have.

Even though each piece is undeniably its own, Zawinski nails what it means to curate a collection—diverse, yet cohesive. Each story dropped me off in a new place, yet I felt that all of the speakers could be one and the same—and turns out they were—and that their overarching goal was to impart some new truths while reminding me to heed timeless warnings. As Zawinski threw different adventures at me back-to-back, not once did I feel any sort of disconnect—and that was before I became aware that these stories were reflections of Zawinski’s life. As I’ve done with Plumes and Other Flights of Fancy, I’ll pick up a book and ignore the synopsis so that any pre-judgments or expectations will not mar my overall view of an author’s work. As a result, I found the pieces captivating, but then to discover they were inspired by the author’s life? Depth. This depth is the seasoning in any Mexican dish, the perfectly wrapped bow around a present at Christmas, the café au lait in a French coffee shop; the one thing that makes the collection perfecto, perfect, parfait. This is what I treasure most in a writer’s work and I know that special connection to the author, not just their words, will resonate with readers. This is what makes Zawinski’s collection truly valuable.

I realized from the beginning that Zawinski crafts all of her stories with a style that allows her to set the stage quickly without feeling hurried. From the plot to the characters to the overall essence, Zawinski pours life into all three without catering more to one over another. And at any given moment, you’ll most assuredly find yourself relating to the speaker, the situations they’ve been thrown into, or both. If by some strange phenomenon neither happens, then Zawinski will still have succeeded in brightening (or darkening) someone’s world. In this way, she truly brings something to the gate that everyone will be eager to line up for.

As I neared the end of Plumes and Other Flights of Fancy, I found myself saying no. No to the inevitable end of the story, of saying goodbye to the people I’ve met, loved, or hated, and goodbye to all of the places Zawinski has invited me to. But I must go with the critique that I’m sorry to see my flight end. I can only hope that Zawinski invites us all for another ride very soon.

Plumes and Other Flights of Fancy is available at Writing Knights Press


Eden Stiger is a Kentucky-bred, Ohio-living college undergraduate who recently received her Bachelor of Arts in English and Creative Writing from the University of Findlay. She is the current poetry editor and layout editor for the literary magazine Slippery Elm. When the day job and fantasy novel aren’t fighting for her attention, she can be found snuggled on the couch with a book in her hand, playing The Sims at her computer desk, or spending time with her hubby and sweet kitty.

Sundress Reads: Review of We Know Each Other By Our Wounds

The Sundress Reads logo, which consists of a drawing of a bespectacled sheep holding a book next to the words "Sundress Reads."
The cover of We Know Each Other by Our Wounds by Jude Marr.

When even language refuses your inclusion, do you shrink yourself into nonexistence—or forge a new way forward? The dynamic speaker of Jude Marr’s debut full-length collection, We Know Each Other By Our Wounds (Animal Heart Press, 2020), chooses to claw their way into nonbinary embodiment amidst a disintegrating world. Journeying across apocalyptic landscapes and half-imagined cities, Marr’s speaker wrestles with constructed binaries in search of genuine connection. What they discard may ultimately free them—though not without personal and political concessions.

In “Taxonomies,” one of the collection’s earliest poems, the speaker argues, “taxonomy is death: Audubon killed / his birds to keep their wings / still: to capture them / on paper […]” Recent transphobic news cycles validate these words as truth. To be classified is to be dissected—and to mark emergent aberrations for slaughter. Thus, for their own sake and others’, the speaker resists legibility through continual divergence from the social order, deviating “until my skinned soles, until / my unchained feet / bleed […]”

Marr’s principled dedication to linguistic fluidity extends to the level of punctuation. Eschewing full stops in favor of commas, colons, and Dickinsonian em-dashes, phrases and images open into one another, re-emerging amalgamated. In “Metaphor as Privilege,” the speaker’s home simultaneously appears as a “prison made of gingerbread: […] / hearth-ash, a blanket of snow, a lit match” and “a pillory with pillows”—hostile in its patchwork familiarity. In this way, Marr’s poetics leave no single image discrete, inviting readers to embrace these concepts’ rich contradictions.

Yet, linguistic resistance alone cannot unmake systemic violence. In “Pacing My Midtown Neighborhood,” the speaker drifts, ghostlike, through interactions with their impoverished neighbors. They glide as “smoothly as a jointed doll” past an elderly man selling umbrellas, an undulating teenager, and a series of “boarded / homes, fragile as leaf skeletons,” unable to combat the town’s encroaching decay. After dissociating through a transaction at the package store, the speaker drifts past an encampment, where they catch a well-dressed individual’s gaze. In the poem’s sole moment of notable agency, the speaker chooses to nod in acknowledgement.

Their passivity persists in “The Man Who Smells of Lemons,” in which the titular plant-human hybrid collapses before an impotent audience. “Exiled from the crowd,” the speaker observes the chaos from a “third-floor window ledge,” watching as a yellow-clad girl-child kicks the “man-tree” to the ground. Again, the speaker fails to move against the “pitiless” masses, only lifting their fist to the lemon-man from a distance.

Marr addresses their limitations in the collection’s titular piece, “We Know Each Other By Our Wounds.” Here, Marr’s speaker considers the marginalized poet, lips “sewn / with twine,” unbound by “a scissor or razorblade […]” Tongue loosened by trauma, the “poet finger-paints with bloodied / drool: fluids pucker and pool / into evidence […]” However, as Marr’s speaker acknowledges, “(print is privilege— / unsown poets make songs flesh,” suggesting even the collection’s existence represents capitulation to institutional validation. Without occasional concessions to an unyielding system, it would be much more difficult to hold Marr’s work in our hands.

Despite these occasional constraints and contradictions, We Know Each Other By Our Wounds provides readers with an intellectual framework through which to interrogate and gnaw away at invisible modes of oppression. Even as their world returns to ash, Marr’s speaker persists, “unmade: I am they, and not yet / dead.” 

We Know Each Other By Our Wounds is available at Animal Heart Press

Fox Auslander is a nonbinary poet and editor based in West Philadelphia. They serve as the editor-in-chief of Delicate Friend, an intimate arts and literature magazine, and one of three lead poetry editors at Alien Magazine, a literary hub for outsiders. Their work appears or is forthcoming in beestungVoicemail PoemsEunoia Review, and beyond. They believe trans love will save the world. 

Sundress Reads: Review of Body Facts

Joey S. Kim’s Body Facts deliberately and bravely navigates the unique confusion of first-generation Korean Americans, moving with poise through both personal and political histories of trauma and loss. The collection’s range of experiences spans both space and time, from reflections on Japanese-occupied Korea and the Korean War to painful personal memories of a childhood spent being othered by white classmates in suburban Ohio, from the speaker’s life under Trump’s America to imagined recollections of her parents’ lives in their homeland. Grounding the collection’s vast sweep of history and memory is the physical fact of the body, and the ways it is wounded and transformed as it tries to fit into a country that rejects and shames it, while also trying to remain true to a heritage to which it feels unmoored. Kim’s poems borrow from a variety of texts: tweets, memoirs, Shakespearean sonnets, and more are all deftly woven in with poignant visions of rice paddies and monsoons. This braiding of sundry images creates a collection that thoughtfully expresses the variegated nature of a hyphenated identity, of an American-born child of Korean immigrants. Body Facts opens a door to that identity, illuminating the extraordinary complexity within the body that contains it.

The collection’s titular poem, “Body Facts,” uses text from the racist, stiffly clinical “Oriental Peregrinations,” written by plastic surgeon D.R. Millard, who brought double eyelid surgery, or sangapul, to Korea during the Korean War. Though the poem begins with Millard’s words, it ends with Kim’s inclusion of personal, painful details of stomach skin that “looks elephantine after the weight loss of high school,” or the arm, wounded after “the skateboarding accident.” Here, she reclaims the body that was historically horrifically distorted through the racist white lens, allowing it to be a troubled teenager, a fully realized personality, instead of the generalizations of the “Orient,” of “thousands of mongoloid folds.” This is only the first of many times throughout the collection that we see Kim carve space for the Korean American identity in old, white texts. The poem “Y” gets its name from the “y” in English poet William Blake’s famous poem, “Tyger” (“Tyger Tyger burning bright”) and, like “Body Facts,” it begins with the source text but immediately veers into vivid, personal images of “the hostel near the central Seoul train station where / halmoni supported herself by selling snacks from a pushcart” or the “fluorescent TruGreen patina” of her Ohio childhood lawn. In doing so, Kim takes hold of and reinvents the literary canon that has traditionally excluded any non-white, non-male voices. Why? Because, she states simply in “Y,” “I am fearful of disappearing.”

Yet, Kim does not only make space for Koreanness in the midst of white texts. Body Facts is filled with whole poems consisting solely of collective memory, the collection opening with images of a fisherman and his wife, “Stomachs churning, dreaming / of white rice at dinner.” As she steadily and calmly describes the scene, we are reminded that these memories, too, belong to her, as she belongs to them—though she may never have been the fisherman or his wife, their shared Korean heritage runs through her body, in her blood.

This collective memory becomes more specifically personal as she recounts, secondhand, memories of her parents’ lives in Korea, even addressing them directly in poems titled “Umma (Mom)” and “Appa (Dad).” Such poems evoke the way immigrant parents often become the point their children anchor to for understanding of the greater tradition they come from. Our parents are the people who look like us when no one else in our United States suburb does, the people that hold the key to the heritage our bodies evince—it is as Kim says to her mother in “Umma (Mom)”: “Your womb is my first / memory… / I grew up attached to your shin.” But Kim also captures the distinct sense of distance created between even the child and the immigrant parent, as the parent often feels unhappy in their strange land, lost in their longing for their home. Guilt and want take root in the child’s heart, as reflected in the way Kim wistfully begins and ends “Appa (Dad)” with “Most days, I can’t find you.”

What does this guilt do to a young body, as it also experiences the shame of twisting itself to fit the pressures of American stereotypes and expectations? In “’China Doll’Sacrifice,” we see the answer, as Kim shows us the young, Asian, female body “told to suck in, / act weak for the boys,” “[swallow] the venom of their words,” and “let the poison, the palliative, / come back up.” The physical consequences of emotional, societal pressures are made severely known, reminding us of the ways abstract concepts such as identity can have real and painful effects when constantly in a state of upheaval.

And yet, the distance between the speaker and her heritage is not unbridgeable. Kim makes this clear. The first-generation experience of feeling rejected and isolated from our parents’ culture is reimagined in poems like “A Sijo Prayer”: “The mid-day tide rolls in, and I dream of my Korean ancestors. / Although their words are foreign, the water tugs me to join my hands.” Here, Kim suggests that our yearning is reciprocated, mutual, that our distant heritage is as drawn to us as we are to it. They want us there. And this wanting shows us that we do, indeed, belong to someone, somewhere.

Body Facts is available at Diode Editions

Kaylee Jeong is a Korean American writer, currently studying English at Columbia University. She edits for Quarto, Columbia’s official undergraduate literary magazine, and serves as a poetry reader for the Columbia Journal’s Incarcerated Writers Initiative. A 2019 Sundress Best of the Net finalist in poetry, her work has been featured in diode, BOAAT, and Hyphen, among others.

Sundress Reads: Review of Cup & Dagger

A row of 17 mini-chapbooks on a white background.
Photo: Sword and Kettle Press

The Cup & Dagger mini-chapbook series transports readers through 17 diverse stories, all published in tandem by Sword and Kettle Press. Swinging from experimental horror and poetry to fairytale retellings and fantasy, these stories harmonize through the emphasis they put on women, trans, and nonbinary experiences, using the fantastical as a vehicle for understanding. It’s this centering of underrepresented voices beyond the binary that makes these mini-chapbooks important and like few others. In society, we too often prioritize male voices and stories; but in this series, a diverse range of female, trans, and nonbinary voices is offered, fearlessly calling out the treatment of women in society and the standards we hold them to, while delivering a commentary on our treatment of the environment. Each no more than 12 pages, they contend with body issues, model culture, male cruelty to nature and women, and so much more. These mini-chapbooks dare to imagine worlds where women unite in grief, women help each other through times when they are shunned by the world, and where love is always valid. This way of storytelling, combined with depth of emotion and experimental ways of writing, is what makes this series worth amplifying.

In an innately heteronormative society, the works in this series decimate boundaries; in the six mini-chapbooks featuring romance, love is love, a desire for romance isn’t required, and queer romance is celebrated. Women find peace and harmony with wolves and androids, with women and men and no one at all, and each romance—or even shunning of romance—is no more or less valid than any other. For example, Encounters with Wolves in Three Acts by Shreya Ila Anasuya gives power to queer love while simultaneously relegating gender in love to irrelevancy with the story of verdant love and acceptance between woman and wolf in the woods at the center of an unforgiving concrete city. Corporate America, patriarchy, homophobia, and the rigidity of an artificial city are contrasted against nature, nurturing, and play, cradled by a family of wolves in the deep woods in the center of the city, as woman and wolf find love even as they find themselves pulled apart. Although the wolf is mentioned as female, ideas of gender can’t be fully projected onto this romance since we cannot assume that our ideas of gender correlate to those of wolves. In this way, the gender of the wolf becomes almost irrelevant, perhaps showing the irrelevance of gender in relation to love.

The impossible standards for women’s bodies, the dark side of the beauty industry, and the vagaries of modeling are illuminated as well. In A Hole Walked In by Sarah Cavar, a woman bleeds from every orifice, streaming from eyes and nose and mouth in great vision-staining rivulets that are dismissed as unconcerning by all that see her. While bleeding in the mall, a modeling agent “solicits me like a street preacher cries hellfire. I pretend I have been waiting for him my whole life […]. You have the look, he tells me.” Her body seemingly becomes not her own, something for display and something to be ashamed of, to stuff and pinch and beat into submission as she emerges into the modeling industry. The blood gushing from her face, clotting in her lungs, becomes a casual talking point as the damage that is occurring to her body (perhaps a metaphor for internal wounds) is normalized as a part of the effort to be pretty. The way that this story shines a light on how we bleed for a society that cares nothing for our health, with the hope that it will value us for our emaciated bodies, is vital. This mini-chapbook and others unapologetically challenges our society and forces the public to reckon with the harm intrinsic in the beauty standards we hold for women.

Dealing with themes of death, patriarchy, and love beyond barriers, the mini-chapbooks in this series often return to one unwavering truth; in our darkest moments, it’s often nature and each other who can save us. We find each other despite all odds. Sometimes, these characters unite in love; other times, they escape together from a world not meant for them, build new homes, save each other’s lives, or sew each other back together. Mothers warn daughters of men and sailors while nature provides them a home, as in The Seawalker’s Flame by Rebecca Payne, and female sirens teach a drowned woman how to live again with nature, as in No One Saw Ophelia Drown by Grace Noto. But there is not always a path through the darkness. At times, women shop alone in psychedelic post-apocalyptic grocery stores reminiscent of the work of Kelly Link, as in Bury Me In Iron and Ivy by Monica Robinson; live forever gaslit by male society about their own body, their comfort found in men only temporary, as in Take Care When Made of Glass by Rachel Brittain; and sometimes there is nothing left but to stand together with the soul-wrenching music of grief, as in Our Ballad in Soil by Bisola Sosan.

In this way, by providing a balance of support and disorientation, love and grief, this series shows women, trans, and nonbinary folks in glory. I wish that in this time of intersectional feminism it had gone even further; I’d like to see a continuation of the series which includes an even more vibrant array of inclusion. But the current collection still does something vital in that it encourages women supporting women, validates women’s struggles, centers their voices, and encourages acceptance of all people. Every Cup & Dagger mini-chapbook is worth reading, with tales ranging from those of unusual creatures inspired by Chinese-Malay myths from Singapore, to vanquished love and mortuary work in Russia, to burning ballerinas and the things we do for our image. With these implications and this broad coverage of tales around the stories of women, the voices of these micro-chapbooks echo and stay with us far beyond the page. Much like the haunting voice of the singer in Our Ballad in Soil, the voices of these writers “would go on until those ashes in the ground felt satisfied. We would keep humming with [them].” And perhaps we will use them to build a better feminist society.

The Cup & Dagger mini-chapbook series is available at Sword and Kettle Press

A young white woman with short bleached hair and octagon glasses stands before a green background. She wears a collared shirt, gray sweater, and blue lace top.

Solstice Black (she/they) is a queer poet and novelist living in the Pacific Northwest. They are currently undertaking a bachelor’s degree in creative writing. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Chautauqua, The Fantastic Other, and A Forest of Words, among others. They hope to pursue an MFA in creative writing and a BFA in visual art in the next few years. Her cat is both her greatest joy and torment.

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 (Diode Editions, 2022), 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.”

She Has Dreamt Again of Water is available at Diode Editions

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

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

Sundress Reads: Review of Matryoshka Houses

Matryoshka Houses

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

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

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

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

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

Matryoshka Houses is available at Kelsay Books

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

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.