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

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

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 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.

Sundress Reads: Review of The Animal At Your Side

Megan Alpert’s The Animal at Your Side (Airlie Press, 2020) is a collection that airs on the longer side for poetry books but consists of shorter, digestible poems. It is made up of five sections: Trails, Shores, Interiors, Out Further, and Ways in the Dark. These sections stitch together a multitude of narratives, where the heart of them is a longing for foundation while navigating the ways in which one becomes uprooted from a place, history, or a specific person. They read like lore, like a book uncovered by some mysterious happenstance, or like a fairytale suppressed in your memory. The themes travelled across the board but are rooted in foundation and how one rediscovers home, or a place that can resemble some consistency to such a term. Reading this collection, personally, was both inspirational and an act of discovery as someone who naturally admires poetry about yearning for a place or person, both in an erotic and mournful approach. Alpert has done both, effortlessly, and in a way that feels original.

At its core, The Animal at Your Side is a book about loss, longing, queerness, nature, and location. This collection displays ecopoetics in a way that is accessible to any reader, even one who may not have a background in poetics or environmental interest. Ecopoetics, in its simplest definition, is poetry with an ecological message; the message here being places that will eventually be impacted by climate change, more so than they already are. The Animal at Your Side exists in a surreal and confessional world, blurring the lines of grief and desire for an abundance of things.

The first section, Trails, introduces the reader to the lore of the speaker, their family, their roots… the trails one stumbles upon, and the tracks they leave behind, footprints settled in the dust. The world that is created is one of wild dogs, teeth, wars existing under tongues, bones, and the dirt these things return to. It explores and praises the undesirables. “The dark was soft. It ate / against my skin.” This line from the poem “The Wolf That Never Comes” shows one example of how this collection juxtaposes the dangerous and the inviting—something scary, like darkness or a wolf, can exist simultaneously as soft yet ravenous. Another example of this can be found in “Dawn,” where the first stanza reads: “My sister comes home / smelling of dirt she was buried in, / dandelion milk under her nails.” This poem, along with the others where the speaker grieves for the sister, are haunting and delicate within the flora and fauna planted throughout the book. We are introduced to war hidden in first love and cereal bowls, an aunt who lies and has an intuition for teeth, and a mother who doubles as a storyteller: “Said, Go down / into the earth, / the only / place I will not follow.”

This section leads to the second part, Shores, where we are introduced to a speaker exploring the waters off Massachusetts, the glassy rain in Seattle, and a yard below a purple sky, where they share a moment with their sister, prior to death. A later section eventually leads the reader to a village near the oil road, an apartment with stolen CDs, and a mountainside where a lion waits. Shores explores households, shared spaces, what it means to find home—even when that home is temporary. Despite exploring a new environment, the concerns remain the same, as does the writing—the entrapment of swaying between grief and want, because what else is there to write about? The truth of this book shares a story through new environments, persona poems, narrative tales, and curiosity of a strange eagerness that comes from intimate moments, as well as the melancholic.

One of my favorite poems, “Village at the End of the Oil Road” takes the form of one long stanza, almost looking like the image the poem is about. This narrative piece sets the scene at an oil camp, where the speaker chats on a porch littered with dead katydids while a mother holds her son in a hammock. “When I left, I could never find the text / that said in recent years the word for outsider / had changed from cannibal / to the one we have to feed so they do not starve.” The collection continues to lead toward that sentiment, the idea of being fed as not to starve. The sadness is snapped open and what remains is the fullness from the unburdening of it, or the “Desahogarse,” which “is to unburden yourself, not to undrown / or even to unhome.” The Animal at Your Side shows a world of curiosities through a voice that you can’t help but empathize for, and internally feel a kindred spirit to. Ecopoetics serving as a throughline throughout a collection whose place-based writing encourages the reader to think deeply about the places being written about in these poems. Themes of loss and longing that exist at the core of this collection feel all too real in a world being damaged by climate change, as if these poems are speaking to both ends: loss on the personal level and the concerning loss of the homes the speaker has found. The Animal at Your Side introduces these concerns through a lens that works to get every reader onboard with the fear of loss and the desire to gain.

The Animal at Your Side is available at Airlie Press

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

Sundress Reads: Review of Wanting Radiance

“I had to say goodbye to who I’d always been. I drove faster, rolled the window down and hung my head out and yelled it as loud as I could. ‘Miracelle Loving!’ I felt my name arc in the wind and slam back against the windshield, breaking into pieces as I drove on.”

Passages like this frame the way Miracelle Loving reaches out into the world in the novel Wanting Radiance by Karen Salyer McElmurray (South Limestone, 2020). Sinking deep into asphalt roads and long-forgotten, liminal spaces, Wanting Radiance presents the identities and secrets of its characters not as permanent fixtures, but as hollow spaces always wanting something more—a want that is tied to the past perhaps more than it rests in the future.

In introducing main character Miracelle, McElmurray constructs a woman with confidence in her own transience. A tarot reader’s daughter, Miracelle parks her life near weekly rented motels and neon-lighted bars, using a card deck to read off futures that suit the wishes of lonely women and hungry men.

Haunted by the mystery of her mother’s death in Dauncy, Kentucky, unaware of her own father’s name, displaced from her birthplace, and desperately trying to grasp the concept of love, Miracelle is a wanderer who finds permanence only in her ability to drift. However, when the voice of her deceased mother, Ruby Loving, suddenly wedges its way into Miracelle’s mind, it encourages Miracelle to find the past she has never known. Following news clippings from an odd wonders museum known as Willy’s Wonderama, Miracelle decides she cannot possibly know who she is meant to be—or who and how she is supposed to love—until she discovers everything her mother used to be.

Alongside the present, first-person perspective of Miracelle Loving, McElmurray intricately interweaves the histories of Miracelle’s mother Ruby, her father Russell Wallen, and Russell’s wife Della Branham through a third-person perspective. As the truth of Miracelle’s birth in the small town of Radiance comes to light, so too do different textures of wanting—deep, emotional desires for pre-envisioned futures—haunt each character Miracelle meets.

 While describing Miracelle’s migratory movements through “smaller and smaller towns” filled with “Fresh Eggs, Jesus, One Way or No Way” signs and gravel roads eaten by dirt, McElmurray showcases the wants of each character as synonymous to the folds of mountainside towns that have decomposed under capitalist pressure, or fleeted into the skittishness of rear-view mirrors. While Miracelle’s mother wants Russell’s love, a love she finds as “water draining between my fingers”, Russell transforms love into a thing that owns and excavates, until his form of want becomes a thing which “reached inside the mountains and pulled out their hearts.”

McElmurray transforms the ideas of want and love within the character of Della Wallen, who wants a marriage with Russell in the way she can fix a car with warm, slick oil between her fingers, a love that is “the making and doing and seeing it come alive, the work of their hands.” While their definitions of love and want clash inside a depleted mountainside, Russell, Della, and Ruby lend Miracelle Loving the challenging task of finding a name for herself, rather than one that she can weld together from her past.

While realizing the truth behind her mother’s death—and all the desires which lead up to it—Miracelle speaks throughout the novel of “would” and “could.” Many sentences transition into the conditional tense throughout the novel, speaking to the way Miracelle continually works to foretell her future in a way that aligns with the lines of her past—lines which seem to rigidly anchor her body to her family history and the contours of the earth she travels through. Many times, Miracelle revises the trajectory of her future when reading her palms, falling on statements like, “By autumn, I could be standing in a doorway at night watching lightning bugs with a person I had yet to meet” or “Russell Wallen took hold of my hands, and we swung each other round and round. It could have been,” or, “I’d like to say I found just the right potion made of lavender and thyme and mystery, one to make all the world right.” However, only after finding the past, only after listening to the last echoes of her mother’s voice—“you know what to do”— does Miracelle find a new history for her name Miracelle Loving—an acceptance not based on her past, but based on something Wanting Radiance finds at its end: a feeling of present, steady reconciliation that, while not entirely full, still leaves enough space to pull one’s soul into something present and new.

While Miracelle succeeds in discovering her family history, she also realizes that it is not this history which affects the way which she now pursues her own life— her own form of loving. She concludes herself, “Miracelle Loving. My whole history was in that name. Loving I’d never wanted, but searched for like it was the last thing I’d ever find. And here I was, back from searching for the Holy Grail of family and I’d filled in a blank or two or three inside myself, all right, but a hundred more seemed to follow.” In this statement, Miracelle recognizes a new form of journey, one only she can follow; she finds freedom in traversing bravely through blank spaces that have never been defined by her past—spaces available for Miracelle to sculpt herself. Wanting Radiance illustrates a love in Miracelle Loving that arises not from grappling for a specific future, or returning to an unclear past, but instead from simply letting her soul step outside all of the seamed lines (the lines of family history and roadmaps and skin) to become something she can look at deep inside, and define as her own.

Wanting Radiance is available at South Limestone, an imprint of The University Press of Kentucky

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 of Pittsburgh and the Urban League Movement: A Century of Social Service and Activism

Pittsburgh and the Urban League Movement: A Century of Social Service and Activism by Joe William Trotter, Jr. (The University Press of Kentucky, 2020) details the history of the Urban League of Pittsburgh, an organization with over a century of social service and activism in the Greater Pittsburgh Metropolitan Area. The Urban League of Pittsburgh is a branch of the National Urban League, and this book breaks down 100 years of its goals, actions, how they were perceived, and the sometimes controversial approach they took to alleviate racial and class inequality. It also contextualizes and provides insight into the various events, biases, and ongoing, concurrent social struggles that factored into and influenced the Urban League Movement, giving readers an in-depth look at the often untold side of the history of Pittsburgh—and of the United States.

The book is divided into a prologue, three sections, and an epilogue. The three sections move in chronological order, from the Pittsburgh Urban League’s establishment, to changes brought about by the New Deal and the Black Freedom Movement. The epilogue concludes with the author’s thoughts on the Urban League Movement’s overall positive effects in connecting its social justice movements with social science research and social services. The book draws deeply from both primary and secondary sources, working across the Urban League’s files, newspapers, and oral histories, and is supplemented by relevant charts, clippings, and images from sources that include the census and the 1923 Pittsburgh Courier, though the book is almost entirely text.

The prologue provides both a helpful introduction to and a succinct summary of the book’s contents. Together with Part I—which details the beginnings of the ULP—we learn many of the themes and overall advocacy focuses that will be expanded on throughout the book, such as the push against racism in employment and housing and the ULP’s collaboration with other organizations, including those of the state government. By detailing the Urban League of Pittsburgh’s early practices and changing focuses, the author expands on the factors that led to these decisions: the workforce was volatile, influenced not just by wartime practices, but also rampant racism and sexism from employers and non-Black employees, who fought for lower wages and decreased opportunities for Black people. The percentage of Black people in the area also changed significantly, impacted by anti-enticement laws, labor shortages, discriminatory housing and employment practices, and living conditions.

The narrative delves into the interrelated nature of housing, employment, and community, and how they influence one another. For instance, better housing conditions led to better job performances and increased job stability. The ULP’s extensive research helped its staff pinpoint need areas and make crucial decisions on where to divert its resources, and Trotter concisely describes the results of these studies and consequences of its initiatives. Of the ULP’s research on the steel industry’s labor process, Trotter writes, “According to one branch research report, the so-called unskilled worker displayed considerable technical knowledge in the ‘conserving of his health and strength, personally avoiding burns or other accidents and protecting his fellow workman from same.’” These early chapters, which, on the surface, give a detailed history of the Urban League of Pittsburgh in its early years, describe the intersection of capital, labor, racial, gender, and class relations that continues throughout the history detailed in the book and persists today.

As the ULP evolved in the early 20s, it developed more of a focus on disparities in medical treatment of Black people and education. The first part of the book deals with post–World War I upheaval and its lingering effects, while the second describes the struggle of Pittsburgh’s Black community during the Great Depression and the continued turbulence brought about by World War II. Here, the pace picks up, with several years of struggle often condensed into single sentences and paragraphs. However, the narrative remains firmly dedicated to highlighting the most significant or representative events within the timeframe. The third section moves into post-WWII struggles and victories, including the Cold War’s influence on Black employment opportunities, the ULP’s role in the expansion of the African American middle class and the fall of Jim Crow, and the branch’s involvement in the Civil Rights Movement. Crucially, as the ULP shifted its philosophy from using social services exclusively to using the principles of social services, the book shifts into a broader overview of the ULP’s actions, following its larger-scale efforts and activity. However, Trotter’s attention to details brings the narrative to more personal levels, pinpointing actions and policy decisions to specific people. The final chapter moves through the postindustrial era and late twentieth century into the present. As policies enacted in the earlier decades fell apart, the fight for equality continued to shift, with many struggles still ongoing. The epilogue reflects on the changes and steps made toward justice and the ULP’s impact on and connection with racial relations and social service work while pointing out the unequal treatment that remains.

Though the author’s descriptions of the Urban League of Pittsburgh’s actions and responses reveal his overall positive view of the branch, they highlight some of its potential controversies, such as the end of John T. Clark’s ULP tenure and mishandled or misguided policies. The book does not shy away from describing the biases that plagued the ULP itself, such as its classism, sexism, and even racism toward the very people it claimed to support. The effects of the ULP’s actions, both positive and negative, are made clear—the upticks in employment as a result of direct recommendations and advocacy, and the periods of stagnancy when even the ULP’s strongest advocates could not sway the racism of employers.

One of the points that makes this book stand out is its specificity: whenever possible, names, dates, direct quotes, and detailed summaries are provided, even with the source going as far back as 100 years. The details are balanced, though, with small time jumps and concise summaries—never too loaded or distracting. While reading this book, it was easy to imagine some of the events unfolding before me, especially the exchanges between Urban League staff and the people to whom they made recommendations (and arguments).

Overall, the book was a fascinating, insightful case study into the history of not just the Urban League in Pittsburgh, but the area’s changing Black communities, landscape, and society. I found the summaries at the beginning of each chapter helpful in understanding key takeaways and priming myself for the upcoming sections. These sections are divided by common themes while the chronological order of events is mostly preserved, leading to easy organization and fluency.

After reading this, I now feel it is impossible to truly learn about Pittsburgh’s history and governmental and societal treatment of Black people without an understanding of the role of the Urban League Movement in the area. Like the book’s inability to speak of one without the other, racial relations and general community disparity and controversy are deeply entangled with the organization’s actions, connections, and advocacy. This book is a crucial read for understanding not only history, but also the present.

Pittsburgh and the Urban League Movement: A Century of Social Service and Activism is available at The University Press of Kentucky

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

Sundress Reads: Review of The Temple

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Temple is available at Bull City Press

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