Sheila Laroque reviews Calling Down the Sky by Rosanna Deerchild

Calling Down the Sky by Rosanna Deerchild (affiliate link)

I’m not much of a poetry person. I never have been. I’m the type of librarian who only took the required English courses; and I definitely don’t have an English literature degree. However, I wanted to challenge myself to diversify my reading beyond what I usually go for. I admit that I avoid poetry because I often fear that I won’t understand what it’s about. Calling Down the Sky is a work that I was able to understand on a deeper level, and I’m grateful to have had the chance to read such poetry.

Rosanna Deerchild is a Cree broadcaster, who also identifies as Two-Spirit. Personally I’m most familiar with her work through the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation)’s radio show Unreserved. It was an interesting experience to read the poetry of a writer whose voice I was already familiar with.I could hear her saying the words on the page to me. In that way, it made me relate to what was written had already meant; both because I was familiar with how she was saying the words, but also understanding the tone and experiences in the book.

The lasting impact of residential schools within Canada is ongoing, and all of the complexities that come with intergenerational trauma will still be worked out for years to come. Deerchild explores how her mother’s trauma has affected the relationship that they have; but also for other members of the family too. It is all of our complexities and traumas that can shape and create who we are, and that can be seen throughout this work.

This was a quick read for me, and I was surprised by how much of it allowed me to see my own family experiences within her poetry. The most powerful poem in the collection is the title poem, “Calling Down the Sky.” No spoilers, but the acts of resistance give moments of hope, which makes this a powerful poetry collection.

Megan G reviews Nepantla: An Anthology for Queer Poets of Color edited by Christopher Soto

Nepantla: An Anthology for Queer Poets of Color edited by Christopher Soto

As soon as I came across this anthology and its haunting cover I knew I had to pick it up. As soon as I realized that the title of this anthology (and the journal it originated from) came from a quote from Gloria Anzaldúa, I knew I’d made the right choice.

The poems in this anthology cover quite literally every topic you can imagine. While this makes for quite a trigger-heavy piece of work, it also makes for incredibly raw and passionate art. Just as much anger and love spills from the page onto the reader, to the point where I often felt breathless after finishing a piece.

Poetry is, of course, deeply subjective, and relies just as much on the reader as it does on the poet. A big reason I felt these poems resonated with me were that they manage to draw the reader in and immerse them so deeply in the experience of the poem that the reader cannot help but want to invest their all into reading. After all, it’s beyond clear that each and every poet has put their everything into these poems. Reading these poems, I really felt it was necessary to respect them by doing the same.

Homophobia, transphobia, racism, police brutality, rape, murder, fatphobia, internalized racism, internalized misogyny, abuse. These are all issues dealt with within these poems, never sugar coated. They demand your attention, grip your arm and shake you until you understand the reality that the poet has faced. Because of this, I cannot recommend this anthology to anybody who may be triggered by these issues. This isn’t an anthology where you can just skip the poems you feel uncomfortable with. The poets don’t allow it.

Still, despite its heavy subject matter, I would go so far as to call Neplanta required reading for not only queer people, but anybody who will not be negatively affected by the triggers listed above. The stories told in this anthology are painful in their truth, gripping, and eye-opening. I felt different after reading it.

Too often we judge literature and poetry by our own ability to relate to the story being shared. Yet, Nepantla contains such a varied array of poets that it’s quite literally impossible to relate to every single one — and that’s kind of the point. We don’t have to see ourselves reflected in a piece of art to make it beautiful. It is beautiful because it is what it is, and even if it’s messy, or damaged, or hurt, it endures. It’s here to share it’s pain and mess with those of us who can relate and those of us who cannot, and to force us to see it’s worth despite everything the world has thrown at it. These poets deserve to be read by as many people as possible. I greatly encourage you to be one of those people.

Mars Reviews “My Mother Says Drums Are For Boys: True Stories for Gender Rebels” by Rae Theodore

In this short autobiographical essay and poetry collection, Rae Theodore offers a frank and panoramic perspective on growing up butch. The titular term “gender rebel” is entirely accurate here as Theodore recalls a childhood and young adulthood where classic femininity chafed. All the outer accoutrements of fashion and stature were as complicated to her as the mental tightrope that so many butches walk, between a female-bodied experience and an intimate mental relationship with the masculine self. In the author’s case, performativity, or ‘walking the walk’ of socially-acceptable womanhood, was never enough, and was made extra complicated by the realization of her own homosexuality after having already married and built a life with a man.

Reading through this piece was a real pleasure. I haven’t read much LGBTQ+ work that centers the butch experience, and I can’t quite express how powerful and charming it felt to read simple anecdotes packing a reflective punch on the heavy burden that gender can be. I don’t know that I expected to identify so much with it either, but I suppose that’s the power of sharing diverse stories. The weaponization of clothing, jealously observing the freedom of boys, childish yearning for a father’s approval of a son, the immediate and intangible connection that a queer gender rebel feels when encountering one’s elders: Theodore recounts this and more in an honest and straightforward manner that keeps readers glued to the page.

I would highly recommend this book to anyone who has ever been made to feel ashamed for their tomboyishness, or gender expression in general; to anyone who has ever needed to contain multitudes of softness and hardness towards the world and towards themselves; or to anyone who in any number of ways has ever felt like a late bloomer.

Disclaimer that there are mentions of violence in certain stories, and a lot of working through deep shame and internalized homophobia, especially earlier on. I will also add that while this is a serious (and sometimes very fun) recounting, the book summits with comforting self-actualization, and this butch seems to have attained a really lovely life. In a book like this, the nice thing about a happy ending is that it makes you believe you can have one too.

Karoliina reviews Women of Resistance: Poems for a New Feminism by Danielle Barnhart and Iris Mahan

 This poetry collection, edited by Daniella Barnhart and Iris Mahan, opens with Denice Frohman’s poem ’a woman’s place’, and the first lines set the scene for the whole collection:

i heard a woman becomes herself
the first time she speaks
without permission

then, every word out of her mouth
a riot

The collection is huge in scope and has all in all 67 poems from 49 different contributors. This is the main strength of Women of Resistance: it collects together a large cast of diverse voices that all share something about their daily experiences. The collection includes poems by LGBTQ+ authors and writers of colour. The topics covered by the poems range from politics to personal, intimate moments, and the authors talk about sexism, racism, history, motherhood, and marriage, to name just a few. Although the poems differ from each other vastly in style and subject matter, they still form a unified whole. Each poem points out something that is wrong with our world, something that needs to change. As the backgrounds and life experiences of the poets are all different, what they pick up on and what they see in their lives are also different. When read side by side, the poems give you an in-depth look into what it means to exist in the margins of society.

Although the topics the poems cover are bleak, there is an overall feeling of hope, of resistance. It makes you feel connected, and it helps you believe that things can change. The collection reminds you that there is a lot of power in unity. That said, some of the poems can be painful to read, especially the ones that deal with assault and childhood sexual abuse. Therefore I would recommend this collection with a trigger warning for sexual violence.

The collection is split into four untitled sections, and to be honest I didn’t really understand what the connection between the poems in each section is. It’s very possible that I just missed it because I was focusing more on taking in each individual poem and didn’t actively look for overarching themes. However, what I did really like about the way the collection is laid out is that multiple poems by the same author are presented together one after another. It was nice to get a feel for each poet’s style and voice by reading multiple poems by them in a row. I had not heard of any of the poets who contributed to this collection before reading it, and it has definitely introduced me to some new favourites.

I think I found this collection so powerful partly because it is a collection of poetry, and it is difficult for me to imagine that a short story or an essay collection would be quite as effective. Poetry is special in the way it can make abstract concepts tangible and personal experiences universal. It also allows you to take in a lot of information and emotion in a short amount of time without exhausting you to the bone. I think that makes this collection more accessible than many other books on feminism, and I like the idea that the voice of a new feminism is poetry by a genuinely diverse mix of writers.

Marthese reviews The You I’ve Never Known by Ellen Hopkins

”Is there such a thing as promiscuous love, or dies it only apply to sex?”


The You I’ve Never Known by Ellen Hopkins is a 500+ page book, written almost entirely in poetry form. It was such an intense read! It leaves an impression; I couldn’t help not think about it when I was not reading it. I read this book thanks to RivetedLit 25 Reads of December. They do have free Queer YA books almost every week (although with the different identities within the Queer spectrum).

This book is dark, and fast to read. The poems are in different forms that read more like prose but shorter than if it were prose. They were my type of poetry so great. I have to take time though to process so it took me a while.

This books is about ‘Ariel’ who lives with her father. For the first time, they’re sort of settled somewhere instead of going round the country on an incessant road-trip. She’s friends with Monica and Syrah – her first friends since ever. She’s actually more than friends with Monica. There’s a connection there and Monica is ever-supportive and ever-patient. Ariel doesn’t know how to feel, she’s confused. But that confusion increases when Gabe, her father’s partner’s (Zelda!) nephew comes to Sonora. She likes both Monica and Gabe and has to figure out what to do.

More than that though, this book is about Ariel’s relationship with her father – who’s probably the most despicable character ever but whom she cannot help but love because he’s been the only constant in her life. He is so abusive though! A lot of trigger warning here! Including a rape attempt. And lots of violence all around.

Soon, her mother – it was kind of predicable who that was and how she found her- comes into her life again and tells Ariel that her father has been lying to her all her life. More confusion and identity crisis ensure.

I liked how abuse was shown, in the sense it’s very realistic. Gaslighting was mentioned by name and it was shown clearly how her father did it. The value of honesty is given a lot of importance. That was refreshing as it reduced the usual teenage drama found in books. Although there was a lot of drama, nothing major was about dishonesty – at least apart from her father’s lies. Maya was very honest and open even when writing about small things, which her father had withheld from her. Zelda, although we didn’t see a lot of her, was another nice character that supported Ariel, though a bit alcoholic, which goes to show that punches don’t need to fly when someone is drunk.

I also appreciated the Spanish but like why did there have to be a direct translation right after? Footnotes could have been used. The translations were a bit out of place.

Although Gabe seemed like a really nice person (when not blood-driven) I didn’t really like his connection to Ariel. It’s like ‘boy-next-door’ connection, or maybe just teenage lust. Monica was a really enjoyable character and Ariel, I was both worried and upset with. However, I know it’s wrong to feel upset since she was groomed from a young age and couldn’t see the abuse.

Apart from Ariel and Monica there was more queer women representation.

Ellen Hopkins writes beautifully and this book is partially inspired by real events!

This is a noteworthy book but you must have stomach for it. It’s dark because these things could happen to anyone and in plain sight.

Julie Thompson reviews Don’t Date a Writer by Maj al-Yasa

Inspired by a summer spent swirling between Germany, Spain, and Iowa City, Iowa, poet Maj al-Yasa explores the vagaries of love. This poetry collection is organized as a journey in four parts: Unrequited Love (I don’t understand); Requited Love (why you loved me once); Loss (and then let me go.); Vices (Asshole). Or, read more directly together as “I don’t understand why you loved me once and then let me go. Asshole.” In the foreword, al-Yasa ruminates at a bus station about the journey that resulted in these verses. The poems reveal a traveler, warts and all, as she makes her way through different continents, bodies, and memories. al-Yasa conveys a muddled romanticism, optimism, and cynicism, which renews in short cycles: infatuation and hesitation, finally getting what is desired, fleeing from connections like it’s a house on fire, but then loathe to leave.  al-Yasa exudes joyful abandon, insecurity, indecision, and a wanderlust that itches her mind like fiberglass. Despite the collection’s structure, I got the sense as I read that there isn’t a single beginning or end on this emotional journey; there’s just a past, present, and future tense. It also resonates with the sense that adulthood, and other mythical states, don’t exist as such.

A few of my favorite poems blend contrasts. For example, you encounter fragile confidence dressed up in boi-ish bravado, which falters and stammers at the sight of a beautiful woman in “she said nah (freestyle”. There are two acrostic poems that I stumbled upon like Easter eggs. An acrostic poem, for those who may be unfamiliar with this form, uses the first letter of a word in a line to eventually spell out a word. If you’re not paying attention, you can easily miss them. While I will leave it to you to find them (because that’s part of the fun in stumbling upon them), they stand out because the letters are in bold text. The imagery is straightforward, but at times there are artistic flourishes. “Our Colors” refracts a relationship through a ROYBGIV lens. You may not always like what is reflected in these pages, but it is honest and accessible.


Kalyanii reviews Pansy by Andrea Gibson

 

pansy-andrea-gibson

There are literary influences whose work has a way of taking us back to a time when we were enlivened, emboldened and perpetually inspired. Then, there are those who nudge—or rather kick—our ass forward, encouraging us to seize the opportunity to wake up, give back and believe in something greater than that for which we, and the world around us, have settled. If we have stumbled upon this force serendipitously, we might even ask, “Where have you been all my life?” or more honestly, “Where have I been to not have found you before today?”

The evening I settled in with Pansy by spoken-word poet and activist Andrea Gibson, I found myself reborn. The experience was something akin to what Ani DiFranco gave to me back in the early ‘90s with her rousing discontent yet more fierce as befitting the undercurrents within our present-moment society which foretell the rise of a raging and hate-fueled tsunami, headed directly for our civil rights and capable of leaving who-knows-what in its wake.

Within their fearless truth telling, Gibson tackles issues of sexism, racism, trauma, suicidal ideation and, yes, love and hope, calling it all as they see it with self-deprecating humor amid pleas to abandon complacency and seek out ways in which to hang on and work together to quell the devastation of that rising wave of bigotry, heteronormative ideology and apathy that threatens to imprison, if not destroy, us with its yet again growing momentum. (Mind you, I’m writing this on the eve of the U.S. presidential election and can only hope that you’ll turn to me upon reading this and assure me that it was only a very, very bad dream, after all.)

The first poem that gleaned my attention was “A Letter to My Dog Exploring the Human Condition,” in which Gibson addresses their dog, Squash, a.k.a. My Beating Heart with Fur and Legs, and imagines how the nonsensical habits of humans must appear to her, all the while expressing their undying love. With tenderness, they write, “If I could I would put your beating heart in my mouth / and suck on it like a piece of candy / so I could truly understood [sic] how / you got so sweet.”

Given Gibson’s commitment to advocacy and support for those contemplating suicide, it comes as no surprise that “The Madness Vase, a.k.a. the Nutritionist” serves as a letter “to anyone who has ever wanted to die,” providing understanding and pledging to remain by their side. Gibson assures,

I’m still gonna be here
asking this world to dance.
Even if it keeps stepping on my holy feet.

You, you stay here with me, okay?

You stay here with me. Raising
your bite against the bitter dark,
your bright longing
your brilliant fists of loss.

“Things that Don’t Suck” made me smile with its appreciation for the joys of connection, nostalgia, the simplest things… and the most profound, while “The Insider’s Guide on How to Be Sick” brought me smack into the moment of crisis, to a place where attempts to soothe only exacerbate the pain. To the well-meaning, they cry out, “I know how to talk to god, / and right now god does not expect me / to use my inside voice.”

“A Genderful Pep-Talk for my Younger Self” affirmed my commitment to living honestly and boldly. There was something so very gratifying about realizing that I’ve been around the block enough times to know the perils of compromising oneself in order to meet the status quo. The lines “They’re telling you to blend in, / like you’ve never seen how a blender works, / like they think you’ve never seen the mess from the blade,” serve as a reminder that we’re now smarter about these things than we one were.

While I’ve embraced “Etiquette Leash” as my rally cry, it was “Privilege Is Never Having to Think about It” that gave me the greatest pause, for as firmly as we might believe in our understanding of white privilege, it took the pointing out of the daily safeties and luxuries—the wearing of thrift-store grunge without raising suspicions and the expensive haircuts meant to appear unkempt—to drive the point home.

Though I had convinced myself that none of the love poems would rank among my favorites, “To My Love on the Day She Discovered Tumblr and Every Love Poem I Ever Wrote to Every Woman I Loved Before Her” certainly found its place there. Offered as a pacifying explanation for having experienced feelings for others in their past, Gibson’s love resonates whether petitioning for understanding or mumbling to themselves, “Damnit, Tumblr, you tattling piece of shit.”

I’ll admit, “Emergency Contact” nearly brought me to my knees with its clumsy though heartfelt wooing, embodied within lines such as

I have never made a love potion that hasn’t blown up,
but your mouth is the sexiest beaker.

or

Fuck playing the field.
Do you know how wild I could grow
in the flower pot beside your desk?

Seldom (if ever) have I witnessed such original use of metaphor as within the examples above as well as so many others littered throughout the collection. If truth be told, Gibson’s masterful implementation of the device has inspired me to discover a whole new level of connection and meaning within my own writing. Somehow, the juxtaposition of the tender and the ridiculous touches a place in me that begs for surrender.

Just for the record, that still doesn’t peg me as a romantic.

In conclusion, given the political unrest and impending threat to the civil rights of all marginalized people within the United States, I’m grateful that Gibson’s honesty, humor, integrity and passion have reached me in just the nick of time. I only wish that I had encountered them long ago, for there have been more personal, rather than political, times in my life when I could have used the strength and vulnerability of someone who “gets it” to keep me hanging on. Yet, what we have is today and a most pressing need for all of us to speak up and do something to make things safer, kinder, more equal and just. Please, I ask of you, let Gibson inspire and strengthen you the way they have inspired and strengthened me. We’ll do this together. We’ll hang in there with one another for as long as it takes.

Bessie reviews The Red Parts and Jane by Maggie Nelson

jane-maggie-nelson red-parts-maggie-nelson

Nelson is a wonderful writer, whose memoir/queer theory explosion The Argonauts was probably the best book I read last year. It got me interested in checking out some of her earlier work, The Red Parts and Jane, which are very different from The Argonauts, and from each other, but both exceptional books.

I wasn’t sure about writing about these books here, because Nelson doesn’t address her sexuality at all, but they’re both so good. We’re more than a single aspect of our identity. Here Nelson is writing as a daughter, a niece, a young woman who sees herself in her aunt’s fate.

I read The Red Parts first, and it opened up the world of Jane to me. Though it was written later, I think I’d recommend this reading order. Both books deal with the story of Nelson’s aunt, Jane, who had been murdered thirty-five years before. The crime was never solved. Nelson grew up with this story as a part of her family history. It shaped her childhood in ways that she didn’t really understand until she got older. Jane is the book of poetry she wrote trying to understand her aunt and the murder. Just before Jane was going to be published a detective called Nelson’s family and told them that they had found the murderer. The Red Parts is the memoir she wrote about this news, the ensuing trial, and how Nelson’s perspective on the case shifted with new information.

The Red Parts is a really compelling mix of true crime/detective story, family history, and writer’s journal. Nelson’s relationship to Jane’s death is informed by the fact that she just spent years writing a book of poetry about it. She’s done the research, she knows the facts, she’s visited the sites. And now all of this information is being presented in the new context of a trial. From her family it is just Nelson and her mother who are able to attend every day of the trial. We also see how Nelson went about writing Jane. Having her describe the process that created these poems made me really want to read them.

That Jane is an artifact within The Red Parts informed how I approached it. It gave a backstory for how these words wound up on the page. In the poems she tracks down her aunt’s old boyfriend — we see more of how this happened in The Red Parts. It gives more history and context for everything that happened. While I’m sure the poems would stand on their own, having the memoir as well enriches the experience.

What really struck me reading Jane was the way it commented on the vulnerability of being a young woman. Jane was coming of age during the late sixties. She was rebelling from her parents, and starting to create her own life, which was suddenly halted because women, especially young women are vulnerable to male violence. While Jane was not raped, at the time her death was linked to a serial killer who did really horrific things to his victims. Nelson’s writing about violence against women, including sexual violence, is so raw. This vulnerability is something she shares with her aunt, something that has not changed or gone away. Both books riff off an Edgar Allen Poe quote wondering what the most poetic topic in the world is, and deciding it must be the death of a beautiful woman. That is almost the subject of Nelson’s poetry, but she’s equally preoccupied with asking what is it about our world that makes this a correct answer.

Both books are the sort of writing that sweeps you up and holds on. I didn’t mean to read The Red Parts in one night. I was going to read a little bit before bed, but not much, because I was worried about the true crime element giving me bad dreams. But then it was so good, and so compelling, and I couldn’t put it down. I spent a wonderful raining afternoon with Jane. It’s such a narratively gripping collection of poems. Even though I knew the story already from The Red Parts, I wanted to follow Nelson’s train of thought, and see where her poetic journey into her aunt’s murder lead. They’re beautiful, tragic books.

Julie Thompson reviews You're The Most Beautiful Thing That Happened by Arisa White

9780988735576

Arisa White’s newest poetry collection, You’re the Most Beautiful Thing That Happened, plumbs the depths of what it means to exist in the world as queer, female, a person of color, and beyond. She undresses a multitude of topics, including race, family, and relationships. The collection offers tender, tumultuous, and light moments.

In the introduction, White shares how a Wikipedia page full of translated terms for gay provided the initial inspiration for this work. She discovered “how sexist the language was, the fear of the feminine, how domestic, how patriarchal, how imaginative, and the beauty [she] discovered when [she] paused to wonder about the humanity inside these words and phrases” (Introduction, 9). Notes on the origins for poems titled with derogatory terms and cultural references are located at the end of the collection.

The collection draws its title from the poem “When They Say” (WTS), a poem filled with strong, intense imagery and challenging questions. “Gun(n) for Sakia Gunn” speaks to the 2003 murder of Sakia Gunn, a lesbian teenager from Newark, New Jersey. “Kokobar”, one of my favorites because of how White draws out the inherent beauty in everyday transactions and interactions, is the name of “the first cybercafé owned and operated by African American women” in Brooklyn, New York. Bullets, obsession, and mangled love, create a new constellation (“Hold Your Part of a Deal”). Infidelity becomes a rotten orchard (“Dirty Fruit”).

I could wax poetic about how much I love explorations of existence and identity through words-sounds-syllables. How culture, age, and history flavor the words that leave our lips. How fluid and malleable words and their meanings are and how translations can’t and don’t necessarily bridge the gap between multiple words. Before starting this review, I read and re-read the poems, both silently and aloud. You’re the Most Beautiful Thing That Happened is a collection that will stay with you for a long time.

You’re the Most Beautiful Thing That Happened is available October 11, 2016 from Small Press Distribution.

Danika reviews Bodymap by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha

bodymap

I don’t typically read poetry, and this was a collection that made me realize what a mistake that is. Bodymap is about Piepzna-Samarasinha’s life as a queer disabled femme of colour. It’s political, but it’s politics rooted in everyday experiences of injustice and survival, not abstract theorizing. Although her poetry experiments with style, they all are accessible and grounded (which as a poetry novice, I always appreciate).

There are some books that I enjoy so much that I want to draw out the experience of reading them as long as possible, and there are some that I love to the extent that I want to inhale them all in one gasp, and Bodymap was the latter. I found myself in the bizarre situation of being impatient to reread it as I was reading it for the first time. It’s definitely going to be a collection I revisit multiple times, and I know I’ll get more out of it on every read.

This is poetry that punches you in the gut. It’s hard and bright and unapologetic. There is humour and light, but most of all, Bodymap is passionate and honest. And despite the fact that this collection is unapologetically about Piepzna-Samarasinha’s intersectional identity, it has a lot to say just about surviving in this world. This was my favourite read of the month and one I can’t recommend it highly enough.

(Also check out Casey the Canadian Lesbrarian’s review!)