Danika reviews The Story of Ruth and Eliza // self/help/work/book by Kristen Stone

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The Story of Ruth and Eliza // self/help/work/book by Kristen Stone is a double-sided chapbook, with one side being the novella The Story of Ruth and Eliza and the other side the poem self/help/work/book. The poem is eight pages and has to do with abusive relationships. It’s fragmented, and it’s unclear which segments are connected, but they come together to establish a discomfiting mood, and communicates a lot in a small space. I appreciated how Stone used different techniques throughout the poem, from one run-on look inside someone’s mind to short, stark sentences that stand alone in a section. I read this after The Story of Ruth and Eliza, but I would recommend starting with the poem instead, or reading them in different settings, because Ruth and Eliza overshadowed self/help/work/book some for me.

The Story of Ruth and Eliza is a novella (or lengthy short story?) that revolves around two characters: Ruth, a witch, and Eliza, a nurse. The story is told in many small sections, some several pages long and some only a few lines. Each is titled, and though they are written in prose, they seem to act like poems. Stone definitely bring a poetic element into the story, and so many of the lines seem as carefully chosen and evocative  as poetry. Ruth and Eliza meet in a sign language class, and they are brought closer by working on a group project together. Ruth is lonely, and envies Eliza’s home, which is filled with the presence of her children and husband. They are both drawn to each other, but this isn’t exactly a love story.

I instantly fell in love with Kristen Stone’s voice, and found myself reading out lines to my roommate, though I wouldn’t be able to explain why those sentences struck such a chord, like this paragraph, in the section “Dog Kickers”:

When Ruth sees something cure she immediately imagines someone doing damage to it. Crushing its face. Once in the library she heard a woman holding a tiny baby say to another women, I’ll be so glad when she’s too big to fit in the microwave. Ruth wishes for a child but know she can’t. She would think only of the microwave.

I also actually laughed several times while reading, too, which I don’t usually do, and at lines like: “Emmaline and Eddie both seem to think there would be dinosaurs at the zoo. They had confused the idea of a museum and the idea of a zoo and the film Jumanji.

Besides the voice, I most enjoyed the backstories given in The Story of Ruth and Eliza. Both of them are really interesting characters, but it was Eliza’s childhood that really stuck with me. These are definitely characters that are going to stick with me, and that’s especially impressive considering how short this story is (61 pages). There’s also an element of magical realism to the story–is Ruth a witch? What does that mean?–which is left up to interpretation, which adds to the interest.

I was definitely impressed with this chapbook. There were a few typos, but only two or three, and other than that it felt polished and thoughtful. I have another book by Kristen Stone, Domestication Handbook, on my TBR pile, and after reading this one I’m really excited to start it.

Danika reviews Handmade Love by Julie R. Enszer

handmadelove

Back in January, I read another collection of Julie R. Enszer’s poetry: SisterhoodI found that little poetry book so powerful that I was eager to pick up another collection of Enszer’s work. Unfortunately, I didn’t enjoy it as much. Sisterhood had several poems (one especially) that hit me so hard that I re-read them over and over, and kept thinking about them for days. I even found myself reading bits out loud to my roommate. Handmade Love has the same poetry style for the most part, but I didn’t read any poems that had such an impact on me as the first collection.

That might have to do with where I am in my life, though. While Sisterhood obviously was themed a lot around sisters, Handmade Love is more concerned with aging and marriage. Reading these poems at the ripe old age of 23, I’m probably not the best audience. I did have other issues on top of this, though. One was that I found more poems in this collection to be distractingly rhyme-y, which is just my personal preference in poetry. Also there’s a footnote that leads to nothing! Which is another pet peeve.

But more importantly, there’s also transphobia in one poem: “Terms of Endearment”: “Then I learned you consider / yourself to be male–transgendered. … Immediately, I’ve like to say “FTM tr***ie” and cast / upon you my feminine wiles, but can I?” For one thing, trans men do not “consider themselves” to be male, they are. “Transgendered” is also not the preferred term: it’s “transgender”. And then there’s the slur. This poem, I think, is trying to be pro-trans, but it’s coming from an extremely cissexist place that made me wince to read. Especially from a book that is described on the back cover as “delight[ing] in the lives of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people”, this is disappointing. Another poem a few pages later, “Through the Flower”, discusses Judy Chicago’s paintings, and says “Chicago captures/the locus of our strength and power; locates it between our legs”, which seems to equate women with vaginas. It made wonder whether we can celebrate vulvas (which have been demeaned in mainstream media, because of their association with women) without being cissexist.

It isn’t all negative. There were still poems that I found thought-provoking, like “Hibiscus”, which describes seeing a flower so large that she wanted to climb inside it, and then follows with “At rest, this seen takes root: / I know why men hate women.” My favourite poem is probably “Was Elizabeth Bishop a Lesbian?” which begins

The first time I heard this question
the words came from my lips
posed to the professor in the too-hot
classroom of an ivy-covered,
though thoroughly Midwestern, hall;
he looked at my and sighed,
Such things are not relevant to poetry.
What matters is she was a master–
one of the greats of our century.

I think a lot of queer people (and other marginalized groups, too) can relate to having their identities and histories brushed off as irrelevant. She goes on to describe attempting to answer this question for a decade after this. I did also like the excerpt that is also included on the back cover:

I believe that there are two kinds of love in this world:

inherited and handmade. Yes, we inherit love
but my people, my people make love by hand.

This is such a concise and beautiful idea, of queer love being made by hand; having to be sought and deliberately created, not just inherited.

There are definitely some great poems in here, but the cissexism tipped this collection to just okay. If you’re going to pick up Enszer’s poetry, I would definitely recommend Sisterhood more.

Danika reviews This Is What Happened In Our Other Life by Achy Obejas

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Almost all of my poetry reviews begin the same way: with me expressing that I don’t know how to review poetry. With that in mind, I’m going to keep this review pretty brief, because I don’t think I have much to add to the conversation. As a personal preference, I usually enjoy poetry that is fairly straightforward. Very symbolic poetry tends to lead me confused. This Is What Happened In Our Other Life is a poetry collection that leans more towards that second category. It is less accessible than the poetry books I read right before it: When I Was Straight by Julie Marie Wade.

The poems in this collection felt like they slipped out of my grasp as I read them. I felt like I could almost, but not quite, understand what was happening, like they were vague hints that I wasn’t able to link. Take the opening paragraph of “Monday In April”:

All your lovers come to you in April,
or you to them.
Spring offerings, rain and rhododendron.
Later, the smell of smoke.

The poem I liked the most is not surprisingly the one that is more literal: “Transitions”, which describes a moment after a breakup that feels visceral. I don’t doubt that Obejas is a skilled poet, but this collection was clearly not one for me. If you do enjoy more symbolic poetry with sparse, beautiful language, you probably would enjoy this one.

Danika reviews When I Was Straight by Julie Marie Wade

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When I Was Straight is a brief (42 pages) poetry collection by Julie Marie Wade. It is split into two sections: “Before.”, in which all the poems are titled “When I Was Straight” and “After.”, which are titled “When ___ Learns I am a Lesbian”. Because the first half of the collection has the same title for each poem, the beginning line is listed in the table of contents, and together they make a sort of poem themselves:

When I Was Straight

[I Did Not Love Men as I Do Now]
[I Did Not Love Women as I Do Now]
[There Was a Man in the Moon]
[Everything Came to Me Vicariously]
[It Was a Shame]
[It Was Like a Game of Red Rover]
[There Were Always Theories]
[I Could Tell My Mother How]
[A Ruler Was Called a Straight-edge]
[I Thought So Little of Sex]
[You Were Straight, Too]

As you might be able to tell from those lines, Wade’s poems are deceptively simple. The language is straightforward, but I found myself unable to help but re-read each poem as soon as I finished it, finding new layers each time. Contrast the first paragraphs of the first two poems:

I did not love men as I do now.
I loved them wincing & wanting to please.
I loved them trying too hard.

and

I did not love women as I do now.
I loved them with my eyes closed, my back turned.
I loved them silent, & startled, & shy.

I found myself nodding and smiling at some of the lines of each poem, because Wade communicates some feelings, feelings of not being straight, of growing up repressing that, so concisely and accurately. I think many queer women will enjoy the poems in this first section that capture that feeling. One paragraph that especially struck me was the closing of the second poem, which goes to describe “when I was straight” feeling like being at a slumber party:

I tried to wake the host girl to ask her, but she was
only one adrift in the sea of bodies. I was ashamed
to say they all looked the same to me, beautiful &
untouchable as stars. It would be years before
I learned to find anyone in that sumptuous,

terrifying dark.

Unfortunately, I didn’t find the second half of the collection as strong. The conversations included there are sadly fairly predictable reactions to coming out to people. I actually thought it might work better being read by a straight person who may be unfamiliar with what happens “When Sharon At Work Learns I am a Lesbian”. That dragged down my enjoyment of the book as a whole a bit, but I still think this one is worth picking up. It would be a good poetry book for someone a little intimidated by reading poetry (like me!), because it is straight-forward and very relateable.

Danika reviews Living as a Lesbian by Cheryl Clarke

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Living as a Lesbian is a poetry collection that was first published in 1986, and has been recently republished with notes, reviews, a preface and introduction. I feel like there are several ways to read this book. It comes with notes at the end that reference certain poems, so you can flip back and forth to get a little context for each poem, but even with the notes, I think you’ll get a lot more out of them if you’re familiar with 1980s politics in the U.S. I am not, so a lot of the references went over my head. With the notes, however, you could go on an expedition, researching references until it lead you to lists of other books to read, and albums of R&B and jazz to listen to.

Even without understanding the exact context of each poem–even without understanding every poem–this is still definitely a collection that is worth picking up. Lesbianism is a thread that goes through the book, but it is not the focus of every poem. The topics vary, but they come back to those intersecting identities of black/woman/lesbian/working class. The formats change as well. Some are direct, sparse, straight-forward, whereas others are more abstract and merely hint at meaning. Some poems follow a narrative, others are fragmented and without punctuation.

My favourites, unsurprisingly, were the poems that focused on lesbian relationships. Though this partially because I can understand them better than 80s politics, it’s also because I found those to be the most compellingly written, with the personalities of these women emerging from the page, like in this excerpt from “nothing”:

Nothing I wouldn’t do the woman I sleep with
when nobody satisfy me the way she do.

kiss her in public places
win the lottery
take her in the ass
in a train lavatory
sleep three in a single bed
have a baby
to keep her wanting me.

Although I didn’t understand all of these poems, I am glad I picked this collection up. Learning about our queer history, especially queer people of colour history, is important to me, and I also had to pause several times to note quotes that I really liked. I would recommend this one, especially if you’re familiar with 80s politics and activism in the U.S.

Danika reviews Sisterhood by Julie R. Enszer

Sisterhood

Poetry is usually pretty hit or miss for me. There are definitely poets that I am huge fans of, but I usually get impatient with more abstract, surreal poetry. So I went into reading Sisterhood with some trepidation. Luckily, I was completely wrong to be worried. This is a beautiful collection, with poems that made me stop and have to immediately re-read them, or read them out loud to my roommate, or just stop and process them for a while. I keep wanting to excerpt a part of some of these poems to give you an idea of what I mean, but the powerful lines work so well because of their context. Each poem has such economy of words that it doesn’t make sense to try to cut anything out; even the titles are often crucial to the meaning. The writing is straightforward and sparse. It explores all sorts of themes, including sisterhood in different forms, of course, but specifically the death of her sister, and how this grief has permeated her life over a decade later.

Beyond that, Sisterhood also covers queer activism, including the AIDS epidemic, her Judaism, and everyday life. There were some parts of poems that made me uncomfortable, like the poem “The Former Prime Minister”, which posits a dichotomy of Jews vs Muslims, showing only Muslims voicing antisemitism, but at the same time, it’s detailing what I assume is Enszer’s actual experience hearing this Holocaust-denying speech from “the former prime minister”. Again, these poems are so concise that it’s hard to tease them out like this. It made me uncomfortable, but then again, I think that was the point… The poem begins with the lines

I hate how these women hide themselves
beneath head scarves; for once I don’t disagree,
I sip my Diet Coke; I look at the woman
two tables away, a few strands
of hair have fallen across her face;
I want to tuck them in.

It ends with the lines,

I want to believe in some sort of transcendent,
feminist sisterhood: Donatella,  Zarina, and me.
I want to believe Zarina isn’t thinking
about the final solution for the Jews.
My throat hurts. I tie my hair back in a knot.
I board the plane. I walk away.

There’s another poem where Enszer criticizes her mother’s makeup wearing as “My Mother’s Vanity”, as well as a few poems that seem to quote hip hop just to make fun of it.

About a quarter of the way through the collection, I knew I was going to enjoy this title. It was after I read “My Father’s Pornography”, which describes Enszer finding her father’s gay porn when she was thirteen, and how this was her first introduction to the idea that there are lives unlike the ones she saw in her hometown, options she’d never considered before. After that was the poem “Zyklon B”, which was such a knock-out of a powerful poem that I needed to sit back and recover after reading it. And there are more that I can’t discuss succinctly.

Sisterhood is definitely a title I would recommend to poetry-lovers, but also to people who haven’t read a lot of poetry. If you’re at all intrigued, give it a try. You won’t regret it.

Tag reviews 25 Years of Malcontent by Stephanie Byrd

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For November I reviewed the follow-up collection by Byrd, A Distant Footstep on the Plain. I’m doing it a little backwards this time by reviewing her first collection second, but it’s for a reason.

25 Years of Malcontent is, like its successor, raw and painfully real, but some of the works in this collection (e.g. “Mother’s Cadence”) are a little loftier, a little harder to grasp if you’re not well attuned to fine details related to the classics. Each poem is masterfully crafted and grabs your attention entirely; this is not a collection to read idly. I found that not only was I completely pulled into each poem, but that I reread it over and over– not necessarily due to confusion, but because each poem has such a powerful punch that I couldn’t help but reel and re-read sometimes to try to recover. Byrd’s writing is intense, she doesn’t pull any punches, and she doesn’t give you time to recover before the next one.

Her poems cover her own experiences; racism, the experience of being a lesbian, but in less of an upfront way compared to her later collection. This earlier collection is a little more masked, a little more intent on searching for the meanings of each poem, which are not always immediately apparent such as in “Dem Bones”: “it’s here! another bone for my garden / it’s received! another lady to tea”. Again, these are not poems to be idly read. If Byrd’s carefully crafted writing doesn’t get you, the raw emotion will. A few lines in “Mimi” illustrate this well: “i watched the rain destroy the roses / the length of time is not essential in these matters / i had only to wait to see the petals crumble with each drop”.

25 Years of Malcontent is beautiful and engaging, but I would caution that this collection in particular is not necessarily for someone who doesn’t understand much about poetry. Those who don’t “get” it will find themselves frustrated and missing out on Byrd’s amazing writing if they read it quite before they’re ready, I think.

[Editor’s note: This chapbook is available for free in ebook format!]