Danika reviews Handmade Love by Julie R. Enszer


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 Sisterhood by Julie R. Enszer


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.