—Ari Lohr, "A SONG FOR THE GAY BOYS WHO NEVER CAME HOME FROM PRIDE"
Gravity, Ari Lohr's newest & from Gutslut Press, precedes the table of contents with four facts about space. The latter just as assuredly introduces its four sections: LOVE, RAPE, DEATH, and NOTHING. Already, we know Lohr will be dragging through the dirt of the world's most traumatic experiences.
I felt I had experienced a lifetime with Lohr by the time—and every time—I finished this collection, and yet its power is pure, potent adolescence. Still, despite the heartbreaks and insecurities typical of a (queer) teenage experience—despite the violence, the injustices that still should never be, yet are—Lohr's confidence in expressing those nuances is clear.
Overall, I enjoyed Gravity for its exploration of ways that words can take up the page (fitting, I think, for an exploration of space as concept). It jumps through wormholes from prose poetry, to shape poetry and erasure; even more, it weaves narratives together with celestial control. Until the end of the collection, Lohr is not afraid to keep revisiting ideas, themes—entire poems, even, that we'd mistaken for finished punching us in the gut.
I quite literally gasped at some of these lines, which of perfectly evokes the author's imagery of being trapped: in outer space, maybe, but also in one's unoxygenated body. In the end, these poems are their own new planets, and each adapts, shapes itself to the material; they build us lifeforms to worship as metaphors for hurting, then healing. Truly, Gravity is a fresh take on material with centuries of contemplation to its name.
The title poem is a standout among them all, in my opinion, with so many quotable lines I'd be reciting it all by including them.
Of course, I'm not going to do that! Please go ahead and purchase the book to see all of the magic for yourself. Reminder: Gravity is now available for purchase from Gutslut Press (co-run by our Editor Ami Sanghvi!) in both print and digital formats; go, be grateful for the chance to read just like I was.
You can also take a look at Lohr's other work by visiting their website.
by Ami Sanghvi.
When the full moon followed him home for the first time since the lycanthropy diagnosis, his mother watched the unholy aching of the shift he foolishly thought he could ignore. She screamed as his back broke and formed again. She tried to hit the beast with a broom. And God, he bared his teeth. And God, he returned to himself, naked as a sapling, as hollow as a hollow boned crow.
In most mainstream media, werewolves are depicted first and foremost as monsters, unfairly labeled by society as tragic “brutes” who are too far removed from their humanity to fathom the context(s) of their own existence. They are so rarely extended the kindness, empathy, and understanding by fiction lovers that all living creatures deserve. We almost never get to see werewolves’ lives outside of their transformations from enigmatic, harrowed, multidimensional people to wild, bloodthirsty, mythologically “accursed” canines. Most of what we know about werewolves is that they supposedly shred the innocent with their beastly claws, leap and run with blood wet upon their snouts, and howl loudly at the moon. Any creature in fiction and media that doesn’t at least slightly resemble the human form (ex: vampires, centaurs, sirens) or exude sex appeal to readers is often pushed to the wayside, condemned instead to the title of savage, unfeeling “beast.”
It’s been said before, but I’ll say it again. This depiction of the werewolf isn’t just devastating in the fictional sense. These damaging, agonizing, and utterly alienating depictions of the werewolf also serve to shed an extremely harmful light on the disabled community. The parallels between how werewolves and disabled people are [very wrongfully] perceived by the media and in society are equal parts uncanny and horrendous. Fortunately, Jared Povanda’s story, “Hot Blood, Cold Snow,” provides the righteous counternarrative this topic strongly merits.
“Hot Blood, Cold Snow” upholds and uplifts the humanity of the werewolf rather than continuing to degrade it. Povanda simply refuses to build upon these old, irredeemable tropes, directly contradicting them instead. Basically, “Hot Blood, Cold Snow” has quickly become my favorite werewolf narrative of the moment. It not only showcases Povanda’s brilliant handle of language, but it also refuses to feed into typical, misrepresentative stereotypes. The speaker does something different by stepping away from the usual external, dehumanizing, monolithic judgment of the werewolf, and instead opts to illuminate the mind, heart, and soul of the exiled werewolf child. In this, Povanda’s werewolf is extended the voice and compassion long overdue to his kind.
Additionally, Povanda takes things a step further by invoking the grief that follows the story’s werewolf child from his previous, pre-lycanthropy life, and then proceeding to pair it with the subject’s complex longing to depart from the land and become a “werecloud” instead.
Hot blood on cold snow bounces: the opposite of rain. He wishes he were a werecloud… If he were a werecloud, he could drown the whole world in his grief; instead, he has to hunt. Instead, he has to run. There’s a compulsion there, a compunction, dragging on him like a hook in the pelt.
Is there an animality to Povanda’s werewolf?
Does Povanda depict this animality as crude, or else inferior to human personhood?
These passages belong not to the cruelly stereotypical, supposed “menace” of the werewolf, but rather to a certain tenderness, innocence, and tragedy of the grappling self that is hardly unique to the presumed human existence.
by Ami Sanghvi.
Behold the greatest central thesis for an assessment of The Picture of Dorian Gray you’ll ever read in your life:
Dorian is a femboy.
Yes, you read that correctly. Oscar Wilde fans, people who dye their hair a different color every week, and my fellow darling queer folks—rejoice! 婕 Venus Cohen’s “Dorian Dyes His Hair” is a poem that not only officially exists in a world that quite desperately needs it, but also serves to dismantle the heteronormativity forced upon the troubled yet famously glamorous queer-coded protagonist of The Picture of Dorian Gray. Here, Cohen examines the Victorian literary classic under a far more queer-focused lens and draws the story’s corresponding implications directly to the surface.
Dumb and witless, between his ears? Air!
Shelf-stable trophy boy,
Dorian poses, blonde,
“Floodlit, the glossy kiss-pit”
Those of you who have read the novel know that Dorian Gray is aesthetically lovely. He is a man so conventionally beautiful that societal stereotypes demand he be entirely devoid of original thought and any indication of intellectual prowess—in other words, a “bimbo.” Consequently, other men in The Picture of Dorian Gray recognize how pretty Dorian is and, in true patriarchal fashion, proceed to objectify him.
In the book, the painter of the famous portrait of Dorian, Basil Hallward, and his friend, Lord Henry Wotton, are both essentially obsessed with Dorian’s beauty in a way that can honestly only be described as deeply homoerotic. Of course, as readers existing in a suffocatingly heteronormative society, we’re supposed to deny this and assume that there is no blatant queerness to this otherwise curious dynamic Wilde has created. Cohen, however, simply isn’t having it.
Pretty Dorian was wanted, once.
Odalisque, posing, crafted by the hand of Basil
Consumed by the arms of Lord Henry.
Dorian the pretty.
Shortly after locking in this brilliant foundation of the poem, Cohen blatantly slaps the soul of it out onto the page in a way that is so effective it smacks, shocks, and stings you all in the same instant.
How heterosexual can we warp Dorian?
Read that line. Now, read it again. The key word here isn’t heterosexual—it’s warp. That, right there, is the essence of the primary violence inflicted not only upon Dorian Gray, but also queer and trans folk everywhere, every day. This is the atrocity of warping.
Just in case this line didn’t pack enough of a punch (even though it totally did), Cohen then proceeds to follow it up with other, equally agonizing, warp-adjacent phrases. Still, they’re nowhere near finished. By the bottom of the first page, Cohen has already established their momentum. By the top of the second, they are fearlessly wielding it.
Several back-and-forth lines greet us here, shining light on the traditionally feminine nature of Dorian’s beauty. This is a moment of sheer loveliness in the poem, made terribly melancholy only by the shadow heteronormativity insists on casting upon it and, in turn, the subjugated character of Dorian Gray. This description of him, highlighted strategically by Cohen, quickly becomes overwhelmingly but necessarily tragic in the context of this poem. It not only speaks to the devastating reality we all live in, but proceeds to instil fury in its readers for all the suffering this patriarchally heteronormative society causes those who fail to adhere to its unrelentingly cruel constraints.
In this poem, Cohen sandwiches their description of Dorian’s beauty between poetic illustrations of his treatment by those in the novel and bold statements encompassing his treatment by real life readers of the same book. This device swiftly releases Dorian’s tormented character from its purely fictional confines and spits him out into our equally twisted world. Immediately, we recognize that the queer, gender nonconforming Dorian is one of us in a way we potentially never did before. And, as if predicting the reader’s likely sudden realization of how Dorian’s dilemma fits into the reality of our modern-day existence, and the sickening rage we feel upon its impact, Cohen skillfully verbalizes that which, in this moment of raw, unbridled emotion for the reader, suddenly feels impossible to articulate.
How meta, that society has created the Dorian
That Dorian spent all 80,000 words escaping from
Older, wittier, chiseled, tall, dark, handsome--
Enforcers of heterosexual complacency!
If you ever want to experience a writer and a reader melding into a single blob of sheer, antiestablishment fury, look no further than this absolute masterpiece of a poem—signed off on by no other than what appears to be Wilde’s formidable ghost himself.
by Robert Hamilton.
It’s summer, and the news is once again full of talk of historic wildfires—on the west coast of North America, in southern Europe, in North Africa—and it hardly feels like we got a break from last year’s apocalyptic conflagrations. Given that this is all happening on top of a pestilence that we can’t seem to elude, there’s no doubt that news broadcasts, and even our daily lives, feel historic, perhaps even biblical. It’s difficult to think of a better summary of this feeling than the opening lines of Lindsay Hargrave’s fine poem “paragloria (Judgment)”: “Every day is judgment day so I’m / not sure what you’re waiting for.”
Of course, the 2020s are not the first time we’ve collectively worried that the world was about to end soon, and Hargrave knows it. “Your hills,” she writes, “have been burning for / centuries.” Medieval apocalypticism was largely religious in nature, and Hargrave’s poem is steeped in religious iconography: “judgment day” itself, “Hades,” “angel brass.” But this is not the whole story: other images arise as if from everywhere and nowhere; I am certain no one has written lines quite like these before, and yet, in their beauty, specificity, and terror, they make perfect sense:
[...] Rise! open your
eyes and feast your bare guts on
a white sun molting to
black dwarf beginning at
If you think you’re in for an ultra-saturated, Baroque poem after reading these furious lines, well, you are—but that’s far from all Hargrave has to offer. She is just as adept at managing bathos in a way that grounds the poem in our own shared spaces of banality, even gives it air to laugh a little. Watch as a high-flown vision of the after-life (not religious, but simply “life after this”) morphs into something far more quotidian, easier to relate to:
Rise rise rise and
draw up a tub for next life’s
bloodletting. You could live in a moon
colony. Find out which friends were
imposters all along and invent
new ones. Finish scrapbooking.
Reducing the old religious judgment day, in which all things are revealed, to petty concerns about friends and unfinished tasks does not in any way dampen the poem’s effectiveness. Rather, it enhances it, and paves the way for a brilliant conclusion in which the quotidian and the apocalyptic perfectly merge: the flames and suffering are quite real, not spiritual; the voice seems to be that of a first responder at a fire, but of course we all know something more is going on: intentional, maybe inevitable destruction; a world steadily growing unrecognizable; all of the lurid trappings of a Dantean inferno, but right here, right now. This is a poem that storms to its conclusion in breathless, heavily-enjambed free verse, that endlessly varies its flexible tone without losing momentum, that by its final lines makes the mythic terrifyingly real.
Still, this is not a poem of pure despair: “Rise!,” it commands, over and over again. There is something for the audience to do; whether we are to rise and flee, or rise like the dry bones of Ezekiel, is left open. Open, too, is that beguiling title, “Paragloria.” In Spanish, “para gloria” is “for glory.” Para- is a common Greek prefix denoting something that is alongside, accompanying, parallel to. And Perixera paragloria is a rarely attested binomial denotation of a rather nondescript moth—something that maybe, just maybe, has the power to flap its drab wings, rise, and get the hell out of all this."
Review: Tucker Lieberman's "Melt"
by Will Medeiros.
I have read more than my fair share of poems about hope. I do not remember nearly so many that are about how utterly terrifying hope is, and this is where Tucker Lieberman’s “Melt” distinguishes itself so finely: in being about “a fractured faith in yourself” (emphasis mine) as an artist and as a worthy human being.
Lieberman effectively weaves together the abstract and the physical, the imposingly cosmic and the grittily biological to convey the quivering, explosive potential of a deeply held yet simultaneously self-aware faith in what your own future may hold. There can be a blackened, deadly self-assurance in self-hatred and despair, and in reminding you that “it would not be fair to your art to trash it”, Lieberman shows how this feeling fading away is as bright and burning as lava. A reemerging wonder at your own being and capabilities is necessarily coupled with fear: you are a contingent creature, physically fragile, and by daring to “return to the start of the circuit” of your passions, you become emotionally vulnerable as well. Through a rapid-fire yet focused and crisp series of images and ideas, Lieberman keeps all these ideas at play in remarkable depth.
“Melt” captures what is to realize that you once again wish to not only survive but thrive, that you will weather the eruption of the volcano so that you can witness the island that coalesces from the molten rock. It wields every bit of the power it invokes with the name “Krakatau”.
by Jake McAuliffe.
You’ve probably noticed my gloves. They catch my falling fingers.
In this piece, Wasserman creates intimacy, fear, and horror with ease, sweeping the reader into direct dialogue with the character—this poor, poor person who is losing their fingers. I love weird stories and this is absolutely weird, but beautiful too. We feel the depths of empathy through these moments of desperation and pleas directed at the reader.
I’m worried there will soon be too much of me and I can’t stop the
Wasserman tells so much about character in passages with flashing, changing imagery. It reads like montage or a quick-edit reel. In them, we are shown vulnerabilities and desires, but the effect is larger—spinning this story of few words into a lifetime of finger-losing tragedy. The reader is given a taste of the bigger picture and this, in my opinion, is why the emotion of the piece is so strong.
the need to gently run my fingers down the side of someone’s face / to hold a naked hand just once / to fingertip lick the wind
We are left without knowing what becomes of this person. But in short work, Wasserman makes us wonder. It’s a heartfelt, wonderful piece that will leave me suspicious of glove-wearers for a long time.
Review: Sunny Vuong's "Silent Blooms: A Cottagecore Horror Choose-Your-Own-Adventure"
by Vera Hadzic.
(photography pictured is by Adritanaya Tiwari)
Sunny Vuong writes, “The forest is only wary of newcomers. It takes care of its own.”
These sentences capture the inescapable yet unspeakable eeriness of Vuong’s “Silent Blooms: A Cottagecore Horror Choose-Your-Own-Adventure”—where everything seems perfect, yet feels deeply wrong. The deer stare just a little too long—the cottage is a little too comfortable—and a not-so-subtle otherness is rooted far beneath the surface. Vuong’s prose unfolds delightfully as the reader picks their way through an intricate interlace of narrative, making choices and mistakes along with Hoa Tran, the protagonist.
This is a piece written with extraordinary care and attention to detail—from the colour of Hoa’s dress to the smooth melding of story paths to the symbolism of names and places, the shifts and tensions of “Silent Blooms” come together seamlessly. And along with her delicately crafted horror, Vuong’s mastery of image and description creates a world as vividly beautiful as it is unsettling. Just as dark callings reach for Hoa, this immersive story entangles readers and keeps them in its clutches long after they’ve reached the end.
Review: Calia Jane Mayfield's "my hands sit on my throat when i try and remember my name"
by Anita Cantillo.
Calia Jane Mayfield’s poem, “my hands sit on my throat when I try and remember my name,” offers the reader a series of images that at first feel startling and disjointed. But a closer look shows an astute orientation to natural landscapes and the ecology of the body and the inherent connection between the two. Present within the lines of this beautiful prose is a close observation of the natural world, an intimacy the voice of the poem shares with ants and German Shepherds alike. And yet, there’s also a desire to know more, it would seem, in lines such as this one, where the yearning is palpable: “…the lake is named after my/ hometown and could hold so many of me and i can’t hold any/ version of it.” We find a speaker at once tapped into the very fiber of the universe—a voice that understands her body is part of the natural world, too— and also grappling with the ever elusive essence of creation. How is it that “somedays i don’t know the weather but i’ve relearned the contours of my shoulders a million times over?” How can we remember being eight and the bite of an ant, but forget the sting of getting a body piercing? These ponderings bid the reader to stare at their own reflection in the mirror, to connect the gossamer lines that transcend time and space and link us to the surrounding world. Mayfield’s poem is an invitation to be still, to memorize the lines of our bodies or a blade of grass, to imagine our next life.
by Meredith Phipps.
CW: implied sexual assault, sexual allegories, allusions to fantasy violence
In “passive protagonist,” Isaura Ren creates a sprawling dialogue, both interweaving and contrasting excerpts from “How to Write a Fantasy Story” by N.A. Turner with the speaker’s understanding and embodiment of their own life and their place within it. As each line falls into place, succinctly and spaciously within each tercet, the complexity of the conversation between the speaker and the text grows, creating a tension that never falls. This tension is what gives the final tercet of the poem so much resonance as the speaker declares the story of their body on their own terms, doing away with convention as they arrive at the point of authorship.
The juxtaposition of convention and experience that Isaura Ren accomplishes in such a brief piece is stunningly resonant, leaving the reader to grapple with the implications of understanding and negotiating one's own life within an inherited canon and that canon’s set of rules. Characteristic of their body of work, Isaura Ren manages all of this complexity with a beauty of language and use of space that feels like breathing, deeply, in.
by Alis Hamilton.
CW: implied sexual violence, self-harm/suicide
Tahlia McKinnon’s "origins" feels, to perhaps put it too obviously, wrong. There’s something in the deep stomach flipping violence of human connection that pulls at the brokenness inside us all. This creative nonfiction lends itself to poetry; all rich imagery; a separation of reality to an emotional state. The metaphor breathes life into the narrative like the narrator tries to breathe life into her dangerous lover. The way she pulls in the Garden of Eden and speaks of Eve’s fall as her sacrifice—love as the opening of wounds, the acceptance of hurt to heal another’s hurting.
I loved the softness of sympathy in fingers trailing along cigarette burns, the disturbance in my chest at the scrabbling need to force another to be the voice that screams for the speaker's own hurts. The shared violence of sex brings tougher lovers, and it separates them when outside Eden. The space for hurt, destruction, and love—they are unrecognizable as dressed up beings no longer violent and vulnerable.
by 婕 Venus Cohen.
Rowena Joy Newman (she/they) has created a beautiful, self-contained universe within short poem and visual art piece, "The Dancer". Immediately, the reader is treated to a fantastical sensory experience, resulting from the array of colors and textures settled behind the simple black and white wording. The use of a warm color gradient background provides serenity for the eye to settle on, while the cooler and more bold colors in the center of the piece show both chaos and individuality. Within the swirling vortex of colors are representational objects—stars, constellations, falling petals, and perhaps flowing dark hair to the right side of the painting.
The writing is equally captivating; it's the story of a dancer… or is the story of a dream? Could it both, or neither? With only 10 lines, Newman manages to craft poetry that is both full to bursting with descriptive language for readers interested in a purely aesthetic experience, while also providing a platform for analysis and critical thinking that benefits those who like being challenged by their poetry. I am personally of both camps, and have read this short piece over and over, each time discovering new things to see, and new connections to make.
The poem evokes the image of a twisting spine, a fluid body, and the visual element follows suit, with the blue-green ribbon through the center exemplifying a spine for the poem itself. After spending quite a bit of time with this work, I cannot wait to see what else Rowena Joy Newman has in store for the art and literary world.
by Lorelei Bacht.
(photography pictured is by Bobby Miller)
“Coveting My Neighbor’s Flowers” is a short and surreal promenade in which the reader is invited to walk the fine line between beauty and fault. Mostly un-delineated and inventive in its punctuation, it is as if the lines had been subtly shifted around between the first draft and the version presented here, thus creating an openness, an ambiguity in which the reader can reside for a while—an opportunity for contemplation.
As a failed gardener herself, and coveter of other people’s flowers (which may or may not be flowers), this reader can only sympathize with the all-too-human feelings of envy, despair, and attempts at communion expressed in the poem. “How I craved them immediately”. Do we ever outgrow the so-called oral phase? Is Eucharistic communion not a variation on wanting to devour our mothers’ gardens? There are psychoanalytical resonances here, shades of do-not-put-this-in-your-mouth, evocations, perhaps, of other faults.
What is beauty? How do we partake in it? Is the wish to partake in it not doomed from the very beginning? The petal, the butterfly, the wafer, the body of Christ. All desired, yet unattainable: “beauty to swallow / that I feel like I stole.” The complexity of the human condition contained in this short, deceptively simple, deceptively mundane tale of a gardening “fail”.
This reader would argue that it was worth spending seven dollars on those seeds (as per the poet’s own detailed account) to produce this little marvel of condensed frustration and ultimately, beauty.
by Aura Martin.
In this haunting, ethereal poem we are invited to explore the dreamscape of Olivia DiVincenzo’s world of bodies, gardens, and dreams. “hearts ache. against thin walls.” Within the first line the poet captures our attention, and holds it for the entirety of the poem. The poem shares images of nature and the outside world. “fields of lavender sprout growth driven by hazy sun. yellow watercolor melts into azure” as an example. There are also views of the interior of house and self, such as “she fidgets in between my thighs and my collarbone she drags my mind to delusions worlds where deer have halos and i do not exist.” I love how Olivia easily sways between reflection of self and muses the world around her.
As I step back and look at it, the poem looks like wallpaper, but instead of designs it’s peppered with words. The phrases, all in caps, leap out. “I FEAR I MIGHT DISINTEGRATE. AM I AN ANGEL?” and “REALITY ATTEMPTS TO CONFINE ME.” I find the writer’s use of spacing an interesting artistic choice. Whether you read this silently or aloud, the spaces surprise you and force you to think about what the writer is saying or not saying. The reader is challenged to consider whether the phrase speaks to the previous phrase, or the phrase after. For instance, “I DO NOT KNOW HOW TO PEEL MY SKIN BACK” is one sentence, but each phrase is read separately, independently. See how the meaning can be interpreted in different ways? The poem echoes Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” where you tear not only at the walls but question your own presence and place in the world, spiritually, mentally, and emotionally. There is a desire for safety and comfort, to grasp and hold on to loved ones or to those who you wish would love you.
Olivia displays her anguish. She challenges you to confront your own.
by Calia Jane Mayfield.
Aura Martin is a poet based in St. Louis who focuses her work on prose poetry and centos. It is easy to tell from her previously published work that she has truly captured the craft and made centos into a staple of her work. Here in Wrongdoing, she writes a stunning cento entitled “The Quiet Dark” utilizing an amazing selection of work that embodies a sense of wanting and searching while coming to terms with self. With the selected pieces displayed above the work, which appears like a panel of writers at a conference, she crafts of the more beautiful pieces of poetry to be published this year. This is a poem that demands to be felt.
“The Quiet Dark” is a poem that forced me to hold my breath until the very last line. Focused on the more sensual aspects of sexuality and wanting, she takes Franny Choi and Celeste Ng’s words and elevates them to new heights, infusing a deeper sense of searching for home among others in a way that is truly her own. While ‘cento’ may refer to patchwork, Martin’s poem feels more like a quilt handmade by a grandmother passed through the ages. Breathtaking and completely comforting.
What heavies your pelvis, and: what shushes the ringing when you dip your skull below.
I waded back out, still wet of him, too afraid to wring him out of my clothes in case I was wrong. I walked through the first boy like a pool of water churning with living things I almost remembered from dreams. What you call wet, I call room to breathe.
The way she takes the lines from Choi and Ng, and creates such a visceral experience, is a unique quality that elevates her work form something simply good into a land of greatness that you can’t replicate. She brings forth an environment for her speaker to feel like a person that you want to listen to. This cento shows off Martin’s powerful ability to create tangible feelings and an ethereal sense of wanting. Time stopped the moment I started this poem, and it took my breath away with every line. I felt like the speaker and I became one the more time I spent reading and rereading the piece over and over. When it ends, you will feel the need to read it again and again, focusing on a new line each time. Martin takes and reshapes what it is to want to be and what it means to find yourself going from wanting the intangible and instead becoming the intangible.
by Josephine Ornelas.
CW: suicide, self-harm
“Silence,” Ọbáfẹ́mi Thanni
“The one who takes his own life will be / Punished with the same taking, again & again.”
It is tempting to fall silent in the face of such a statement. The reality of suicide is already unspeakably shocking and tragic. An archaic law that declares this act yields eternal damnation leaves us further shocked, further speechless, and above all, hopeless.
And yet, in “Silence,” Ọbáfẹ́mi Thanni’s speaker refuses to fall silent, or give up hope. “I am here against her sung hadith,” he writes. “I am here against my mother’s warning wish.” In four simple stanzas, the poet drapes language around seemingly unspeakable grief. The departed boy is “wrapped in quiet white” and “fed to [the earth]; he “opened a vein and poured into freedom.” Slowly we are given scattered images, phrases thread together, that gently gesture at the person who was lost.
But these images do not come easily to the poet. Indeed, throughout he struggles against the urge to fall silent. The gasping spaces within each line embody the seeming futility of language, the unfillable gaps grief creates in us. Everyone who speaks in the poem—the speaker, the boy, the mother—experiences these gaps, these unclear holes that almost burst open with suffering.
Still, the speaker will not fall silent. He defies the damnation given to the suicidal boy, “redeeming” the dead (if they need to be redeemed) through his poetry. The boy “deserves more than a minute minute’s silence,” and this poem ensures he receives more. A memorial, an act of mourning, one that can be revisited, spoken, heard. And indeed, the poem ends not with silence, but with an act of listening, its own kind of hope: “I hear the boy / Become wound afresh & afresh —a bright bleeding.”
“My Mouth Holds a Funeral for the Loss of Words,” Ọbáfẹ́mi Thanni
It occurs to me I talk too much. An odd thing to admit, perhaps, when writing a review, but it’s true. The main channels over which I communicate—twitter, text, and honestly, Instagram DMs—encourage thoughtless glib, sentences ending in haha for no particular reason. It seems I am never at a loss for words. They pour out of me on every forum, every moment of my day.
And so, when I read the title of Ọbáfẹ́mi Thanni’s poem—“My Mouth Holds a Funeral for the Loss of Words”—I paused. What a lovely image: to lose words, and then mourn them. A slow and measured response to a rare phenomenon of speechlessness. The speaker of the poem has “a tongue heavy / with the taste of nothing to say. Another word fails.” The entire poem relishes in its own curious silence. Each line is clipped, often with long pauses between words. A funeral march of sorts, a tribute to the words that are not there.
If I were the poet, I would have written more—but that is my mistake, an amateur mistake. The poet is wiser. Each line is so dense with meaning and grief, I almost wish I could see the poet’s face as he writes. And yet, the restraint and poise and beauty this poem delivers are uncanny. By the last line, you are confident the poem has done its work: “I listen to her grief, / till my hands fall quiet / & a new tongue grows.”
by Cecilia Kennedy.
CW: blood, death
What follows us, just beyond our reach? Stromberg’s piece “Dysregulation” explores this idea brilliantly. If “hope is the thing with feathers,” Stromberg’s winged creature is “the malevolent thing like a bird that hovers.” This dark presence lurks above Bellatrix’s shoulder, even as her name evokes the power of a massively bright star or a “female warrior.”
The work builds suspense with memorable, haunting images and predictions: “When the time comes, it will swing its head down savagely, as if on a hinge.” The agonizing wait, which Bellatrix must endure is vivid: “Something like saliva drips from its beak onto her head.” All signs point downward, plunging into terror and inevitability.
The transition from this fear to weariness is palpable, culminating in a fateful subway trip, where the other passengers’ reactions are both expected—and not expected. Who or what is to blame for what has happened? The opening stanza, perhaps, holds the answer—preparing us for the possibility that blame can be misplaced, but the effects are visible.
by Lindsay Hargrave.
Duncan’s verse marches through these beige pages with the solemnity of spoken incantation and chant.
This is especially true of his first piece, titled “Love[sic],” which beats away at metaphor like a drum. Wrought with the pain of absent love, the repetition of grief, of the very word itself, is heavy with ceremony and power each time it is repeated. For instance, the below verse cuts to the core of the speaker’s grief from every imaginable angle:
“In overgrown fields ascending
I grieve you
In an arrow of migrant plume
I grieve you
In the ginger and jasmine of rest
I grieve you
At an altar of unnamed saints
I grieve you”
The remaining pieces, “You Don’t Need to Know Much About Dogs to Tell She’s Thoroughbred” and “We Have Bathed in Nails and Been Restored,” enjoy similar themes that engage with ritual, religion and the natural world. Their language maintains a mesmerizing tone that invokes the authority of a cleric as they weave through enticing and challenging imagery, again inviting the reader into the realm of the supernatural.
Each time I reread these three poems, they re-enchant me and imbue me longing for the intensity of ceremonial fire. Set yourself ablaze.
by Erin Schallmoser.
CW: sexual assault
After reading Leonie Rowland’s story “The Dressmaker,” one might be left thinking of a myriad of things: the liminal spaces that especially women-identifying people are forced to occupy, the inaccurate saviors we make of ordinary men who just happen to show up at the right place and time, and the role of the victim—and is anyone ever really “playing” it, or are we pushed into it?
The narrator of “The Dressmaker” isn’t asking for trouble or looking for love or trying to find her next wild adventure. Yet somehow, she gets a twisted alchemized version of all three as a result of speaking to a man who steps into the elevator she’s using, as a result of going along with this man’s plan for her, like any good, nice woman should. She’s looking for some help navigating the museum, and maybe in some way looking for some help navigating her own life, but her curiosity and overwhelm translate to the man as a victim lying in wait.
A line from the first paragraph, “I was trying to make sense of it all—the artwork, the architecture, my own inadequacy,” drops the reader quickly and deeply into the narrator’s headspace. The sudden shift from universal to specific helps us understand how big the narrator’s inadequacy feels to her—it’s on par with the artwork and the architecture of the museum. We see her being primed to be a victim, not through any fault of her own, but because that is the reality we are living in, unfortunately. Our suspicions are confirmed when the man, who the narrator immediately believes, “will show me the impressionists,” enters the elevator. A man, showing up as a solution to a problem that maybe doesn’t even need to be solved, is a situation that many women will find familiar. The narrator says to the man, about the museum, “‘It’s like a labyrinth.’” It’s clear from the resulting actions that the man interprets this statement as “I’m helpless, please help me,” but what if he’s wrong? What if the narrator is just hoping to be heard, hoping for a little empathy, hoping to have her feelings in this moment validated? The man doesn’t offer any of that. He offers a solution—a solution that keeps the narrator quite literally tied to him.
How is a victim made? Is a victim made, or is it just imagined? These are questions that come to mind as we continue through the story. As the man and the narrator view the museum together, it’s evident that the narrator sees herself as different from other women who have been trapped in the past, and she sees no problem accepting an additional favor from the man, stating, “I thanked him, thinking that most of the women were asleep, unaware of themselves, shining for someone else.” But I will be different, you can imagine the narrator whispering fiercely to herself. Where is that belief coming from? Is it her ego? Is that so terrible? Shouldn’t all women have the right, the ability, to believe “that won’t happen to me”? Shouldn’t that hope for a different, better future be available to everyone? I will caution a yes, and again look to the grey areas and liminal spaces that this story highlights so succinctly.
The narrator believes in an alternate ending for herself up until the very end. While using the tool of the man’s control over her to tie back her hair, she “had no doubt that I would find my way,” and returning to the museum after hours, interprets the glow of the emergency exit sign as moonlight, and not a warning. Finally, she admits to something—not her guilt, for she has done nothing wrong—but there is a sense of admission when she states, “It is possible to be led in both directions: one moment you’re part of the aesthetic movement and the next you are naked in a cubicle.” From there, the story resolves in a series of thrilling and revealing sentences that offer the reader a satisfying gateway into horror—just creepy enough to send shivers down your spine, but hopefully not enough to have you losing any sleep come evening.
Ultimately, it is that line, that line that begins, “It is possible to be led in both directions,” that sticks with me and continues to break my heart. The narrator says so much with that line: this wasn’t my plan, I didn’t know it would end this way, I thought I would be different, I thought he would be different. It is the women that she had been feeling sorry for earlier that day that offer her a piece of the puzzle that she is just beginning to solve, but it is also the women that contribute to her feeling of cognitive dissonance. One can see the future for her, a future where she is led to ask the worst question you could ask when something bad happens to you: Did I ask for this? The answer, of course, is a resounding no, but knowing that doesn’t serve as a cure-all. Contrary to popular belief, the truth, while helpful, won’t always set you free. “The Dressmaker” offers us more than truth. It offers us a chance to see ourselves more clearly—not just in the narrator, but in the man as well, and also the women, who at the end of the story we see are “wide awake, frenzied…covering themselves haphazardly with books and violins.” I can see parts of myself in each of those characters, and therein lies the beauty and strength of this story.
by Kate Doughty.
At times both surreal and delightfully comic, "And What of the Moth" reads like a bureaucratic fever dream in the best possible way. Fans of liminal spaces, backrooms, and dry humor will find themselves drawn into this piece as our narrator stands in an endless line, waiting for the answer to some questions:
Where do pensions go when we die? And when can I leave this queue?
We wait in line with the narrator as the world revolves around them: punks ‘de-punk,’ friends appear and vanish, birdsong grows more and more sinister. This piece captures the feeling of listlessness and disillusionment, and, finally, of transformation.
After all, where there is a moth, there must be a flame—or is there?
“In the queue, we had to pretend that cliché was the height of embarrassment—and moths, lights, you get it.”
Tongue-in-cheek yet sensitive, bizarre yet familiar, this piece is like listening to your favorite pop song in a minor key. Equal parts strange and beautiful, "And What of the Moth" will linger in reader’s minds long after they break away from the page.
by Shyla Jones.
CW: kidnapping, non-consent
Lindz McLeod’s “Heavenly Bodies” beams in the strangest, best way. Paired with sublime language, McLeod explores a woman who keeps the sun—or, well, a sun—trapped in her lonely home. We meet Joanna who lives next door to a nosy couple that are too interested in their neighbor’s fresh tan and “impenetrable” full body clothing. What they don’t know is that inside Joanna’s kitchen blares her own personal, illegal sun.
She straps on safety goggles. The light spills out from every inch of the doorway, a
tsunami of visual force. Despite the eyewear, which is the kind physicists wear, she
blinks until her eyes become more accustomed. She isn't sure what kind of damage
repeated contact might be doing to her body. She's got a great tan, at any rate.
Regular clothing doesn't prevent it. Maybe the sun is giving her cancer. Maybe she
doesn't really care.
From the start of “Heavenly Bodies,” you get the feeling that something is wrong, but you can’t quite figure out what. Kidnapping the sun should be a good thing, right? Having your own personal sun seems fun, doesn’t it? Throughout the piece, McLeod weaves dreamy, celestial words with gritty and a tough subject matter. By the end, you’ll feel as if the sun swallowed you too.
by Amy J.
“[H]ell is for those who dream in flight.” This is how Rogando ushers us into mythic, biblical word of “Poem In Which I Do Not Love God”: a speaker grasping to remember the passing wisdom of a you who is either a Lover who is Not God or a God who is Not Beloved, or both. You must be some kind of god, what with their command of celestial bodies, their authority to baptize, to declare themselves & our speaker lovers & have it writ. All the while, our speaker gazes up at you from a place of begrudged supplication, robbed—as so many of us raised young in the faith—of the “choice to convert.”
Rogando’s You is an unlovely God: a lover who commands, who belittles our speaker as one who “cannot comprehend light” without their aid, who tells our speaker when the earth will shake & whose violence shakes it so. Yet our speaker broils with a violence of their own; laments, “i wish i shook with godhood / how i wish i tore your foundation like body to bread.”
But the tools of our speaker are not teeth or scripture or spear—the tools of our speaker are flight & pretend. By the logic of Hell as a place for dreamers, to sin is to dream is to fly, & by the end of the poem, our speaker has taken wing. Our speaker gains dominion over the God who is Not Loved not by returning abuse, but by leaving. By ascending. By forgetting, until you wastes to nothing but “a word worn into froth . . . / a shapeless cloud / a petal drifting on light.”
by Sunny Vuong.
Both the falling and the flying weave effortlessly between the lines of Mandy Tu’s surreal and somber poetry. In a gentle eulogy, equally portrayed as an ode to love lost, Tu’s words compel her audience to consider the death of what once soared in raw, yet idyllic, stanzas. “We rest our heads. We wake up / hungry,” Tu writes, a confession to what remains of bloody nests and stained feathers. Tu’s work doesn’t shy away from pulling the reader startlingly close, and her entrancing use of language bares both matters of the body and quiet heartbreak.
In “An Altar For Our Love,” Tu depicts the aftermath of a quiet and decomposing heartache with the stark image of a long dead bird and its nest. With a reverence for the scene, Tu writes: “Close by, a pile of bones, dragged / and discarded. We bow our heads in obeisance, / hold a moment of silence.” Tu’s poem encourages her audience to hold still as her words sweep us under their silent and aching undercurrent of the malformed corpses of what remains of the things that we loved, “red as funeral roses.”
“Touch is tumultuous. / Too worn out / with mistakes / to get it right,” Tu states, hushed in her conclusion of “Touch.” Like a fleeting brush of skin against skin, Tu’s poem dances upon the meeting of harsh and jagged bodies against each other. With gorgeously feverish imagery, Tu writes tenderly of “girls with lips / like heliotropes” and the wearily burning contact of bodies made “of summer parts.” Mandy Tu’s immersive portrayal of touch pulls her audience into a similar trance of quiet, but slowly simmering, want.
by Kaitlyn Crow.
So, my immediate, first reaction after reading this piece? Wow.
“What Kind of Vampire Are You?” pulls the reader through a transformation so many of us know: the turn, from an Aeropostale-clad child to something darker, salacious, coaxed too young by an older man with wicked intentions. I felt the fire, the Chatroulette eyeballs. Crosbie’s use of call-and-response—“Who were you in a past life?”—brings the reader through this transformation so effectively I found myself asking, “How was I turned?” This effect is underscored by the title—Crosbie asks and answers within their piece, but also asks the reader to wonder for themselves.
The use of vampirism here is equally effective in threading the mood of this piece through each line. Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor played in the back of my mind while I read from call to response. Images such as “moon-laden skin / crawling with apparitions” and “your skin crawled to jaundice and gothic” amplified this mood, and I absolutely shuddered at “The way you softened / in his husky hands.”
Crosbie’s piece will find itself seared in your brain, but it will not be “grainy and gray like a graveyard when it rained,” no —instead, this piece will stay with you with the same immediacy as the raised hairs on your arms, the softness of your skin, or the horror of knowing of men who understand “too young” and just don’t care.
by Jonathan Louis Duckworth.
Doughty’s work of flash prose starts from a deceptively simple premise: the short questionnaires that in the Age of COVID have become ubiquitous features of health clinics and hospitals. However, beyond the opening question, which plays the concept straight, the piece wildly diverts from its quotidian premise. It should be noted, though, that while the end result of "Screening Questionnaire" is a surreal journey through the narrator/speaker’s headspace, the escalation that takes the reader from the tedium of screening questions to something entirely else is remarkably logical, in that each associative leap the piece makes is proportional and has clear linkages.
Throughout the piece, Doughty relishes the opportunities to laugh with and at language and its inherent absurdity. Doughty illuminates how so much of human language is reliant on dead metaphors whose literal meanings must be ignored, even outright buried, lest they disrupt the tenuous realities we attempt to forge with our words. Lines such as “Alternatively, crow’s feet that then grew bodies and took flight” demonstrate this. Doughty also has fun at the expense of the piece’s unnamed protagonist, whose journey from hypothetical existence (the “you” referred to in the questionnaire) to a very real existence is established through increasingly specific details, such as a beautiful description of a bathroom tap overgrown with lichens.
What is most effective about "Screening Questionnaire" is that despite the occasion and inspiration that created it, it feels more timeless than timely, not dependent on the reader being inside of the pandemic history bubble for it to have meaning and a capacity for exerting delight. This is down to the piece breaking away so entirely from its premise and becoming, as I mentioned before, something else. To paraphrase the piece’s closing question, “Isn’t that better than the alternative?
Review: Keshe Chow's "plantlove"
by Kris Hiles.
CW: sexual assault
On the surface, "plantlove" is deceptively simple. Reading through, one can easily miss the subtle layers built into the words. This a poem that speaks of trauma in a language of trauma, layers that are not quite metaphor. The words wander over themselves in a swirl that will swallow you, and, taken to heart, make you lose your appetite.
Alone, each section is powerful, but taken together, the nuance and complexity build. Flower images mix with food images, bitterness and violence mix with the confrontation of phrases like: I bet you didn’t think I was the type to cry alone in bathtubs, / or rub sugar in my wounds. The wrenching pain near the poem's conclusion also deserves to be acknowledged: I remember feeling sick, hiding in the closet / eating chocolate body paint with a spoon.