Wednesday, December 20, 2023

 Sugar Suggests—Mini Reviews from Sugar House Review Staff

The Descent

by Sophie Cabot Black

(Graywolf Press, 2004)

If you’ve ever been asked to describe a momentous event and found language wanting, consider this collection. In The Descent, Sophie Cabot Black distills love and loss into a tossed coin that refuses to land. The poetry equivalent of espresso, it makes everything else taste like soy latte.

—Neil Flatman

Quiet Orient Riot

by Nathalie Khankan

(Omnidawn, 2020)

This astonishing debut collection quietly traverses the embattled landscapes of Palestine and infertility. Khankan takes us from border crossing to border crossing, seeking motherhood while wrestling with the promise of sovereignty—for both body and country.

—Katherine Indermaur

The Kingdom of Surfaces

by Sally Wen Mao

(Graywolf Press, 2023)

Every line in Sally Wen Mao’s new collection of poetry oscillates between veneration and evisceration, calling her readers to the bodies of history (ancient Chinese and other) through bowel, breath, and skin. Her sisters “comb their hair, / part it sideways to promise a lifetime of celibacy.” 

—Shari Zollinger

Something I Might Say

by Stephanie Austin

(WTAW Press, 2023)

Stephanie Austin writes in a unique, authentic voice with such seeming ease that I know it is, in fact, her craft and skill that make it so, as the subject matter of multiple losses coupled with caretaking during the pandemic is incredibly difficult to write about effectively. If you're in for personal essay with emotion, you'll be in for this short, but not small, book. It has everything a reader needs.

—Natalie Padilla Young

In the Hands of the River

by Lucien Darjeun Meadows

(Hub City Press, 2022)

Meadows’ debut reads like a queer love letter to Appalachia. Like a good lover or a good trail through a beautiful place, these poems—rich with texture and image—will leave you thirsting for more. 

—Katherine Indermaur

American Scapegoat

by Enzo Silon Surin

(Black Lawrence Press, 2023)

Enzo Silon Surin’s works from American Scapegoat make you feel like you’re witnessing a poetic speaking in tongues. He portrays the human experience through the Black experience in brilliant stanzas, giving tribute to Black activists, poets, and victims of systemic racism. Speakers punch through reality and tell stories that overwhelm with their power and reverence. Surin’s voice, and the voices he presents must be heard and acknowledged in this “postscript of a furious sweat.”

—Clarissa Adkins

Tuesday, December 19, 2023

Lying In

by Elizabeth Metzger
(Milkweed Editions, 2023) 

Reviewed by Katherine Indermaur

Elizabeth Metzger’s second poetry collection shows us what it looks like when new life starts with the threat of death. Lying In sparks with vulnerability. It pierces through the rose-colored glasses our culture so often slips over our faces when we talk about motherhood. Lying In is an especially important book in the wake of the US Supreme Court’s ruling last year that abortion is no longer a right guaranteed for all Americans.

The titular phrase “lying in” refers to several periods of time around childbirth, from physician-ordered bed rest before the birth to the forty-day period after giving birth where, in many indigenous cultures around the world, new mothers are encouraged to recover by staying mostly in bed. As Lying In opens, Metzger begins with the former experience. While on bed rest, she writes about her son in utero: “In bed what time has done to me is / what it cannot do / to him.” She stays immobile for as much time as her son needs to develop and become ready for the world. The cruel math of parental sacrifice begins. The opening poem moves quickly through labor and birth to milk coming in. In the aftermath, “in some ways I am gone,” Metzger writes. The new life—both the baby’s and the mother’s—subsumes the old.

Perhaps surprising to readers who haven’t experienced postpartum mental health challenges, having a baby doesn’t guarantee the new parent a reason to stay alive. Those hazy and all-consuming first few months often raise more difficult questions than they answer. In “First Wound Kept Open,” Metzger asks:

Of everyone I’ve met 
on earth I always find
they got here first
and will they teach
me their good
reason for staying?

Yet in “Patient Mentality,” the speaker’s medicalized body seems built for persistence: “the voluntary nature of staying alive seemed / obvious / against the red ladder of my body.”

The pregnant, postpartum, or nursing body are a miraculous site not just of creation, but of constant threat and mystery. There is a black box quality to being pregnant. The womb isn’t even that safe or welcoming of a place for new life. In a 2021 episode of the public radio podcast Radiolab, reporter Heather Radke described pregnancy as “a cage match” wherein “on one side is the pregnant person, and on the other side is the fetus. And… in the corner, rubbing the shoulders of the fetus, is the placenta.” For Metzger’s speaker, the memory of that cage match lives on into the new child’s healthy life outside the womb. In “Not My Child,” she writes, “I wish / I could tell why my body appalls me // even though you have thrived. / Nobody died / but that’s just the luck of it.” Luck, black box—the illusion of control over one’s body is stripped away by pregnancy, and it is never fully restored.

Similarly, parenthood is no great force of certainty—no final, true answer. In Metzger’s and my experience, it opens you up to more ambiguity than you knew was possible. “The edges of your death are smudged and round / like ash or a watch / whose accuracy is the least of its worth,” she writes in “The Impossibility of Crows.” New life colored by death. And whether anyone actually died—death’s “accuracy”—is relatively unimportant to these poems’ speaker. Instead, this book upholds a different yet deeply honest kind of worth.

While reading Lying In, I kept thinking about Annie Lowrey’s 2022 Atlantic essay, “American Motherhood,” where she reflects on her two life-threatening pregnancies. In America, “one in five pregnant people experiences a significant complication. And one in 4,000 dies during pregnancy, in childbirth, or shortly after delivering, including one in 1,800 Black mothers,” she writes. Lowrey’s pregnancies left her “disabled, a word I am still struggling to come to terms with. They put my life at significant risk.” In other words, life-threatening and -altering experiences with pregnancy like Lowrey’s and Metzger’s are not uncommon in America. 

In perhaps my favorite poem of the book, “Mother Nothing,” mother speaks to child:

You made the water you broke.
You made me sicker than I could stand
to live a little longer.
For every night there is another night I’ve missed. 
Maybe it is my ambivalence
about being outlasted.
Whenever you are in your crib
my life feels final, or like it has never been.

But this isn’t the last word on the subtractive math new motherhood performs on our lives. There is, somehow, abundance. In one of my favorite images of the book, the speaker of the poem “Desire” says to her partner, after putting their children to bed, “What could you possibly do for my body / when I am in two // separate rooms, / breathing?”

Katherine Indermaur is the author of I|I (Seneca Review Books, 2022) and two chapbooks. She is an editor for Sugar House Review and the recipient of prizes from Black Warrior Review, the Academy of American Poets, and Colorado Humanities. Her writing has appeared in Ecotone, Electric Literature, Ninth Letter, The Normal School, and elsewhere. She lives in Fort Collins, CO.

Sunday, December 17, 2023

As If Fire Could Hide Us

by Melanie Rae Thon
(Fiction Collective 2, 2023) 

Reviewed by Michelle Donahue

Imagine, for a moment, a consciousness that senses all beings. A vibrant presence that whirls from person to bird, from a stone on the forest floor to a deer with her head craned toward the sky to feel the warmth of sun or brisk whisk of rain. Before reading Melanie Rae Thon’s As If Fire Could Hide Us, I’d thought such a feat impossible, to craft such expansive and multiplicitous perceptions on the page. But journeying through Thon’s newest book is to be immersed in the terror and unyielding beauty of the earth and all its very alive presences—wind and water, bird and girl. 

As If Fire Could Hide Us creates its expansive consciousness through three thematically entwined movements. The first and longest section, “Orelia, in hiding,” follows a twelve-year-old girl who, on impulse, runs away from home and experiences the treacherous wonder that surrounds her. In the second section, “The 7th Man,” a prison guard must rehearse for inmate executions and witnesses a particularly prolonged and horrible lethal injection. In the final movement, “The Bodies of Birds,” a girl killed by a car crash is resurrected to become many humans as her organs find homes in new bodies. In each section, characters hover on the rough, raw edge between life and death, witness the chilling thrill of living, and inhabit a place of interconnected beings, which is to say the world with all its wondrous tangles.

Just as the narratorial perspective of As If Fire Could Hide Us is expansive, so too is the book itself. It is at once multiple sorts of texts; the subtitle describes it as “a love song in three movements,” and like a song, Thon engages image and sound to generate meaning beyond mere narrative. Italicized fragments like “white horses break and rise / rise and shatter” and “thought streaks as foam / across the ocean” meander through the pages and offer fleeting moments of sensory impressions. Key moments return again and again like a haunting chorus. The book begins, “I remember birds / or the shadow of birds / hundreds of hearts / trembling through my body,” a moment that chronologically likely occurs toward the end of the first section, when Orelia finds herself suffering in a forest, wounded from what might be called an accident. This moment recurs throughout her section, when she “slept or died,” when her “memory now leaks into the earth… now becomes the forest,” and so becomes a resonant and haunting refrain.

Some might call As If Fire Could Hide Us a novel, and certainly that capacious, heteroglossic genre could contain such a text. Though the work moves beyond narrative, compelling stories lie at its heart—a girl who seeks adventure and finds companionship and violence, parents desperately looking for their missing daughter, a man reckoning with the grim realities of his job and capital punishment, a girl who has died but finds continued life. These are certainly memorable stories.

Others might call the text hybrid or experimental, as it plays with form, mixing lineated, lyric sections with paragraphs, playing with white space and grammar. In “The 7th Man,” the only punctuation marks are colons and em dashes, a choice that keeps a reader galloping forward to the piece’s grizzly end, “I wasn’t hurt—I could crawl—I could stand—left leg weak but I could walk—I could climb—find a stick to support—." There is no time for breath in such utterances, no chance for singular stillness. The punctuation too has an effect that suggests an equality between pieces: “you can’t scare me now: I am always afraid”—a suggestion that both statements are equally true, that one can’t be frightened, not ever, not now, and also: one is always frightened. 

Others might think of the book as long-form poetry given its imagistic leaps through space and perspective, a text more interested in resonances between moments than providing straightforward context. In one instance we are with Orelia: “Here I am: in the fog, in the rain, flowing under the West Seattle Bridge—” and then the next we are swung to where “raccoons run / on the roof / even now / do you hear them,” a moment that is not as easily placed chronologically or spatially. The effect is that it feels as if Orelia and the raccoons are together, that because we are given knowledge, awareness of them both, that they exist intertwined, and it doesn’t matter where the raccoons run or where Orelia hides, because, yes, even now, we can hear them, girl and raccoon, creating their spectacular sounds. Such is the power of Thon’s words, of her chosen structures and echoing voices.

With all this talk of genre, I fear I’ve fallen into a familiar human trap. A tendency As If Fire Could Hide Us resists against—to categorize, to forge separations between entities, to believe such things are meaningful or even real. In a text where a girl becomes a forest, becomes multiple humans in death, distinction isn’t very meaningful. For we live in a world of connection, of multiplicity, an ecology of consciousness, of animate and inanimate forces—stone and human, the judicial system and winged bodies. As If Fire Could Hide Us is at once all genres, an experiential rumination whose form embodies its spiritual teachings, illuminates what we too often forget—the cosmos of connection in which we exist and the ramifications of this knowledge. For to be a being intertwined with others is to be one existing forever with compassion and empathy, to be an agent whose actions unfurl onto others, for good and for evil. May we remember this as we move through our world, may you, dear reader, cherish this as you live and laugh and vote and make choices. If I haven’t convinced you of this essential, ponderous, and wonderful connectivity, Thon’s words will. As If Fire Could Hide Us is a beautifully singular read; it will change your life—don’t miss it.

Michelle Donahue is an assistant professor at UNC Wilmington, where she is associate editor of Ecotone. Her prose has been supported by the Kentucky Foundation for Women and published in Passages North, CutBank, and Arts & Letters, among others. She holds a PhD in creative writing from the University of Utah.