Tuesday, July 9, 2024

What Small Sound

by Francesca Bell
(Red Hen Press, 2023) 

Reviewed by Dion O’Reilly

What Small Sound: Francesca Bell’s Radical Acceptance 
Francesca Bell, who has been writing luminous poems for decades, published her sophomore poetry collection, What Small Sound. As in her debut, Bright Stain—also from Red Hen Press—Bell studies the complexities of womanhood, motherhood, violence, loss, sex, and beauty. Bell’s speaker grapples with varieties of loss as her hearing fails and her children struggle. At every step, she plumbs depths of grief, often framing it with excruciating beauty, bringing her losses into sharp relief. Finally, the speaker appears to sit quietly, to breathe into her mix of pain and pleasure, to accept what she cannot change.
The text opens with a tough poem with a lovely name, “Jubilations.” The first line tells us, “Every two minutes, an American woman is raped.” Sexual assault happens in the time it takes to “tear / this organic tomato to its pulpy center and bite in, / letting juice run down my chin, stinging.” For five more stanzas, acts of violence are braced against moments of joy and appetite, but the final image, with a nod to Whitman, settles the argument: “OMG. OMG.” says the speaker, “Thank You for this world of green grass and suffering.” 

“Jubilations” sets the book's tone, a kind of radical acceptance, an existential openness that is acutely aware of both trauma and ecstasy. Often, the final lines of her poems enact this acceptance, as in “Proofs,” where another mother contemplates her helplessness to save her son: 

    No woman who had lain after fullness and felt love tickle out of her 
    could have said, Let it be done to me according to your word. 

    Had she felt life unfurl inside her, or a child tear its way out, and then waited, 
    a wide wound, as her body closed, she would never have said, 

    Give me the child already nailed in place, destined to run with the scissors of His         life
    pointed up. Let Him breach like a great whale beneath the dome of my stretched-        taut 
    skin and force His way out of this slit husk. Behold. 
    I am the handmaid of the Lord. His strange carapace. 
    The useless shell that cannot save him. 

In this poem, awareness of parental helplessness is brought into the archetypal, the mythic, zooming out to wider history and culture, which is not only poetry’s great work, but also a way to grapple with unthinkable loss. As always, the speaker acknowledges physical pleasure—if not god-like awe—that may precede or exist alongside hardship. Despite the mother’s archetypal suffering and ambivalence, she has “lain after fullness and felt love tickle out of her.” 

Other poems in the collection are more focused in the first-person voice of the speaker. As in “Right to Life,” which appears shortly before the poem above and is in conversation with it: 

        It’s like hiring a hitman 
        —Pope Francis on abortion 

    I know what you are, 
                little hitman, little cherub, 

    snuck up into me, 
                swum past my barriers, 

    implanting like a movie mobster who 
                takes a person hostage from the inside. 

    You merely tap your unformed foot, 
                and my body bursts into symphony, 

    blood volume cranked dizzingly up 
                breasts swelling in fiery crescendo. 

    Nausea slams me forward, 
                just like your father liked me: 

    a body bent double to take him. 
                I’m on my knees, little one, surrendered,

    vomit heaving out of me like prayers. 
                I know, O, I know the life you’ve come for. 

Of course, the central idea is philosophical. The pope sees abortion as murder, but becoming a mother—as we have seen with Mary’s “carapace”—is also a kind of death, a kind of possession, a taking, even from the moment of conception. Many women acknowledge the joy of sex and the glorious aspects of pregnancy, how the body “bursts into symphony,” yet still sense a parasitic possession, similar to the “implanting like a movie mobster who / takes a person hostage from the inside.” Seen that way, abortion is a form of self-defense. Here, still, there is a brand of acceptance, perhaps a lack of agency in the face of deific fate, as the speaker is on her “knees … surrendered, // vomit heaving out of [her] like prayers.” 

This speaker relents to harsh realities, finding ways to express the difficulty (and sometimes joy) of being shoved against the immutable. Whether it is facing hearing loss in the titular poem “What Small Sound,” where Bell exquisitely compares approaching deafness to the spectral moons of Jupiter, and “bears witness to this deafness / that expands imperceptibly, the way the universe, they say / is expanding.” Or when discussing her daughter’s return from the mental hospital in “Taking Your Place,” the speaker admits she is irrevocably altered—perhaps possessed—by her daughter’s illness and suicidal ideation, saying, “But though you’ve returned, / I’m not coming back.” This helplessness and openness in the face of what is works well when contemplating the realities of motherhood, aging, illness, and death. As devastating as it might be, we understand we often cannot change our children’s suffering, cannot stop them from doing their worst. Indeed, constructing incisive metaphors and narratives from such experiences is a way to wield some control through deeper understanding. 

At one point, Bell’s narrator wields this acceptance, this lack of agency, while contemplating stereotypes of social-justice culture. In “Containment,” a syntactically masterful one-sentence prose poem, the speaker enacts a fragile inner narrative in the face of imagined, tweet-like accusations of her white culpability. 

    When the man sat down next to me at Starbucks, need coming off of him like a        pheromone, I was quiet, having read, more than once, God save me from the        well-meaning white woman, for he was a person of color—I wasn’t sure which        color, but not a fucking white person like me—and maybe I was profiling him,        maybe I was an asshole and had already offended the black woman who said I 
        could share the table but packed up her things when I sat down, leaving me to        chew my dry, multigrain bagel thoroughly like the stereotype it was until the        man asked quietly, from his place to my side, if I could buy him a cup of coffee,     his face open the way a wound is open I worried he was hungry, my son is        always hungry I had an appointment to get to and handed him twenty dollars     from the stack in my purse and heard him order coffee and his bagel with cream     cheese, and the black woman came back and sat down just as I walked out, my     tears overflowing like clichés. 

Perhaps this could be an opportunity to challenge or explore social containment, the speaker’s feelings of helplessness in the face of it. It can feel like people are defined by their mistakes, ostracized, more than ever, and that is terrifying. After all, all of us— caught in a racist system—are more than clichés, but the speaker’s fears combined with the current divisive milieu have transformed a seemingly benign situation into something nefarious. 

It is easy to see how the poems in What Small Sound speak to each other as the speaker grapples with accepting what happens to her and the ones she loves. The speaker comes to terms with different modes of nurturing, the marks that giving leaves on the giver, and how we are shattered by life and reformed. Perhaps my favorite moment of radical acceptance occurs in one of the final poems, “Perimenopause,” where the aging female speaker shaves her chin—as many older women do—while contemplating her changing mind and body, both of which are increasingly prone to break open, her “tears / unchanneled and at the slightest provocation.” 

    Last week, in the produce aisle, a man 
    I’ve never been drawn to hugged me, 
    his hands warm the way a pilot light 
    is warm, its staid flicker merely dependable 
    in the dusty window of a hot water heater, 
    but I danced to life like a kerosene 
    slick touched by the sweet carelessness 
    of a match and stood there, helplessly burning. 

Francesca Bell’s speaker is often ‘helplessly burning’ in the fires of life; in the heat of pleasure; and in the unthinkable pain of death, aging, sexual violence, or a child’s mental illness. These poems are a lesson in crafting the “sweet carelessness of the world” to remain, despite everything, completely alive to it.

Monday, July 8, 2024


by Angelique Zobitz
(CavanKerry Press, 2024) 

Reviewed by Dayna Patterson

Angelique Zobitz’s debut poetry collection Seraphim is a singing, searing book. It centers on the experience of Black women in the US, weaving an intergenerational text of suffering transformed, of survival, and of sanctity. In a white supremacist society bent on regulating and subjugating women’s bodies, especially Black women’s bodies, Zobitz affirms that what is deemed profane has been sacred all along: Black women’s lives, their words, their desires, their sexuality, their spirituality. Her work actively combats Misogynoir, a word coined by Black feminist Moya Bailey in 2010 to describe the combination of misogyny and racism aimed at tearing down Black women. Zobitz’s poems dismantle Misogynoir by depicting, again and again, the complexity and multidimensionality of Black women, and by following bell hooks’ proclamation that self-love and loving Blackness are radical, revolutionary acts. Zobitz gives her readers the gift of a poetics of love and praise for Blackness, particularly the Black women who raised her and whom she is in the process of raising (i.e., her daughter, a.k.a. “The Revolution”). 

From the opening pages of the book, readers quickly gather that the seraphim in the book’s title is a metaphor for Black women. Zobitz dedicates the collection “to the Seraphim,” but especially to her mother, Katrina Page, who passed away last year. In the epigraph to the book, we learn from Dionysius the Areopagite that seraphim are a very particular kind of celestial being, one known for “their heat and keenness, … their intense, perpetual, tireless activity, and their elevative and energetic assimilation of those below, kindling them and firing them to their own heat, and wholly purifying them by a burning and all-consuming flame; and by the unhidden, unquenchable, changeless, radiant, and enlightening power, dispelling and destroying the shadows of darkness.” Seraphim, then, are angels of fire who elevate others and purify them through a kind of burning, which destroys darkness. Heat, light, fire, and burning are recurring themes throughout the book—from a cold winter with a stingy landlord, to the heat of burgeoning sexual desire, to the pyriscence that releases seeds from their cones—and the epigraph prepares readers to be on the lookout for these themes, this particular temperature of holiness.  

The collection is divided into four sections, following a loose chronology, from the birth of the central speaker in these poems, through her childhood, young adulthood, and into adulthood and motherhood. The first three poems, “Sister/Seraphim, Inextinguishable Light,” “Angelique, an Origin Story,” and “Love Letters to The Revolution No. 1,” introduce readers to the main characters of the collection: the seraphim, the central speaker’s mother, the speaker herself, and the speaker’s daughter, “The Revolution.” We also get a sense of the questions at the heart of this book: who/ what is holy, and who gets to decide? 

The first poem readers encounter seals the notion that Black women are the seraphim to whom this book is devoted. In “Sister/Seraphim, Inextinguishable Light,” the speaker describes “Black Barbies backlit by gas station fluorescence // stunning—singing holy, holy, holy.” Here we see Zobitz unifying the ordinary—or what has been labeled ordinary or profane—with the holy. The speaker in the poem not only describes the gas station seraphim as sacred as they dance in a sensual way, but also her own desire. She observes: 

    She—her—they—they blazing. 


    This could be worship. 

    Loud and exuberant as every light-

    leached club where I once got hot and sweaty 

    to reggae, rubbed underneath some body 

    as vigorously as kindling before catching fire. 

    It could be easy to forget how 

    good adoration feels (I can’t forget), 

    what good feels like (paradise). 

    They so flame and I see it. 

In this first poem, not only do readers meet the seraphim, but we’re given to understand that the “elevative” purifying fire they bear is exuberant, joyous, musical, and sexual. Their fire is powerful enough to spark a reaction in the speaker, but also bears destructive potential. The speaker continues: 

    It could be heaven. 

    This lot of half-leveled bumpy concrete 

    glittering full jeweled with bottle shards and 

    wrapping paper confetti.


    They could burn it all down. 


    They invite us to join the chorus. 

We as readers are invited to join the chorus, too, invited into this maybe “heaven,” this potential “worship.” We’re invited into Zobitz’s enactment of Black love and anti-misogynoir. 

Subsequent poems “Angelique, an Origin Story” and “Love Letters to The Revolution No. 1,” introduce the reader to the central speaker, “Angelique,” and the speaker’s daughter, grounding the collection in the speaker’s literal and figurative ancestry. In “Angelique, an Origin Story,” there is a sort of Black Mary in the speaker’s mother, but this Mary “didn’t need divine / messenger to convince her of what she carried, knew immediately // that I didn’t need to be brought into this world by virgin or conceived // as sacrifice. Didn’t need a sign—she knew a good thing coming.” Even though the mother is a teen “nearly as young as Mary,” she recognizes divinity in her child: “My mama said, a punk // girl can dream of angels and know when one manifests. / She said she looked into an angel’s eyes and claimed it as her own.” Thus, we have a central speaker named after angels in a book about angels. Her young mother’s fierce love and act of naming and claiming holiness reverberates in numerous poems in which Zobitz names, claims, and pronounces holiness: from family members to memories of former lovers, from pop culture icons like Wendy Williams and Whitney Houston to the ambrosial delight of Big Ma’s buttermilk biscuits. 

Another crucial figure in this poetry collection is the speaker’s daughter, “The Revolution.” In “Love Letters to The Revolution No. 1,” and in a companion poem that appears at the end of the collection, “Love Letters to The Revolution No. 2,” Zobitz establishes a literary ancestry for herself and her daughter (and, by extension, all Black women). In both poems, she braids together, cento-style, the words of Black feminist writers and thinkers into what reads as advice letters to a young Black woman, representative of a future generation of Black women. Zobitz draws lines from poems by Gwendolyn Brooks, Toi Derricotte, Nikki Giovanni, Margaret Walker, Sonia Sanchez, Rita Dove, bell hooks, Ntozake Shange, Lucille Clifton, and Audre Lorde—powerhouse matriarchs. These poems remind us that, in the words of Rita Dove, “If you don’t look back, // the future never happens.” Zobitz affirms, by looking back herself, that she is built on the words and ideas and love and community that came before her, and she extends that love and community to her readers. 

Throughout Seraphim, Zobitz offers poems of Black love, including self-love. In “Sermon: On the Sanctity of the Beauty Shop,” the speaker declares: 

    I’m a whole broken woman. And just because I came in one way 

    don’t mean I’m not God-made woman, don’t mean I can’t be 

    transformed, don’t 

    mean I don’t sit at the right hand of the Father—look at this 

    crown on my head. 

In “Aide-Memoire,” the speaker echoes this same affirmation of worthiness, of sacredness: “the body is flesh imperfect yet unbroken / here now made for slow soft worship, good and worthy as gospel / resilient as negro spirituals sung next to the one you love.” 

As a white woman reading Zobitz’s work, I acknowledge that I will never fully understand what it’s like to be a Black woman, especially in the US in the era of #BlackLivesMatter and #SayHerName, where police violence and brutality disproportionately affect Black people; where hate speech and discrimination are common, even celebrated in some parts of our country. That said, reading and rereading the poems in Seraphim move me closer to empathy and compassion, and help deconstruct my received notions of divinity and the sacred. Through the pyrotechnics of her poetic voice, combined with her wisdom to name, claim, and pronounce holy numerous aspects of her life and history, Zobitz invites readers into revolutionary/revelatory Black love.

Sunday, July 7, 2024

Women’s Voices from Kurdistan: 
A Selection of Kurdish Poetry

Edited by Farangis Ghaderi, Clémence Scalbert Yücel & Yaser Hassan Ali
(national Press London, 2021) 

Reviewed by Steven Barfield & Alan Ali Saeed

This slim, elegantly presented bilingual volume of Kurdish poetry translated into English and created by the Exeter Kurdish Translation Initiative is likely to appeal to anyone interested in women’s lived experiences and how they has been woven into the memorable lines and resonant images of poetry. It is worth noting in advance that it also includes two male Kurdish poets, who wrote positively about Kurdish women’s experience and served as important proponents of feminist values: Hêmin (1921–1986) and Fayeq Bêkes (1905–1948). If Kurdish women’s lived experience is often distinguished by a sense of oppression, then it is also one that engenders female solidarity and fortitude. This is perhaps summed up in one of the final poems in the volume, “The Secret,” which moves deftly between the metaphorical and the literal. 

Gulîzer (1979–), a Turkish Kurd, uses a deliberately non-patriarchal pseudonym and has published several collections with Avesta in Istanbul. She remarks in her lyric “The Secret” (“Raz”): 

    I entrust each of my broken parts 

    To a woman close to me 

    I know 

    Women always have a chest 

    For the safekeeping of these parts cherished and broken. 

The book is innovative, covering a wide selection of diverse Kurdish poetry from the 19th to the 20th centuries that has been translated for the first time. Usually, the poems were written originally in one of the Kurdish dialects (the book covers work in Gorani, Sorani, and Kurmanji), as well as Arabic. There are nine poets represented in the volume. It makes no claim to be representative in the broader corpus of Kurdish poetry as its focus is only on the work of women or those male poets who advocated for women’s rights and value. It is pioneering in highlighting women’s poetry, rather than the more familiar work of Kurdish male poets. 

For those interested in assessing this marginalization, Ghaderi and Scalbert Yücel’s useful introduction offers notes to various PhD dissertations and critical essays on the subject of Kurdish women’s poetry for the English reader. The volume demonstrates not only the poets’ attention to issues such as war, conflict, and oppression (an unavoidable aspect of the Kurdish experience), but also a focus on gender discrimination, as well as themes drawn from everyday aspects of female experience, such as family, intimacy, fantasy, and romantic love, which are arguably less predominant amongst the concerns of Kurdish poetry written by men. 

Kurdish is a minority language. It has only relatively recently become recognized as an official state language in Iraq. Little has been translated into English and, in addition, literary translation is hindered because its native speakers fear they lack fluency in the target language of English. Ghaderi and Scalbert Yücel organized workshops around a co-translation model in which Kurdish native speakers of different dialects worked with a translation editor or a co-translator to polish the English versions of the poems produced. This is a productive model for the translation of literary texts from minor languages into major ones and where the number of native bilingual speakers is restricted. 

The collection is a broad selection of Kurdish female voices that presents poems of real quality and distinction. We suspect readers will find themselves wishing for more poems from the poets anthologized here. Many featured poems excel in their lyrical depiction of personal experience while also speaking to general aspects of human experience. For example, Mestûre Erdelan (1805–1848), who wrote in Gorani, is represented by a beautiful and moving elegy for her husband, Khosrow Khan. The elegy’s final lines, “How I wish the throngs of blossoms would be destroyed / and poppies would yellow with aching hearts,” remind us how grief often involves unhappiness and anger that the world goes on despite the loved one’s death. The poem’s setting in spring, a time of yearly renewal, seems especially cruel to her, because her late husband loved this time of year. Hêmin (1921–1986), a celebrated Iranian Kurdish poet, is represented by “Memory of Shirin,” which manages to start as a seeming love poem to a Kurdish woman but becomes a bold, anthemic argument for female empowerment and education: 

    Even if we have thousands of clear-watered rivers like Zê, Gader and 

    Lawên, life’s springs will be muddy if women are not free. 

    Slavery is outdated, dear Kurdish girl! 

    Rise, awaken—it is not the time to sleep! 

    Break the door, rip the veil, run to school. 

    The remedy for the Kurdish malady is education, education. 

Fayeq Bêkes (1905–1948) was from Iraqi Kurdistan, near Sulaymaniyah. In the poem “Nasrin,” the speaker addresses a woman he empathizes with because her subordinate position fills him with a burning sense of injustice because the Kurdish project of inclusive nation-building cannot simply ignore and leave women behind. The speaker warns Nasrin that she is “chained, your life is oppression-filled” and implores her to “throw away the veil, there’s no shame in that.” He views the Islamic veil as an emblem of her oppression by patriarchy. 

Jîla Huseynî (1964–1996) from Iran wrote in both Persian/Farsi and Kurdish and is 

represented by both a dream poem about a man she loves, or could love, “When I Dream About You” and “Question,” a poem about what it means to be a woman across the generations: 

    My mother’s worn scarf 

    Does not leave my head alone. 

    It says: ‘I am your grandmother’s.’ 

    It might have been her grandmother’s too. 

Diya Ciwan (1953–present), was born in Turkey and moved to Syria in 1975, but she now resides in Iraq. “The Needle” is a humorous poem, seizing on an object associated with women’s work (by implication the so-called trivial nature of such domestic work in men’s eyes), which Ciwan turns by an extended argument into a powerful symbol of affirmation. The needle for her is empowering and more valuable than one of the famed Damascene swords traditionally beloved by male warriors: 


    For as long as there is light in my eyes 

    I shall never leave her, 

    or swap her for the Sword of Damascus.

Tîroj (1959–present), a pseudonym of the Iraqi Kurdish poet Hana Mohamed, has written in both Arabic and Kurdish. She is represented here by two passionate love lyrics that depict the speaker’s state of mind and challenge the idea of the woman as being only a passive, decorous object of love for man. In “From the Glow of Imagination” the speaker remarks: 

    I broke my pen 

    I tore up my pages 

    And set them on fire 

Trîfa Doskî (1974–present), also from Iraq, writes in Bahdinani Kurdish and offers daring and often passionate lyrics, several of which are represented here. However, she also channels love poems into elegiac depictions of the grief and survivor guilt that inhabit Kurdish culture after the Anfal and the calamity of the wars against Saddam Hussein’s regime. In “Widow’s Hopes,” a woman laments her dead lover: 

    The homeland has become a mass grave, 

    and I cannot put down by my foot anywhere, I fear I’ll step 

    on your head; oh, you who once slept in my arms. 

    So I panic. 

Viyan M. Tahir (1983–present) from Duhok Iraq, is probably the most contemporary of the Kurdish poets represented here, as her first volume was only published recently in 2020. Her two poems are visceral explorations of the conditions of love from the woman’s point of view and the difficulties and passion of amorous relationships. The female speaker is caught in the tumult between the desire for amorous surrender and the preservation of her identity. In “Ego,” she remarks to her lover: 

    Every second of my life 

    Is clogged with your colour. 

    I try so hard to empty myself of you, 

    I want so much to rob you of myself, 

    So you get drunk on my cupful of love. 

The book is a fine sampler of Kurdish women’s voices, that in the end will leave you wishing there were more from each of these poets. As readers we can only hope this anthology will inspire a publisher to commission a significantly lengthier volume, allowing more of the work of these and other Kurdish poets to be read by English readers in translation. 

Steven Barfield was a British academic for most of his career, teaching
principally at the University of Westminster, London. More recently he has been
an educational consultant, and has taught, mentored, and advised throughout the
Middle East. Now largely retired from teaching, he remains a researcher and is a
visiting research fellow at London South Bank University.

Alan Ali Saeed is associate professor of English literature at Sulaimani
University, Iraq. He has a BA from Sulaimani University (2004), an MA (London
University, 2009), a PhD on Bergson and British modernist stream of consciousness
women's writing (Brunel University, 2016), and a PGCHE (Falmouth, 2021) in
university teaching. See his publications here: Sites.google.com/a/univsul.edu.iq/

Saturday, July 6, 2024

 Sugar Suggests—Mini Reviews from Sugar House Review Staff

Love Letter to Who Owns the Heavens

by Corey Van Landingham 

(Tupelo Press, 2022)

This book meets the moment with prodigious intelligence but, more importantly, with the biggest heart. Drone warfare, long-distance romance, divinity, and art all meet Van Landingham’s eye.

—Katherine Indermaur

Bedtime Stories

by Steve Langan 

(Littoral Books, 2024)

Langan's poems are an embattled form of mindfulness in the age of too much. These poems address the ceaseless noise with self-awareness—that we are all an active part of one problem or another. The book is built from lines that are a form of moving forward, and the knowledge that sentiments such as “life will never be as good / as it is right now” are both a distress call and a prayer.

—Nano Taggart

Come on All You Ghosts

by Matthew Zapruder

(Copper Canyon Press, 2010)

Zapruder is a man who (famously) believes that when you want to say a thing, say it how it is; don’t slather it in unnecessary metaphor. Digression, unvarnished memory, and an ability to step into the lives of strangers are all to be had in a collection that occasionally left me floored—as in the poem “Journey to the Past.”

—Neil Flatman

Daughter Isotope

by Vidhu Aggarwal

(The Operating System, 2021)

Daughter Isotope is like teleporting into an alternate universe. These poems contain everything an alt world should: pop culture, action-packed language and lines, fast

food, innuendo, grief, mythical and religious story, science, space, tech—and let's not forget the rainbows and unicorns. “As stars blow apart so do our virtual mutualities, so do our mutual virtualities, so do our visceral / municipalities, so do our muchacho virilities.” 

—Natalie Padilla Young

Second Empire

by Richie Hofmann

(Alice James Books, 2015)

The lyricism here is astonishing. This collection’s jewel-like poems interweave incisive observation—of urban and natural landscapes—with confessions and epiphanies alike.

—Katherine Indermaur

Like Love: Essays and Conversations

by Maggie Nelson

(Graywolf Press, 2024)

Poet and critical essayist Maggie Nelson draws from twenty years of a writing life in Like Love: Essays and ConversationsEach chapter, set chronologically, includes

reviews; conversations; and—what Nelson does best—razor-sharp reflections on queer issues, art, and love. There exist only a few, Nelson being one, who can use the word love without issuing a single cliché.

—Shari Zollinger