The poems in Alison C. Rollins’Library of Small Catastrophes(Copper Canyon Press, 2019) are vast and precise, covering topics from grief and personal loss to generational abuse and systemic discrimination. I read this collection in one sitting, so compelling was Alison’s incredible attention to detail and lyricism. Take these lines from “The Librarian”:
She thinks linguists build houses they can’t afford
to finish… //
She believes every throat is a call number.
Much as librarians can be trusted to assist with problems in any category, the reader can turn to these poems for wisdom in any of life’s difficulties. In these pages, the definition of “American” is broken down. The word mercy is given no mercy in dissection. A “dead mother’s house” is catalogued according to each item it contains. Rape and violation are placed in plain text and lamented.
One of my favorite moments in this collection is this small section from “Object Permanence”:
Only a god can take and give
time, but the one in front of
the gun lasts forever.
How poetic, and how sad; how ending another’s life reshapes reality, ending another’s existence forever.
Another powerful piece is “Oral Fixation”, a poem that unfurls a very personal history fraught with familial dysfunction and the troubled relationship the speaker has with their father, who is not faithful: “He washed his dirty work down with / nice cologne. All husbands acquire / expensive taste.” The remaining stanzas muse at the ways we’re shaped by what we don’t or can’t have.
To summarize my praise of Library of Small Catastrophes, I’ll use a line from another of my favorite poems, “All the World Began with a Yes”: “truth sets out to penetrate mysteries…” Alison’s work penetrates mysteries, unveiling understanding, experience, and advice for readers of all backgrounds and cultural identities. This collection demonstrates her mastery of content, creativity, and purpose; I highly and wholeheartedly recommend it.
Library of Small Catastrophes is available for $16 from Copper Canyon Press or your local bookseller or for free from your local library.
I requested a review copy of Nirvana is Hereby Aaron Hamburger (Three Rooms Press, 2019) and was thrilled when it arrived in my mailbox. The cover art is brilliant and loudly colorful, and it is among the first queer novels I’ve read. Warning: there will be spoilers in this review. If you don’t want any plot details, just know that I highly recommend this book to all who enjoy realistic fiction, Bildungsroman stories, and honest portrayals of queer relationships and romantic decisions.
Nirvana is Here is set in “the segregated suburbs of Detroit during the 1990s”, during the years when Nirvana achieved fame and rocked the country. The story is formatted in a now / then unveiling, where you get one chapter of current events followed by a much longer section detailing chronological events in Ari Silverman’s childhood and teen years. Within the first fifty pages, we learn that Ari was sexually assaulted repeatedly by a classmate and neighbor, and this early trauma shaped his subsequent school-age years. Hamburger fantastically presents the emotional and mental consequences of such a betrayal and depicts the failure of Ari’s religious community to take the assaults seriously, as is the case in so many real-world religious communities. The other significant story arc follows Ari in his attempts to become closer to his high school crush and eventual best friend, a heartwarming and bittersweet relationship that readers of all sexual identities can relate to.
Most moving is the growth of Ari and the clean weaving of his past horrors into an informative and mature handling of the awkward situation he finds himself in as an adult: his ex-husband, a professor at the university they both work at, is accused of sexual misconduct by a student, and Ari is on the decision board. Both timely and refreshing in its complexity, Nirvana is Here gets to the heart of matters and revels in the glory of accepting one’s against-the-grain identity.
Nirvana is Hereis available from Three Rooms Press or your local bookseller for $16 or your local library for free! Despite occasional typos and missing words, I wholeheartedly recommend this book. Thank you again to Three Rooms Press for the review copy. Well done, Aaron Hamburger.
The quoted section in this article refers to the Nirvana is Here press release.
George Abraham’s The Specimen’s Apologywas released earlier this year from Sibling Rivalry Press and is a glorious treasure. It’s chock full of art that adds beauty and depth, and it’s stylistically robust, which I was looking forward to after al youm.
These poems cover, as much of George’s work does, heritage, Palestinian-American identity, and place, themes which are both difficult to publish in today’s ever-increasing xenophobic climate, and which are so, so important and valuable to read. “we are taught, to have a body is to carry / its lineage inside of us” he writes. In “Post-Script: Against Consolidation“, he tackles the issues of land and war: “i want to write about my country & mean country… / something i didn’t have to cough out like praying with tiny flags caught in my teeth.” Both “[ counter/terrorism ]” and “ars poetica in which every pronoun is a Free Palestine” and achingly good; I read and mourn, read and hope, read and rage.
George is an expert poet; his poems are lyrical and burst with sound and delicious word choice. I am so grateful to look up to lines like “i found home in your type of empty” and “since this poem is about memory, it is discontinuous by necessity…”
He speaks to the humanity in us all with lines like “maybe i loved best the / rebellion of us” and “i know heaven / is a poem i survive / the end of…” He gets it, the multitude of contradictions, regrets, dreams, and concerns that make us human.
This review would not be complete without celebrating the unapologetically queer moments in this book: “Essay on Submission” sings with intimacy and complicated violence. In another poem, he writes, “he still // called me fucking queer & i have since / known queer to mean desire”. GodDAMN, George. Write on.
The scientific moments in this book — George is a genius and could talk circles around me about neuroscience and physics and the universe — are delightful, even if I’d need a manual on how to deconstruct them. There are charts, mathematical equations, pi, and 3D poem-play, and it’s fascinating. When something clicks for me, like the algorithm lines in “palestinian / queer specimen attempts to define an algebraic structure for his traumas”, it hurts.
George is clever and also innovative; throughout this collection, he coins new ways to combine two parts to become a greater whole.
The Specimen’s Apologyis available from Sibling Rivalry Press for $15. I highly recommend it to readers and especially writers of poetry.
Stephen S. Mills‘ third book, Not Everything Thrown Starts a Revolution, surprised me. It’s written in two parts: the first covers the end of an 18th-century New England woman’s life, the second details the ups and downs of modern day life in New York. There’s a lot of tragedy in these pages. People die, people are accused of crimes, people want to die, people suffer from such “suffocating heat / that anyone could go mad / anyone could go violent”.
“By the Numbers” takes an in-depth look at how many people have faced capital punishment in the U.S. prison system in recent years. The poem describes the living conditions of a cell, contrasts them with how in a brief 18-hour jail stint, “everyone was kind”, waiting to be released.
“The Drowning / The Confession” details the pivotal crime in the book: the heartbreaking practice where suicidal Christians committed “suicide by proxy“, which means they killed someone, often a child, so that they could be killed via capital punishment (think: hanging) but still have their soul go to heaven, since suicide itself was a damning sin. I won’t give away too much here. Read the poem. It’s brutal.
Another of my favorite poems, “This Isn’t Law & Order“, is a narrative piece, wherein the speaker is in court gathering “sighs and paperwork” and waiting to see a judge. The whole process is impersonal:
[T]hese faces aren’t Hollywood types.
The defense attorneys aren’t arrogant assholes
like they are on TV,
and the prosecutors are not all power and grace.
In fact, they’re mostly fumbling
glancing at details of cases they’ve barely seen.
No one knows your story. There’s no time for that.
And the poem speaks to the societal issues of ignorance, reluctance to change, and dissociation and alienation. We’re so caught up in this paradigm of “Don’t think.” We don’t connect truly to each other, and it allows, as this poem points out, people who work in retirement homes to continue abusing the elderly after being convicted of that very crime. When everyone is busy, we become anonymous. Interchangeable. Isolated. Depressed. Suicidal. It escalates very quickly.
“How We Became Sluts” is a masterpiece of a poem: seven pages of sex and disease and open relationship and love. How to navigate them. How to enjoy each moment. How to cultivate gratitude for what’s been gained and how to live in the gaps between memory: “We talk of bodies we want — / old times together — of changing landscapes. // We speak of anything and everything and nothing. / And tomorrow I will text you pictures / of me fucking a guy we met once… You will send me a smiley face — / or maybe a simple: I love you.”
This book is important because it is honest. It doesn’t apologize for reveling in taboo. It doesn’t glamorize depression or anxiety or suicide. It reminds us that “A body next to a body / is only a certain kind of knowing.” It shakes the human condition for answers, then resigns itself to paperwork, but it doesn’t forget to observe the journey. These poems teach and reassure and offer a hand back up. If we don’t learn to rely on each other, learn to make time for each other, learn to breathe and forgive and communicate and simply commune, the revolution won’t come. So let’s be painfully honest, so that we can “see the error of [our] ways” and change.
I just finished listening to The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid on audiobook. I’ve been traveling through her story for the past week and a half while driving and am finally done. I absolutely loved this book, even the embarrassing moment when my husband was in the car with me as a sex scene came on.
I loved this story so much more than I ever expected to — I rarely read romance and have very low expectations when it comes to anything whose title includes the words “Seven Husbands.” But I tried it on a friend’s recommendation (thanks, Mei Ling!) and cannot believe how much I loved it.
Without spoiling too much, I’ll summarize it as a story about a movie star — Evelyn Hugo — whose career started in Hollywood in the 1950s and whose fame and love life were legendary.
Her story moved me to tears numerous times: in heartbreak, loss, and the achingly tragic decision to keep her sexuality a secret. Having only recently learned that I, myself, am bi- or pansexual, I haven’t read, watched, or learned much about LGBTQ+ history. I love Grace & Frankie, RENT, and Kinky Boots, but beyond these glimpses into what life was like for queer people in decades past, I haven’t much considered how hard and absolutely unkind society was to those who were different, mostly because I’ve been too caught up in how society still discriminates against queer people.
This story, then, was the first time I fell in love with characters whose full queerness had to be stifled. And the best part of the book is that it is first and foremost a love story, as well as a story about friendship and family. The fact that some of the characters are queer is secondary to the main plot and overall importance of the story. And I love the book for that reason so much. Normalizing queerness is so important. The “point” of this novel isn’t to wave a rainbow flag (although there is absolutely nothing wrong with that, of course); it’s to simply be a good book.
My biggest takeaway from this book is to value my fucking time. I already live, or strive to anyway, with wild abandon, aware of how precious every moment and day is. But this book reminded me that love, passion, and pleasure are absolutely the most important things I live for. Of course changing the world and shaping politics and caring about others and the planet and being a good role model and having fun and and and… are all important too. They’re what gives my life meaning. They’re what connects me to my community. But if I were given only a day or two to live, I would want to spend every single fucking moment with my husband.
I happen to be one of the lucky ones; we’re almost six years in, and we love each other more than ever. Like, we loooooove each other. We’re hot for each other, and we’re proud of it. We spend so much time together every day and never get sick of each other. We’re passionate and sincere and in love. We don’t fight and haven’t had any arguments beyond getting annoyed about something stupid in probably over a year. And there isn’t a recipe to it. We aren’t somehow better than other people or anything. We just care A LOT about us. We’re hella compatible and we’re both aware of the imminence of death someday so we just refuse to fuck around.
And this book reminded me that every single day with the person I love is precious. Either one of us could get in a car accident any day. Or a serious illness. Or or or. And that’s terrifying, but it’s also sobering.
I don’t believe in an afterlife of any kind. If there’s anything “next” or if reincarnation is a thing, I won’t be me anymore. My consciousness is tied to my physical brain. My memories and emotions and “nurture” and perception and sheer existence are all dependent on my meat sack continuing to operate at full capacity. Sooooo my time is so important. And spending my time specifically with my best friend, my partner, my love is what I care most about. I have Evelyn Hugo (and Taylor Jenkins Reid) to thank for that much-needed reminder.
The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugois available from online booksellers and your local bookstore. Read it. Seriously. It’s so good. You’ll cry and laugh and rejoice and remember to live and love and be. A much-deserved (even if no one truly “deserves” anything) five stars.
4 stars: “Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World Without Rape”, a book of essays collected by Jaclyn Friedman and Jessica Valenti //
A number of these essays are amazing and helped me change my thinking and take on even more feminist, inclusive, and egalitarian views. This book takes on rape culture, sex work, misogyny, queerness, porn, sex education, consent, masturbation, the myth of sexual purity, and process-oriented virginity.
“Killing Misogyny” by Cristina Meztli Tzintzún goes into explicit detail about how even forward-thinking, “outwardly feminist” people can privately exploit the women in their lives; sadly, women are often encouraged to keep these instances quiet to “protect” the “good” men, instead of holding those people accountable.
Too many times in radical left circles, we uphold the image of the man who transforms himself from being hypermasculine and self-destructive to being hypermasculine and revolutionary, but fail to extend this same image to the scores of heroic, deserving womyn who have transformed themselves from victims of a life of subjugation and violence into radical, self-loving feminists who use these personal struggles as a catalyst to create radical social change… I believe we can tear down the walls of silence that maintain structures of misogyny and create safe spaces that are maintained through deliberate action, praxis, and love. [bold emphasis added]
“Who’re You Calling a Whore?: A Conversation with Three Sex Workers on Sexuality, Empowerment, and the Industry” is an amazing interview. In particular, I loved the sections that:
examined how sex workers also “commodify men”: (“I remember looking at guys in strip clubs and seeing dollar signs in place of their heads… You stop seeing men in the clubs as people — they are money in my pocket or not. I hate it when people assume that the only people commodified in sex work are the workers.”)
discussed how in an ideal world, clients would be polyamorous and have enthusiastic permission to sleep with / get a lap dance from / date etc. sex workers
how sex work can be empowering or exploitative (or both), and how this makes it similar to any other profession: (“An exploited woman is one who is not comfortable in her line of work, does not enjoy what she is doing, and is only doing it out of desperation, coercion, or because it seemed like the only way to make “easy money.” This feeling can be experienced by workers in any profession: ambulance chasers, attorneys, doctors, salespeople, et cetera.” However, because the stigma is much greater for a sex worker, an exploited woman would be… relegated to deal with feelings of shame and social rejection in silence.”)
the three women interviewed discussed being “particular and choosy” about what types of work they do and even what kinds of acts they will or will not perform or which clients they will be with
Another article, “An Immodest Proposal,” blew me away in its wholesome, gloriously-healthy dreams of how we could learn about and learn to engage in sex as young people if we only taught a different narrative than the current “It’ll hurt the first time” / “Save it for someone you love” / “Don’t have too many partners or you’ll be called a slut” bullshit teens are fed. This article made me a steadfast, vocal advocate for empowering sex ed for teens and young adults; I hope young people can enjoy good, honest, healthy, happy, communicative sex when / if they become ready. Women and girls have desires, and they are wonderful! Understanding them and learning to celebrate them is CRUCIAL to breaking down the patriarchal, religious, and oppressive cultural mores that I and so many others were raised under.
“Real Sex Education” by Cara Kulwicki also discusses how to teach teens about sex; my favorite section mandates that sex education doesn’t have to be graphic or “porn” to be qualitative:
“Letting teens know that women usually achieve orgasm through rubbing of the clitoris, whether with fingers, mouth, object, or penis, isn’t the same as screening an instructional video on giving good cunnilingus. It’s not the same as writing down the names of sex-toy shops on the blackboard or handing out diagrams of cool and exciting coital positions. And teaching that lubricants reduce pain and increase safety and pleasure during many kinds of sex should be thought of not as performance advice, but on par with vital lessons about condom use.
Real sex education… [teaches] that pleasure is an important part of any sexual relationship. It’s about teaching that there is nothing wrong with wanting to feel sexual pleasure and seeking it out, so long as it is done safely and responsibly. It’s about teaching comfort with one’s body and a lack of shame over desires, and that there is more to sex for all people than sticking penises inside of vaginas. Real sex education teaches how to go about making intelligent, safe choices, rather than just stating choices available… And I believe that teaching teens to make smart choices about sex must involve teaching them that having sex, partnered or alone, can be a smart choice.”
“A Woman’s Worth” by Javacia N. Harris dives deep into the realm of media, cultural expectations, and how women are wrongly judged for their “sexual value” rather than who they are (which can totally include their sexuality IF they want it to!). We need to take hard stands against content that demeans women, and we also need to “find ways to build ourselves up individually in the meantime” while we’re waiting for (and creating) art that empowers and celebrates women.
“Sex Worth Fighting For” by Anastasia Higginbotham looks at self-defense and encourages women to fight tooth-nail-and-voice against unwanted sexual advances, regardless of environment, company, or whether or not the advances are coming from someone you know or love. We can’t just envision a world where rape doesn’t exist; we have to combat it in our own lives and stand up for ourselves at all possible moments:
“We can learn to fight for sex on our own terms. Literally. With strong words, conviction, and certainty, with hands, elbows, knees, feet, and a “NO” so mean it chills the blood.”
This essay doesn’t victim-blame; encouraging women to stand up for themselves doesn’t mean that those who have been assaulted somehow failed, but it does demonstrate that we can RUN the very second that we feel uncomfortable, disrespected, or violated. I know that my own assault from someone I was dating is sticky because I didn’t ever vocally say no, and I didn’t leave. Instead, I froze up (which is an article of its own) and just mentally checked out, thinking that if I just let it happen, it would end soon. Had I read this article before that night, I might have been mentally prepared to say, Fuck it, fuck being polite, THIS IS NOT HAPPENING, and left with no explanations. I’ll never know for sure. But I do know that we need to say SCREW the societal expectation that women are supposed to be polite and smooth things over and take what’s coming for them. We are better than that, and good sex is worth fighting for.
“The Process-Oriented Virgin” by Hanne Blank is another of my favorite essays. It explores the notion that some people are redefining what constitutes the “loss” of their virginity; while I myself prefer to think about things in terms of sexual experiences rather than “losing virginity”, this essay is really important. Blank explains how some are discounting any sexual experiences where they didn’t orgasm or didn’t initiate or didn’t enjoy the encounter, etc. etc. The point is that these people are reclaiming what it means to become sexually active and are eradicating the notion that OTHER PEOPLE are the ones who decide when you “lose” your virginity; instead, she advocates for a new “cultural constant” that allows each person to subjectively decide when they have experienced sex. This is especially important for queer people, who don’t necessarily ever have penis-in-vagina intercourse, but who obviously still have sex — which they define and interpret. Enacting this definitive change “would change sexuality, gender roles, and maybe the world.”
I wholeheartedly recommend this book to anyone interested in dismantling gender roles, sex, and rape culture. I gave it four stars simply because I skipped a number of the essays and actively disagree with one, but I still think it’s an amazing collection and am a better person having read it.
The Tradition is Jericho Brown’s third book and second full-length collection. It’s a tumultuous collection where he plays with form, celebrates life, and braids together aspects of culture, childhood, violence, and transformation into a moving book. He juxtaposes violence with flowers and fruit. In “Night Shift”, he examines the painful intimacies of domestic abuse and the layered, contradictory emotions one might feel toward their abuser: “Midnight is many colors. Black and blue / Are only two.”
In “Correspondence“, Jericho specifically writes about wholeness and how violence affects one’s own psyche and self-perception:
I am writing to you from the other side
Of my body where I have never been
Shot and no one’s ever cut me.
I had to go back this far in order
To present myself as a whole being…
There’s a yearning to separate oneself from the traumas that affect them, to “cross back” and become “the one who leaps” (quoted from “Crossing”), to heal and begin the journey again, to reimagine what life is supposed to be like apart from brokenness and loss. In the collection’s final poem, “Duplex: Centro”, Jericho writes “None of the beaten end where they begin.”
The Tradition explores change — both how it shapes us internally and as a society.
I interviewed Jericho about this collection earlier this week.
Thanks so much for your time, Jericho, and for these incredible poems.
Thanks so much for doing this.
One of my favorite aspects of “The Tradition” is that it celebrates color and Black culture, from “The Card Tables” to the description of how fucking hardworking so many people of color are in “”Foreday in the Morning” to the line in one of the “Duplex” poems: “A poem is a gesture toward home.” These celebratory moments are interwoven with pain and institutionalized racism and grief, and I think this makes them that much more important. They exist in the landscape of the book as flowers, blossoming in the rocky, infertile places where it’s least expected. How do beauty and joy operate in your own life? Do you have any advice for others who want to grow and embrace joy despite their circumstances and hardships?
I do it on purpose. I mean I seek out opportunities for joy and for beauty. I really have a time in my day, usually right after my first meal, where I sit for a few minutes in front of the big window and decide that I like the color of a flower I see outside or the way it’s so nice that I have heat when it’s cold out. I lose my way here and there, but if I order the day like that from the beginning, it becomes incumbent upon me throughout the day to get really ecstatic about things other folks would think of as quite mundane. I means for more joy in my life, but it also drives other people crazy because I’m generally excited and excitable. Of course, I don’t care that my joy drives other people crazy.
“Entertainment Industry” is a painfully poignant poem about gun violence and our country’s lack of weapons restrictions. Why is reform necessary and how does a poem about gun violence fit in with the rest of these political and personal poems? How does the U.S. fail to value what it boasts about being able to protect?
Well, I think it fits because the kind of gun violence the poem bemoans is only committed by white people with very, very few exceptions. And white people somehow don’t get pathologized in spite of the fact that they are historically steeped in this sort of thing. I don’t think any peoples should be pathologized, but I’m fascinated that white people don’t considering some of the things white people and only white people have done and continue to do. It’s hilarious. And I’d like more white folks to notice.
Definitely. How can people be so overprotective of their kids yet fail to recognize that the threat of gun violence could largely be curbed by stricter gun restrictions? In fact, today, nationwide protests for gun reform are happening in schools. I hope so much that these students’ parents and families (including my own) pay attention and have a change of heart.
Okay, next question. I recently read “The Book of Unknown Americans” and – SPOILER ALERT – I was devastated by the ending, where Señora Rivera loses her husband. I cried for three days afterward, in secret, mourning for her loss and contemplating what my life would be like should my husband die.
Your poem “Of My Fury” explores this too, how beyond the normal dangers of living, your lover is at risk of being harmed or killed simply because of the color of “all / His flawless skin.” I want to be angry and decry the situational threat that our society assigns to people of color simply by living, by existing. It’s so wrong that this poem is necessary, and that this poem isn’t accepted by or understood by so many white Americans. How do you cope with these race-specific stressors?
Oh, I’m not sure I “cope.” I cry and think about ways I can do violence like any other human being would. I just haven’t gotten caught on a day or in a location where my wish toward violence ended up in anyone’s murder. It’s important to know that anyone of us could burn down or assist in the burning down of a Walgreen’s. Anyone of us could riot. And for good reason. Other than through my poems, I haven’t rioted. Maybe it’s just that I don’t want to go to prison, but even that isn’t the same as “coping.”
Your past books have also dealt with the themes of domestic violence and your own childhood (am I assuming that correctly, that you’re writing from experience in your poems about being young?). Every time I read one of your works about the violence and neglect you’ve endured, I ache. Is writing about these experiences cathartic at all? How have they been received?
Well, obviously, my dad doesn’t like them, and he thinks he should somehow be paid if it’s okay for me to make a career based of them. So maybe he would like them if I could get him some money for them. Or maybe that tells you all you really need to know about my daddy in terms his reception of my poems. My mother hasn’t said much of anything. My sister thinks it’s really good work but also has said she feels the need to shower after reading my work; she’s a filmmaker. I think some people like my poems, and some people don’t, and either way, it’s none of my business. I just want everyone to know the poems exist so they have them to consider. I don’t care how they land in terms of their reception of them. I only care that they have some reason to land in the first place.
I think every book I’ve ever written has helped me deal with that book’s subject matter in a more mature way. I think writing poems about having been raped in a way that is not as shrouded as it is in my earlier two books has helped me deal with that like a survivor instead of dealing with it like a person who did something that made me deserve it.
Wow. That’s powerful. Thank you for your vulnerability.
A few of these poems discuss the speaker’s mother, tenderly and fairly, but not always in the best light. I’m also very conflicted in my relationships – which are rapidly deteriorating – with all four of my parents. What, if anything, have you found provides comfort or helps you to cope and work through the hurt and disappointment of those relationships? Have you been able to find forgiveness at all?
It’s interesting you would say this because I think everything I say about my mother in this book is the kindest I’ve ever been to my mother in my life as a writer. Interesting. Maybe I’m not so nice to her in the duplex where she’s mentioned because she doesn’t get as much agency there, but in all, I think she’s quite a powerful figure in the first section of the book. It’s not so hard forgiving my parents since I don’t have to live with them and because I understand — as a person who continues to fuck up here and there — that they did the very best they thought they could do under their circumstance. More than that, I know they love me. At any rate, they’re really too old (and in some ways too feeble) for me to hold grudges against them. They aren’t really capable of raising hell the way they used to because it could quite literally kill them. They’ve mellowed, and I think they see that I’m okay, that I eat and pay my mortgage, etc.
That’s good to hear. And it’s particularly relatable. Thanks so much for doing this interview with me.
Thanks again for everything, Kelsey. You’re the best.
The Traditionwill be available in April 2019 for $17 from Copper Canyon Press.
Chloe Honum’s chapbook “Then Winter” was released from Bull City Press in 2017; I read it last year and reread it this winter, cherishing the intimate observations and vulnerable recollections of a stay in a psychiatric hospital. These poems offer solace and insight, equipping the reader with both empathy and knowledge of a time in the speaker’s life that was formative and very difficult.
Even though I’ve never been admitted to a psychiatric hospital, I’ve struggled with generalized anxiety and had several breakdowns, the worst of which was during the 2017 CUPSIs. And mental health breakdowns are, as you may know, atrocious and taxing and intense and heartbreaking. Winters, like RIGHT NOW, THIS WINTER, are especially hard for me (I live in Michigan). Seasonal affective disorder is bad. I can’t leave my house without layers of warm clothes and a hat and gloves and a scarf and boots, and I hate it. I’m tired of shoveling and scraping my car in the bitter cold. I’ve slipped dozens of times, and both my husband and I (as well as plenty of other people I know) hurt ourselves badly from falls. I miss hiking and being in the sunshine. I feel considerably less happy, and I know so many others are also grumpy and sad and so over winter. No wonder, then, that these poems take place in the grips of a snowy winter. And even without having experienced as severe a crisis as the subject of the book, I turn to these poems and am still able to relate and gain comfort, healing, and solidarity from them, and for that, I’m grateful.
Many of these poems are quite emotional and are tied to heavy moments; the details and snatches of conversation recorded in “Group Therapy” and “Early Winter in the Psychiatric Ward“, for example, place the reader squarely in the therapy sessions, hearing the difficulties of each patient, feeling the same heaviness and turmoil, longing for the same “miracle drugs.” In “Rest”, Chloe writes of wanting to rest with “dreams / like white petals absorbing ink.”
“I imagine myself in the ward above, for the more severe cases. I’m afraid I’ll float up and ask to be admitted,” Chloe writes in “The Ward Above.” For years, I’ve had troublesome thoughts about self-harm or intentionally crashing my car or of fainting and being found to have some sort of major health issue. They’re terrifying but also exhilirating, and the worst part is that I’m aware that they’re founded in a desire for attention, even if I know that it would not be a healthy kind of attention. These lines I’ve pulled from “The Ward Above” seem to carry the same weight; they’re an admission and a sudden desire, even if the speaker knows it isn’t actually desirable to have to be admitted to the upstairs floor.
This book also explores the concept of wellness and normalcy. “Maybe sense is not a place / I want to linger” she writes in “At America’s Best Value Value Inn in Crossett, Arkansas”. The book’s first poem, called “The Angel”, examines the othering that people with mental disorders or difficulties sometimes experience: “Since then, she has gone everywhere with me. / Occasionally, people see her and startle. They ask her if she’s all / right, but she speaks only to me…”
In “Note Home”, Chloe writes the beautiful line: “It it so important to go / on naming, even if all I said to you this winter was snow, snow, snow.” For me, it evokes the memory of my therapist teaching me of mindfulness. One way to combat mental wellness struggles is through meditation and a focus on being present. Some people count slowly; some pay attention to their breathing; others picture a place that helps them feel calm.
Mental wellness is a constant heave-ho, requiring work and emotional awareness that sometimes, we just want to ignore. Sure, yoga and getting enough sleep are crucial, but you have to be able to discipline yourself to do those things, and if you’re a parent or if you’re low-income or if something else in your life is a serious stress factor, it can be hard to do the hard work of maintaining good mental health in the first place. Thank goodness, then, for “Then Winter”, which reminds us that it’s okay to be in the off-seasons and to still be trying.
“Then Winter” is available from Bull City Press or your local bookstore for $12.
Camisha L. Jones’ chapbook Flare was released by Finishing Line Press in 2017.
Many of these poems employ metaphor and talk around “chronic illness”, which make them relatable for a wide audience. It also caused me to be curious about the specifics of how your life is affected and how frustrating it must be to live in world that is not disability-inclusive. “The Sound Barrier” is perhaps the first poem that gave me a concrete picture of the challenges that you face, as well as the reactions of others when interacting with you becomes “an inconvenience.” Could you talk about how accommodating disability (and living with a disability) “ain’t open to negotiation”?
The body wants what it wants. Needs what it needs. And I’ve become more and more aware of the fact that part of being human is being in relationship with the body you were born into. Others are in relationship with that body as well. I’m not always a good partner to my body. Sometimes it tells me “I need to rest” and I push through my to-do list anyway because being productive and driven is part of what society tells me it means to be successful and capable. I pay a price for that choice – a price that may put me in a pain flare for a few days, a week, sometimes more. And that’s the non-negotiable part of that interaction.
When I interact with others and say, “Hey, for me to participate fully, here’s what I need” – that too is non-negotiable. If the need is captioning for a conference call and it’s not provided, then you get less of my presence and participation. You get less of what wisdom and skill I might contribute. And if that sort of thing happens repeatedly, you send a strong message that my full engagement is not valuable to you. Accommodation – whether it’s the work I do for myself or the work others do to ensure my full participation – is not just about the concrete shifts in how things are done but also how one thinks about bodies that interrupt the perceived norm. We can think of those interruptions as a nuisance or we can see them as opportunities for personal and societal growth.
What are ways that everyone can react to and anticipate needs of people with hearing loss or difficulties?
In terms of event planning, I’ve actually posted a list of tips on my Facebook page. Here’s some of what I share there that’s relevant to communicating with someone who’s hard of hearing:
It helps if you are facing them and for your mouth to be in clear view. Be mindful not to cover your mouth while you speak.
Be mindful of how fast you speak. Slow your pace down a bit and try not to cram your words together. Enunciate but don’t over-enunciate unless requested to do so.
It’s helpful to check in periodically by asking if the person heard what you said.
Try not to get frustrated by being asked to repeat yourself.
Be willing to write down what you’re trying to communicate if the person has trouble understanding you.
Sometimes, especially for people who wear hearing aids, the issue is clarity, not volume. Ask which is helpful before shouting.
Minimize or eliminate background noise when possible.
Most of all, be patient and realize every person’s needs are different. Ask what will be most helpful (in advance where that’s appropriate) and be willing to respond accordingly.
Absolutely. Being patient and ensuring that you are communicating kindly instead of getting irritated or exasperated is really important to demonstrate dignity and respect. 🙂
There are poems about other types of illness – lupus, a cell mass that wasn’t cancer, even the scars earned from childhood accidents. “Good health” is something that is too easily taken for granted. How does writing about these ailments transform them?
Diagnosis can be traumatic. When a doctor told me a few years back that I had lupus, my mind started spinning. One of my very close friends has lupus and I am very familiar with how the disease can affect a person. My mother also died of an autoimmune disorder that she suspected to be lupus. Quite frankly, I didn’t feel I had the courage for what might be headed my way. I wrote my way through the fear. It shook me to my core. I used writing as an outlet to work through how I was feeling mentally and emotionally. Giving voice to all that uncertainty, fear, anger, lingering grief from my mother’s death, it offered a release. Holding it in would have been toxic and without writing through those experiences, I think it would have been like holding my breath – denying myself a chance to exhale and inhale again.
Years later, my doctors are now not sure if what I have is lupus and I am stuck in a place of uncertainty. Naming a thing doesn’t heal it but having no name for it is certainly not better. When the medical industry doesn’t know what to call your condition, it can at times serve to invalidate that experience. Writing, in a way, gives me an opportunity to “diagnose” what I’m going through for myself. It allows me to name what I am experiencing in the truest terms I know and thus validate that experience for myself. I believe those acts in themselves to be good medicine.
In “Haunted”, you discuss how “beloveds… sip [your anxieties] & complain of its bitter.” I know that when I was incapacitated for several months with West Nile virus, my mother was by my side, helping me walk to the bathroom, bringing me cool washcloths for my fevers, cooking for me, and comforting me. How do your interactions with your support network help you live with your difficulties?
My spouse, Anthony, is my biggest supporter. All these health changes began within our first years of marriage – as we were both figuring out what it meant to be married and the roles we would play in that partnership. He holds most things down on the home front so that when my fuel runs low – and it does very quickly – I can take time for self-care. Rest is critically important in managing both Meniere’s Disease and fibromyalgia. Striking the right balance is still very hard for me and, with Anthony’s help, I’ve been able to do a lot more than I’ve imagined I would be able to over these last 5 years.
A thing I wish for within my support network is to have folks – including myself – become fluent in sign language. It’s a beautiful language and it would be such a relief to have a way to communicate that isn’t dependent on sound. When I am going through periods of hearing loss and distortion, it takes a lot of extra energy to keep up with conversation and many variables, like background noise, make it even tougher. I’m anxious for the day when I can just say whatever needs to be said with my hands and converse with others without worrying about words I didn’t hear.
What projects or plans are in store for you now that “Flare” is published?
My husband Anthony and I are in conversation about projects we might do together. Through his company, SKIES THE LIMIT Entertainment, we’d like to find ways to combine my poetry with his skill as a videographer, visual artist, and DJ.
Thank you for sharing such personal information and stories. I look forward to reading and possibly watching or viewing more of your work!
Flareis available from Finishing Line Press for $15.