Review: All The World Beside by Garrard Conley

Review of All the World Beside, by Garrard ConleyRiverhead Books, 352 pages, $28, Publication Date: March 26, 2024

Review by Brian Alessandro


Though Garrard Conley’s transcendent debut, All the World Beside, is ostensibly about an eighteenth century gay love affair between Arthur Lyman, a physician, and Nathaniel Whitfield, a reverend, the novel is chiefly concerned with the nature of desire and the salvation of the soul.


The story unfolds in Cana, Massachusetts amid the Puritan push for utopia. Arthur is married to the bold, scandalous Anne while Nathaniel’s wife is the accommodating, unwell Catherine. Both men have children. Arthur’s daughter, Martha, and Nathaniel’s daughter, Sarah, eventually become friends by way of Anne’s engineering, but it is Ezekiel, Nathaniel’s son, around whom the plot is framed. His letters to Sarah, years after the central events of the novel, anchor the story, providing an additional layer of tragedy.


We soon learn that Ezekiel, named after the prophet who saw the demise of Jerusalem, is answering for the sins of his father through exile. While Nathaniel is away with Arthur, Sarah becomes possessed by righteousness and castigates the citizens of Cana who are swayed by a swindler selling watches. She scolds them for their pagan proclivities, claiming they have become Satan’s puppets, especially her father who sins with Arthur, and her mother who hides his sin. Sarah feels responsible for the town’s great awakening. The Great Awakenings—a succession of religious revivals led by evangelical Protestant ministers that gripped believers throughout the early eighteenth century and into the late twentieth century—play a central role in the novel.


When Ezekiel’s mother calls a group of French sex workers “nobodies,” Ezekiel internalizes the notion of a “nobody” as someone without a home, free to do as they like, including finding a home as they see fit, a “terrifying and exciting” prospect. We learn that Ezekiel was cast off to the hinterlands because he would not betray Nathaniel and Arthur, his “two fathers.” In his quiet despair, Ezekiel questions a “God who has created such impossible conditions.”


Conley does not hide his numerous parallels to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter or Arthur Miller’s The Crucible: pilgrim judgment, shunning, damning ostracization, banishment, and the weight of mortal transgression, along with the characters’ names themselves. The novel intrigues and mesmerizes with its density of complex histories, scandalous pasts, tormenting secrets, and haunting lies.


Conley’s revelatory 2016 memoir, Boy Erased, also dealt with the cruel and ignorant things people do in the name of religion, but with compassion and insight. Homosexuality and Christianity coexist in an uneasy arrangement in Conley’s personal world, as in his fiction. The characters treat each other with care, tenderness, and concern for their well-being. Even Nathaniel and Arthur are protected and loved by their families and communities.


All The World Beside is largely a meditation on the simplicity, beauty, and goodness of nature and faith, despite the pain both cause. The characters are at the nonnegotiable pull of a wild will and its demands, as well as the imagined expectations of God. The punishments doled out by religious law seem unreasonable, even draconian, but in Conley’s view, these are the products of fear and reverence. In a moment of the metaphysical melding with the scientific, Nathaniel says to Arthur, “You said wounds allow love to enter the body more freely.”


Conley’s voice is clear but ambiguous, gentle but never coddling, and firm but not merciless. His spare language is imbued with an assurance that disarms with its sincerity. The novel was born of Conley’s conversation with his Missionary Baptist father, and a subsequent objective to prove queer people existed and even thrived during the 1700s. The eighteenth century was the Age of Reason, after all, and enlightenment meant privileging science over blind faith. These dualities are at play in the relationship between Nathaniel, a man of faith, and Arthur, a practitioner of medicine. Nathaniel is responsible for the town’s spiritual health while Arthur bears responsibility for the inhabitants’ physical wellbeing. The soul and the body intermingle. The divine and the material parry.


By virtue of the milieu and period, Conley tells an elemental story about faith and nature, free from civilized constructions and cultural touchstones. The focus here is on engagement with God, with imagination, with the soil, and, finally, with each other. Still, there pervades a din of the superstitious, the anxiety of bearing a mark and being damned, the devil lurking in the shadows, ready to claim his due. “The devil never forces a hand. He is cleverer than that. He tempts.” Nature itself possesses evil, or at least, indifferent properties. But God is everywhere too. The divine is a constant presence and a perpetual promise, a goal to work toward, and a pleasure to be earned.


The love shared between Nathaniel and Arthur feels like an invention, even if the men discover that their shared feelings are all too familiar. Theirs is the possible start of a freer land, one of not just national possibilities but also a sexual renaissance. “We just invented it,” says Nathaniel to Arthur. “Never before has another man done what I have done or felt what I have felt. God did not create this. It is not natural. It is not divine. It is nothing but what it is, here in this bed.”


Though the families keep their secrets, Nathaniel and Arthur’s love harms them. Sarah, in her rapturous call to duty, believes that their sin prevents the salvation of the town. “A town must be safe before it may be saved,” claims a parishioner named Priscilla. Conley maintains nebulous motives for his characters, especially the men’s families. Do they keep the secret of the affair to protect their husbands and fathers, or to protect themselves? To ensure the awakening unfolds unsullied, or to preserve the fantasy of their faith? Catherine tells Sarah, “Men have the power to change. Women cannot change, not really; they have no such luxury, but men change all the time.”


All The World Beside’s bittersweet tone is perhaps best captured by Catherine who, overcome by her family’s lot in life, laments, “There is life yet to mourn the loss of beauty.”


Conley ends with an academic postscript that rigorously assays the hidden history of LGBTQ life. He so expertly evokes the eighteenth century that the modern thoughts and words of the closing essay stand as a jarring contrast and pointed reminder of where we’ve been and where we are. In the end, Conley tells a story that feels ancient but somehow new, and he does so with grace, restraint, and generosity. His characters are as alive and urgent today as they would have been over 250 years ago, and the world, though changed, remains in many heartbreaking and healing ways, the same.


Gator Country: Deception, Danger, and Alligators in the Everglades 

Review of Gator Country: Deception, Danger, and Alligators in the Everglades, by Rebecca Renner

Flatiron. 276 pp. $29.99 

Review by Samuel Zammit

Equal parts true crime and an exploration of Florida folktales, veteran journalist Rebecca Renner weaves together a thought-provoking nonfiction debut with Gator Country: Deception, Danger, and Alligators in the Everglades. Renner quickly delivers on the promise of the book’s provocative title, sharing truths more thrilling than fiction as she intertwines impassioned narratives and dispels myths surrounding conservation.


Gator Country follows the story of Officer Jeff Babauta, his involvement with Operation Alligator Thief, and his grappling with morality as he completes one last job. Despite being the action-packed story of a Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) officer going undercover to catch alligator poachers, Gator Country also presents difficult philosophical questions, bringing painful truths about poaching to light. As Renner tracks down Babauta, and their narratives collide, the book dissects the real lives of poachers, humanizing them in stereotype-shattering ways and calling the law itself into question. As Renner says, “The poachers in my life would balk at the idea that they’re hurting nature. They love nature.”


Renner draws on her experiences to bring to life the parts of Florida that only a Floridian could, and she makes careful use of her upbringing. Unpacking Florida storytelling motifs, Renner deciphers the tales of her fellow locals in ways an outsider might misunderstand. As such, Gator Country takes readers on an intimate romp through Florida swamps while simultaneously taking them on an undercover mission that feels like something pulled from the pages of a thrilling spy novel.


The story of Operation Alligator Thief, alongside Renner’s search for another folk hero of the swamp, Peg Brown, are delicately intertwined. Like a gator sinking beneath the surface, the reader is transported seamlessly between worlds: Babauta’s tale of the past and Renner’s hunt for the truth about Peg Brown and other seemingly kind-hearted poachers like him. Ultimately, these parallel stories converge into a bittersweet and satisfying conclusion for one of the biggest busts in FWC history.


Renner takes care to discuss the indigenous people who have had their land stolen, the impact of man on nature, and the truth about what realistically drives people to poaching, all of which stands in stark contrast to the cartoonish images of the British on safari at the turn of the century that readers might conjure when they hear the word poach. She highlights the positive and negative ways that humanity has interacted with nature and the livelihoods of their neighbors. Renner tells the story not only of nature, but of the people who have shaped and been shaped by the natural world.


Gator Country is a book for anyone looking for the juicy mess of reality in pages so suspenseful they read like fiction. In the end, Renner writes about the blurry morality of the law, friendships, betrayal, loyalty, and family, all while expertly building toward the crescendo of the true villain’s reveal, all of which gives way to an incredible ride and a riveting read.


Review: All Bird: Brandi George’s The Nameless

Review of The Nameless, by Brandi George. 
Kernpunkt Press, August 2023, 199 pages, $18.00
Review by James Brock.

The late Dean Young famously instructs poets, “We are making birds not birdcages,” in The Art of Recklessness, expressing a gravity-defying Warner Brothers Cartoons ethos and New York School surrealism. Young committed to those ideas since his days as a graduate student (and one year as a nursing student) at Indiana University, some forty years ago. His ideas about recklessness broaden the scope of poetry, embracing creative processes that are truly disruptive, chaotic, comedic, and thrilling. (Anne Carson, Thylias Moss, and Denise Duhamel were busy with their own poetic larcenies those days as well.)


Meanwhile, there lived a punk-goth farm girl, haling from Ovid, Michigan, with living visitations from faery tale creatures and Old Testament demons; a Lady Gaga little monster who survived exorcisms and sexual abuse and suicide; a love-wrecked and love-worn lovechild of Walt Whitman and Thumbelina; and, eventually, a professor and Ashtanga practitioner. She would write unlikely long books of poetry, improbably to have them published. And that poet, Brandi George, has now gifted us with an incredibly demanding, rewarding, pleasurable, harrowing, and funny book of poetry, The Nameless. It is a monumental book that is all bird.


Part bildungsroman, part memoir, part enfevered vision, part nature study of fungi, and so, so much more, The Nameless is also the work of a serious, careful versifier, one whose mastery of iambic meter is as light and feathery as hydrae. It is also a book that runs some 200 pages, a visionary accomplishment published by Kernpunkt Press—a press that must be praised for its faith in the most unlikely.


Structurally, The Nameless operates ostensibly as a memoir, divided into two sections, and subdivided into short, individual chapters. And while one is to distrust the autobiographical in poetry as being merely factual, clearly the effort here by George is to construct a poetic record of her life. The speaker in her book is self-identified as “We”—and while that first appears to be a nod toward a gender-neutral self-naming, the “we” who speaks is a dissembling of voices, polyphonic, amorphous, and morphing. This expansive idea of self, certainly Whitman-like, finds its operative metaphor in the mushroom, in fungi. Yes, inside the pleats of the cap of a mushroom are ungendered spores, where 10,000 individuals can fit on a pinhead, and a single fungus constitutes the largest organism on earth, covering an expanse of over four square miles.


George’s “We” constitutes a self that is wracked with auditory and visual hallucinations, an identity we might consider as post-structurally fractured or profoundly schizophrenic, but one that becomes a representation of the poet, a being who is something of a receiver, without the usual filters, who hears the language of air and death in everything and who must then sing.


The book begins with death, where We, as a child, is the victim of sexual molestation—her parents instruct her to forget it—and, from that moment, death’s spores enter We’s body:


                          so now when we
completely forget      it Happened

the Thing forms      a fairy ring
inside our body     Now Death

lives inside us

Invariably, then, Death attends, embodies, and accompanies We through the book—a fact of her life that she has long been taught to ignore and deny. And, of course, in Ovid, death is everywhere, within and without, but with the promise of change and metamorphosis. For We, this means enduring an exorcism at her parents’ behest, the parents convinced their adolescent daughter is possessed by demons. They burn her poems. The irony, it seems, is that We is indeed possessed, but by Death in all its recombinant manifestations.


The book chapters are often prefaced by George’s brilliantly fractured tales of Thumbelina dying a new death with each iteration. We clearly identifies with Thumbelina—the strangest of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales—whose queer desires and chaotic imaginings are continually corrected by her elders. George’s Thumbelina is “genderless, many-faced, guiltless, green, and as mysterious as twilight,” a runaway spirit who meets death recklessly, fully, casually, and intentionally.


And in this large book, there are abundant touchstones for We beyond Thumbelina: Kurt Cobain, tarot cards, success and the po-biz, and even animal husbandry. This is a poet’s memoir, after all, a testimony of the empathetic spirit, and here, with death living inside her, We’s empathy is almost debilitating. She feels too much (and this seems to be her chief sin, at least by her family’s reckoning). For instance, We recounts her work at a dairy farm, where her job is to separate the male calves from the female calves, after which the baby bulls will be sold for veal:


back in the barn we try to console the new calf
name him     Bocephus    after Hank    but without his mother

                                            he’s petrified
trembling    we hold him to our chest like a child

           his grief is so deep we can feel it    glacial    nothing will ever
absolve us of this


As much as We disassociates herself from her family, from middle-America banality, and from the grind of capitalism, she is inescapably complicit. Where others in her family and community routinely deny responsibility, she feels it keenly—it is the death in her. The poet’s task, it seems, is to receive everything, to name it, to own it.


Even so, much of the book is doomful, doleful love poetry, a tribute to We’s beloved Annette, an equally wild spirit (and later to We’s husband Michael, who co-authors several poems in the book). Here, the poetry is tender:


In the backyard we practice
flipping our hair
She-Ra mermaid rock star
it’s our thing hair      then eyes then

will we ever be beautiful?

          our longing for beauty is
crush of petals down our shirt
     leaves under our feet
dandelion heads on the sidewalk
                       sunburn like a hand


So, amid all the chaos, the disorientation of hallucinations, and the broken wheel that is the self, George’s reckless poetry continually finds its purchase in these fleeting moments. This unguarded work seems the very product of Muriel Rukeyser’s question: “What would happen if one woman told the truth of her life?” The world that Brandi George has split open contains all the invisible names of death, all the fecund beauty we long for, and a billion seeds that will germinate from the dead.


Review: Undress, She Said by Doug Anderson

Review: Undress, She Said by Doug Anderson
Four Way Books, September, 2022
$17.95, 102 pages
Reviewed by Thomas Page

Undress, She Said by Doug Anderson Cover

What would happen if someone were to break down our stereotype of the male poet, the one spending his time typing away at his keyboard about his problems with his body and those he wishes to share it with? Doug Anderson seeks to find this answer in his latest poetry collection. Undress, She Said is a vividly crafted poetry collection that takes the reader down the path of the traditional masculine poet-voice and his relationship with his sense of place. This sense of place forms the backbone of the collection’s debate about how pride, sexuality, and memory impact the mind of a man in a war-dominate society. Doug Anderson opens with “Prophesy,” setting the stage for the theme of accepting fate that is pervasive throughout the collection. In support of this theme, he writes,


“There is a storm coming,
clouds opening, closing their fists.
No point in boarding up the house” (3).


The speaker in this collection is subjected to a variety of influences that make him desensitized to the many problems of the collection’s world. Undress, She Said is divided into four parts that talk about each of these influences: “Love in Plague Time,” “The War Doesn’t End,” “Homage,” and “Mythologies.”


In “Love in Plague Time,” Anderson writes about the convergence of religion, morality, and desire that complicate how the speaker interacts with his world. This is the longest section of the book and serves as a “part 1” to the collection’s themes. The content of the poems in this section ranges from mental health (“When the Plague Came”) to sexuality (“Masturbation”). This section is imbued with the apathy that comes from a life conflicted between what the speaker wants to do and what he should do. For example, in “Skeleton of Water,” Anderson toes the line between these two ideas, writing,


“I was a failure as a libertine, always falling in love,
lacked the detachment of a true rake, drank to hide
my heart’s anarchy, the knowledge that the angels
I wrestled with were divine” (30).


His technical approach in this section is to alienate the voice from his world through various snapshots of his past. The focus on the past self and the present voice helps to characterize the kind of voice that will be taking the reader throughout the reflections in the rest of the book. The speaker discusses how life in an idyllic setting can make him feel ostracized by his own people.


Anderson centers these themes of morality into the realm of military veterans who come from his society in the second section, “The War Doesn’t End.” This section is primarily focused on veterans from the Vietnam War and how the war has affected their lives. In the title poem “The War Doesn’t End” Anderson reflects on a mixed-race solider he meets in Ho Chi Mihn City after the war has ended, saying that the soldier is:


“Mixed black and Vietnamese, unwelcome here,
unwelcome there, son of a soldier gone” (65).


This “soldier gone” forms the narrative backbone of this second section as Anderson navigates through the indoctrination the Marines received (“Killing with a Name”) to how this allowed them to inflict turmoil on others (“Somewhere South of Danang, 1967”). Anderson demonstrates his narrative skill in his poetry through the lyrical story his voice tells in this section. He also connects the speaker’s problems with his life before in “Love in Plague Time” to the lack of interest in the problems of “The War Doesn’t End.”


The two sides of the speaker—the apathetic citizen (“Love in the Plague Time”) and the desensitized Marine (“The War Doesn’t End”)—melt away and meld in the third section of “Homage.” Anderson spends most of this section in conversation with Li Po, another poet, about how his life’s two previous phases have affected him. He reflects on his aging (“Homage to Li Po”) and how that affects his ultimately nihilistic outlook on life (“Anonymous Civil Servant, T’ang Dynasty”). However, in “Two Poets Drinking,” Anderson realizes that this line of thinking is destructive and that being a part of a relationship is vital to survival:


“He keeps me from stepping off the cliff,
I catch him when he falls.
And fall he will, as will I” (79).


The speaker’s journey throughout this section is to destroy and rebuild who he was in this life, revealing the ways he is trying to be a better person. The conversational form of the third section serves as a paradigm shift in the collection’s overall tone and theme. Indeed it is the bridge of the collection’s lyrical structure.


Anderson ends his collection with “Mythologies,” a contemporary reflection of the themes of Greek mythology and Biblical stories with the themes and settings discussed earlier in the book. Some of his subjects are Odysseus (“Cyclops”) and Adam. In “Survivor,” he combines the legend of Circe with the setting of a strip club:


“I saw my men in that topless bar
that Circe ran, throwing their
combat pay up on the stage,
her tucking the bills in her g-string” (96).


He circles back to the themes presented in “Love in Plague Time” under the guise of using myths and stories to reexamine the themes of alienation. The section and the collection ends with “Age is Asking Me to Give Up Love.” Much like the cyclical nature of myth, Anderson says,


“Might be easier if love gave me up.
It won’t, nor has it sublimated
into something holy” (102).


Anderson’s text is striking due to its streamlined lyricism and juxtaposition of the natural and artificial. This is well-exemplified in the line  “I was shocked, thought in our madness you’d bitten my lip. But it was only blueberries” (82).


Undress, She Said will stand out to readers through its varied reflection of the male poet within the last century.



Review: Marble Orchard by Emily Corwin

University of Akron Press, May 2023

68 pages

Emily Corwin’s third full-length book of poetry, Marble Orchard, subverts expectations of how we talk about anxiety and depression. This graveyard is divided into four sections that tackle mental health issues and physical ailments: “delicate as organ,” “my black sleigh,” “the wicked accident,” and “a field walks through me.” Each of these corresponds to a different framing style: a formal presentation of “lunacy,” ekphrasis of film, a collage of voices overheard, and the ekphrasis of paintings.


Though ekphrasis, the use of art as a framing device, is often used as a tool of distance, in Corwin’s latest collection, pieces feel personal and universal. One notable piece, “Kat Harvey,” named after the protagonist of the 1995 Casper movie, is a portrait of the namesake character:


to go. Dusty star anise, eyebright, the rosarian says,

good morning. And you, what were you like as a living thing?


I’d like to make contact. Can you hurt me? Can I hurt you?

Slither with me to the Lazarus machine, primordial muck.


I’d like to see you not see-through. Can I keep you? Earthy as a

cabbage rose—my woody perennial, my mortal slow dancer.


Corwin uses “Kat Harvey” and Casper to consider the separation of the mind and the body, and resurrection after a physical and even metaphysical death. The poem uses the movie to craft a painting of herbal medicines such as “dusty star anise,” that suggest healing properties. Death is only addressed with a rhetorical question: “What were you like as a living thing?” The biblical reference to Lazarus, the name of the machine designed to bring Casper back to life, arises again as “a/ cabbage rose—my woody perennial.” Here the reader may note “perennial” is a type of plant that comes back to life every spring and could signify the cyclical nature of mental health struggles.


The opening section of the collection, “delicate as organ,” begins with a bang and contains some of the most compelling pieces in the collection. Its first poem, “Lunatic as Abecedarian,” sets us up thematically for the rest of the book. The speaker of these pieces, “lived against it – a/ brutal music; I lived in it in/ clinics, in dresses disposable.” This section examines “lunacy” and “lunatic” by employing a myriad of forms that challenge us to reframe our relationship with these words.


Corwin is at her best when she deconstructs and rebuilds the world around her. In one of her “Lunatic as Erasure” pieces, readers see an “erasure of Fluoxetine medication guide” that takes medical packaging to create a portrait of what it is like being on an antidepressant.


“there may be            change in mood, behavior,

actions, thoughts, or feelings, especially severe.

acting on dangerous impulses”


Corwin captures the possible contradiction of antidepressants, stabilizing mental health—while potentially delivering terrible side effects. She notes, “if you take too much, call poison control,” highlights the fiction between pill as “medicine” and hazard.


The “wicked accident”, which consists of a multi-page poem constructed out of conversations overheard in public spaces, was another high point in the collection. Whether Corwin’s intention or not, this piece evoked the motif of “voices in your head” that is often associated with lunatics, a thread established at the beginning of the book. “I wasn’t there when it happened. You see where the crack started.” Corwin’s disembodied voice chimes two-thirds of the way through the piece. This brilliant landscape skips to a Betty White reference and the meme of the actress being older than sliced bread: “That was the old Wonder Bread Factory. We used to drive the turnpike/ to visit Betty.” Corwin subverts expectations, offering us a voice that is reflective, witty, sarcastic, and left me wanting to “cross my fingers,/ I mean, cross my heart.”


Corwin’s Marble Orchard delicately balances themes of mental illness with art and found poetry. Though its first section ran slightly long in its dissection of lunacy, Corwin’s meditation on mental illness offers a strong collection that will likely resonate with many readers.



Review: I Felt the End Before it Came by Daniel Allen Cox

Viking Books, May 9, 2023
240 pages

In his tenacious and sharply written memoir-in-essays I Felt the End Before it Came, Daniel Allen Cox details his experiences as a queer man struggling against the lasting effects of his childhood indoctrination into the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Cox’s fifth book and first memoir is a culmination of what he describes as “a lifelong project to redefine words that had once been used against [him].” Throughout the book, Cox trades the church’s Paradise for a Paradise of books and music, and a theology of shame for “a theology of queer tenderness.”


The memoir’s episodic essay structure is original and inspired. Each piece focuses on how Cox experienced and ultimately rebelled against a different method of indoctrination. “A Library for Apostates” highlights the Witness’s suppression of Cox’s education, and details how he became a writer and educator despite this. In “The Witness is Complicit,” Cox criticizes how the Witnesses use the promise of salvation from Armageddon to recruit new members, then ties this to his experience writing against the church during the COVID-19 pandemic. Cox’s effort to balance information and anecdote often results in a satisfyingly profound insight.


“The Glow of Electrum” powerfully delves into how Cox was shamed by members of the church for his early speech impediment, which made him, in their eyes, a “defective missionary,” then explores how he eventually “allowed strangeness of speech” back into his life. The essay does an especially good job of seamlessly moving between anecdote, research, and synthesis, never staying in one mode too long, and plays with language in a way that fits well with its themes, defamiliarizing the experience of stuttering. “Not all hesitations are composed of the same materials,” Cox writes. “A filler word can sound like the real thing. Sometimes the body continues moving through a word; the mouth freezes but the foot taps on.”


In some stretches of the book, Cox will focus on information more than memoir, or memoir more than information. In “Moonwalking to Armageddon,” Cox spends much of the chapter on Michael Jackson’s and Prince’s experiences in the Jehovah’s Witnesses. “The End of Times Square” is almost entirely focused on the story of Cox’s time as an adult photography model in late 90s New York City. It can feel like these parts lose focus on the book’s project to serve as a blueprint for identifying and overcoming indoctrination, but they give a satisfying picture of the inner workings of the Jehovah’s Witnesses and an intimate view of Cox’s life, and keep the book from feeling monotone.


Cox’s memoir is smart, funny, and gripping throughout. “We Are the Ones Held,” an essay about his alcoholism, is filled with moving self-indictment and cultural critique, while also showing off Cox’s knack for choosing details that show his humorous, yet always sensitive and empathetic, view of himself and others: “I dismantled the wine rack in my bedroom and put it on the street, where someone picked it up within the hour, no doubt to set it up in another bedroom nearby.”


The most memorable essay in the book is the aforementioned “Moonwalking to Armageddon,” about how Jehovah’s Witnesses view the supernatural. The essay abounds with fun anecdotes and juicy insider strangeness, detailing, among other things, his church’s enmity with The Smurfs. Cox is especially playful with his barbs here. He suggests, for instance, that Witnesses might be “jealous of Smurfs because they live an exclusive Paradise.” The irreverence of the essay elevates a critique of the Witnesses’ hypocrisy by showing it at its most absurd.


In I Felt the End Before it Came, Cox ruminates with wit and insight on the universal themes of shame, identity, censorship, control, and emotional manipulation, while telling the story of his ongoing attempt to define his life outside of the church’s dogmatism. His meticulous approach to dismantling and overcoming methods of control and manipulation will feel cathartic to many readers.

Parts of I Felt the End Before it Came appeared in The Florida Review vol. 45.2 as “Death Trap”



Review: Origami Dogs by Noley Reid

Autumn House Press, 2023.
Paperback, $17.95, 216 pages.

Origami Dogs, Noley Reid’s fourth book and her second short story collection, is not about dogs. Through Reid’s clean, often razor-sharp prose, the characters’ animal companions trudge alongside their emotional turmoil, both witnesses and hostages to the ways they love and harm each other.


Still, even as the animals are not the focus of these stories, they often serve as vessels, important points of connection that convey the characters’ emotions. In the title story, a young girl, Iris, is overwhelmed both by working in her mother’s breeding farm and by her first experiences with boys. After losing her virginity leads her to be ignored and neglected by her two romantic prospects, Iris names every dog and pup in the barn, breaking her mother’s rule to only refer to them by numbers. The pain of her own objectification leads her to break the cycle of distance and humanize those around her, reclaiming her own agency in the process. Similarly, in “Movement & Bones”, even as the narrator, a recent amputee, struggles to connect with her husband, her dog mirrors her movements, offering physical comfort and also representing the barriers between them: “He moves his body up against mine, as much as the dogs in between our legs allow.”


The connection between human and animal doesn’t always provide consolation. In “The Mud Pit,” when the narrator’s boyfriend’s old dog, Kizzy, passes away, she offers to replace her as an emotional safe haven, but he rejects the offer. “You can’t be my safe haven from you,” he says. Indeed, there is no safe haven for these characters: their relationships float on the page, tinged with melancholy and an unfulfilled sense of longing. Devotion, from human to human, manifests as a heavy weight that the characters struggle to carry.


In the more experimental second-person narrative “How Trees Sleep,” Reid carefully paints the portrayal of a young girl lying next to her mother, stopping herself from asking more of her. And in “Once It’s Gone,” a husband grapples with his wife’s past infidelity, having raised a child that isn’t his. As he contemplates leaving his family, he watches an elderly woman from the neighborhood feed a group of ferocious stray cats. “I don’t stay to see her scared to cry out for fear of chasing them away,” he says. Instead, he returns home, since, as all these characters, he must sit with his hunger.


Amidst the longing for human connection, perhaps inevitably, parenting emerges as a major theme. The narrator of “Once It’s Gone” is partially motivated by his hurt over his stepdaughter’s decision to have an abortion—not out of a religious stance, but because, as he says to his wife, “it could have been ours.” It, the nameless fetus, could have been what the narrator craved, something to fulfill his desire for a deep relationship. Similarly, the protagonist of “The Mud Pit” hopes to use her unborn child as a way to connect with a dead childhood friend. Another piece, “No Matter Her Leaving,” features a father grieving his runaway daughter, waiting alongside her old dog Malone. In her absence, the dog withers. Before the narrator is forced to put him down, he watches Malone put his nose inside a bowl and glimpses a trace of hope: “Have I found something he can love?”


This question looms over the collection. The characters search, untiring, for the love they crave, whether from a distant partner or a conservative mother. When the narrator’s daughter returns in “No Matter Her Leaving,” the piece—and by extension, the collection—ends on a note of hope. Brimming underneath, though, there is still the sense of something inherently tragic, in an unrelenting, animalesque sort of love.



Review: Psych Murders by Stephanie Heit

Wayne State University Press, 2022.
Paperback, $17.99, 135 pages.

Stephanie Heit’s prose sequence “Z Cycle” from her debut collection The Color She Gave (The Operating System, 2017) mimics the mixed phases and shifting states that a person with bipolar disorder might experience. Short choppy observations, coupled with partial sentences and phrases, compress both space and time in a manner that arguably approximates a bodymind rapidly cycling through profound somatic sensations. Case in point are the following lines:


“Spots. Blurred vision. Brain not functioning correctly but can’t focus to identify what is off.  Curb.  Stop sign.  Passing car. All in heightened animation you blink to buffer.” (50)


The phrasing is punchy. The brevity of each unit, within an already compacted prose poem sequence, articulates a near sense of bombardment, the battering of the body against an excitable mind. Words like “blurred vision”, “brain not functioning”, “can’t focus”, and “blink to buffer” propose successive moments of cognitive slips that further imply multiple contestations with the body. “Z Cycle” enacts the feeling of bodymind cycles through textual embodiment by accumulating compacted phrases. The poem also serves as an excellent introduction for Heit’s subsequent work, Psych Murders (2022), that further extends the earlier sequence’s foray into American healthcare and mental health difference. In this new collection, the poet traces her experiences of psychiatric medicine, specifically electroconvulsive therapy (also known as ECT), with careful navigation of the embodied aftermath of her treatment. The ghostly figure of a “murderer”—explained as “the gutsy antics of suicidal ideation” on the first page—instantiates a different kind of political contestation on the gendered female bodymind. And haunting the poem, alongside this murderer, are the male Whitecoats and nurses, whose knowledge of clinical care seems to circumvent the poet’s desires.


Perhaps best described as a hybrid collection, Pysch Murders bridges the already murky borders of memoir, and Mad and disability studies, with a type of embodied poetry. The collection comprises of ten separate sections, some of which echo real clinical questions: “Do you think about the future?” What brings you pleasure?” “Do you have a specific plan?” In her own words, Heit’s collection “focuses on a five-year period between 2009 and 2014 when I experienced extreme mind states and suicidal ideation” (128).


Writing the personal—especially the intensely personal experience of mental health difference—carries a risk where a reader might overtly focus on locating a conflicting narrative of recovery, regardless if one is presented or not. But the strength of Psych Murders is the way that the collection denies these kinds of readings by posing subtle and difficult-to-answer questions about the spheres of modern psychiatric treatment. Namely, this collection asks us to consider the nature of care. What would it mean to refuse it? What could care—as an organising concept for empathy and kinship—really be? These questions push back on clinical inquiries of the section headings that impose an idea of bodily safety (“Do you have a specific plan?”) without attending to how the mind requires its own holdings. And underlying these questions is the dilemma: what if modern care is worse than the disorder? Heit makes these stakes clear when she registers her own feelings of abandonment: “I’m left at the ECT emergency exit,” she writes,


“Last shock done. No one to guide me through the next days, then months, then years. Whitecoat denial of memory loss. Traumatic Brain Injury. Damage. No rehab or support groups for what does not happen. Open sea.” (95)


A 2020 study showed that recipients of ETC were more likely to be white, female, and elderly in California, Illinois, and Vermont.[1] It is a gendered form of clinical treatment that Heit herself notes:


“Whitecoat places his hand on her foot while she is seizing (notice the pronouns, they rarely change)” (94).


ECT is also not without risks. Side effects include memory loss, autobiographical amnesia, mania, and cute pulmonary oedema. More rarely, but nonetheless possible, is death.[2] Strangely, how and why it works isn’t exactly known, although its side effects on the bodymind are clearly not insignificant.


Bodies and minds are also not separate entities although medical professional sometimes treats them as if they are. As Margaret Price notes, “mental and physical processes not only affect each other but also give rise to each other” so when we speak of bodyminds, we acknowledge the embodied entanglements of our psychic conditions and how they play out in the body, and vice versa.[3] In Psych Murders, the body is a graphical surface that receives violent seismic inscriptions from the “Shock Machine.” As one persona poem, written from the machine’s perspective, suggests,


“I leave indelible marks” (22).


In the process these inscriptions become a historical embodied text that offer insights into an unremembered past. In the poem “Dear Right Foot”, for example, Heit identifies her experience of ECT as it is expressed in a lower limb:


“I’m grateful you got to dance it out. Embody flutter and seize. Sense yourself in time and space. Keep the beat to an unfortunate tune, the staccato section of the ECT marching band.” (55)

The somatic imprint of the treatment forms a memory in the foot that reminds the poet of a moment she was physically but not cognitively present. Later Heit calls attention to her foot’s consciousness that she invites to stand in for her own:


“I develop pain in my right big toe joint. Attribute it to the seizures, all movement concentrated in the foot cuffed so the anaesthesia and muscle relaxants didn’t get there. It was awake for every session. It soothes me now that there was at least foot consciousness, my experiences registered by a body extremity.” (108)


Physical pain is a document of these momentary cognitive loss, but it is also a reminder of how embodiment and consciousness are not only staged in the mind but also in our body’s lower limbs. Yet the collection doesn’t rest upon these decentred consciousness. Rather, it concludes with a declarative articulation on the importance of the “I” as a way to acknowledge the fracturing that clinical medicine can impose upon the vulnerable bodymind. In the final poem, Testament”, Heit opts to repeat her various positionalities:


“I am risk
I am hard sell
… I am a high functioner” (122).


Repeating this “I” with its multiple medically-informed positionalities over several pages ironically serves to undercut the very ideologies and assumptions associated with institutionalised mental health. In the process, this repetition re-establishes the bodymind as a totality, as an “I” with many parts. It’s also not a recovery or recuperation. This is not a celebration.


Rather, Pysch Murders carves out a possibility for a different kind of bodymind health practice where desire and care might find a different mode of expression. As the final line of the poem declares, “I am the buck stops here” (124).

Works Cited

Heit, Stephanie. The Color She Gave Gravity. NY: The Operating System, 2017.

[1] James Luccarelli et. al. “Demographics of Patients Receiving Electroconvulsive Therapy Based on State-Mandated Reporting Data,” The Journal of ECT vol. 36, no. 4 (2020): 229–33.

[2] See M. Finnegan and D. McLoughlin, “Cognitive Side-Effects of ECT” and J. Waite, “Non-cognitive Adverse Effects of ECT,” both in The ECT Handbook, eds., Ed I. Ferrier & J. Waite (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019), 109–128.

[3] Margaret Price, “The Bodymind Problem and the Possibilities of Pain,” Hypatia vol. 30, no. 1 (Winter 2015): 269.



Review: Questions from Outer Space by Diane Thiel

Ren Hen Press, 2022
Paperback, $16.95, 119 pages.



Diane Thiel’s third collection of poetry, Questions from Outer Space, comes after an interlude during which the poet devoted her energies to a travel memoir (The White Horse) and the translation of contemporary Greek fiction. Her first two collections (Echolocations and Resistance Fantasies) garnered acclaim, including the Nicholas Roerich Award, for their intelligence, wit, wordplay, and attention to form. These earlier poems explored family history and contemplated contemporary manifestations of mythic archetypes. Her latest volume skillfully deploys many of the same aesthetic characteristics that distinguished her first collections, while the new poems range widely from past to present to future, from house and home to international, interplanetary, and even interdimensional settings. It is a volume full of vivid, imaginative poems, a good many beginning as thought experiments that call to mind Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics.


The title of the volume suggests that the act of questioning will be both a central motif and the principal modus operandi of the poems that follow. And, indeed, a number of poems instantiate this propensity for questioning, e.g., “Questions of Time and Direction,” “Questions from Four Dimensions,” and “Navigating the Questions.” The intellectual bent of the collection is summarized in “Listening in Deep Space”: “looking for answers / telling stories about ourselves, / searching for connection.” In one way or another, the poems in Questions all pursue this heuristic. For Thiel, “the simplest question” is capable of “opening the world again.”


Many of the poems recognize and ponder the complications that science and technology introduce into our lives, especially the consequences of relying too greatly on gadgetry. “Tritina in the Time of the Machine,” for example, addresses the implications of intrusive technologies at a time when “in nearly every pocket,” there’s “a small methodical machine” always “grinding on.” Another poem, “Remotely,” wittily mulls the consequences of living in the remote and virtual modes forced on us by pandemic realities. Whether it’s a remote control, internet access, Zoom video conferences, or even the electric typewriters of yore, in poem after poem the poet mulls the benefits and drawbacks of incorporating new technology into our lives.


Thiel’s wry and sometimes whimsical way of looking at the world (a trait readily apparent in her previous volumes) is woven throughout these poems, often making light of, or even mocking, the slippery and careless use of language in social and corporate settings (“KwickAssess”). Other poems play with familiar expressions (“Sleeping Dogs,” “Baby Out with the Bathwater,” “Under the Rug”) and in so doing discover new angles on old clichés.


While Thiel’s outlook is sometimes droll, she is just as often attuned to darker concerns. The poet repeatedly worries over “a tear in the continuum.” Some poems, for example, evince a plangent concern for environmental degradation (e.g., “Navigating the Questions”), a concern that is carried forward from her earlier volumes (such as the powerful poem, “Punta Perlas,” in Resistance Fantasies). An underlying theme of these poems is “the way our actions decide / who or what is now / expendable.”


A central conceit in the book, running through several poems, involves the first-person observation of life on Earth from the standpoint of sentient, empirical beings located elsewhere in the cosmos. In the view of these distant observers, humans “generally / complicate things” and are “highly irrational.” The poem “Field Notes from the Biolayer” uses the distant observer conceit to tie together the volume’s key themes of technology, environment, and connectivity. Thiel’s extraterrestrial observers—whose view surely coincides with her own—note that as humans “are forced / to rely on the virtual world, some begin to realize / what they had been missing” and are now “recognizing the way their world is connected / within and also beyond—the rivers, the oceans, the air— / the lovely layer that makes their existence possible.”


As has been the case throughout her career, in these poems Thiel evinces a meticulous concern for the craft of poetry. Most notably, the poems are attuned to sonic patterns and echoes, or what Dana Gioia has referred to as the “intuitive music” of her poetry. She employs rhyme—full, slant, and internal—to good effect. There is also a good deal of assonance and consonance at work, as in this passage from “Time Won’t Do It”:


We expect too much of time,
give it mythical powers,
believe a certain set of hours,
days or years will be the salve
to solve it all. We treat it
like an oracle, believing
time will tell, expecting
time to heal because
our sayings say it will.


While Thiel is not a strict formalist, she pays close attention to form, with many of the poems taking one or another of the traditional forms, including a sestina, a pantoum, a villanelle, a tritina, along with several sonnet or sonnet-like poems, haiku, and tanka. When not employing traditional forms, Thiel devises nonce forms and often resorts to repeated stanzaic patterns. Several of the poems—e.g., “Sleeping Dogs” and “In the Mirror”—have a concrete quality. In her use of forms and sonic patterns, Thiel has much in common with her coeval, A. E. Stallings (the two poets share a connection to Greece as well, as both poets are married to Greeks and have spent significant time in Greece).


Thiel’s past work has shown her to be a smart, well-read poet, with a keen awareness of the poetic tradition. The range of references in this volume reveals some of her varied influences, both aesthetic and thematic. There are echoes of or direct allusions to numerous poets, including W. C. Williams, Richard Wilbur, William Stafford, Robert Hayden, Elizabeth Bishop, D. H. Lawrence, Auden, Keats, and Swedish-language poet Edith Södergran. All in all, it is a collection rich with references to literature, science, music, and art.


In “looking for answers, telling stories…and searching for connection,” these poems succeed in “opening the world again.”


Review: Girl by Camille Laurens

Translated by Adriana Hunter
Other Press, April, 2022
$17.00, 256 pages



Of all the great engines of fiction, from voice and setting to character and plot, point-of-view is surely the most misunderstood and overlooked. It is the current of fiction, the hidden energy that propels the waves of story crashing to a landed conclusion. Even the terminology is perplexing—for most readers, writers, and thinkers, point-of-view refers to an indication of which character’s eyes see the fictive world or whose movements the action follows. However, that term is perhaps more properly applied to the techniques—broadly, first-, third-, or even second-person—employed to render such a narrative lens, which itself can better be called perspective. Regardless, however, of nomenclature, this force is the most powerful and mysterious in fiction, and untold hours of writing workshops have been given over to deciding on which point-of-view to use for story X or novel Y. The choice is determinative of all that follows in a work, from pathos to plot to, yes, perspective. The workshop will soberly inform the young writer that only one of the three is suitable for use in a single project, a dictum largely followed. It is fitting, then, that in her intrepid and bold Girl, translated from the French by Adriana Hunter, Camille Laurens throws over this rule entirely, employing all three in her depiction of the spectrum of experiences faced by twentieth-century women.


The book is the story of Laurence Barraqué, a young girl born in 1959 Rouen, France, whom we follow from in utero to motherhood, from the opening salvos of second wave feminism through to the “enlightened” 1990s. Along the way, Laurens alternates her point-of-view (while maintaining the single perspective), to tell her heroine’s story in a manner that sweeps far beyond the biographical to reach the socio-cultural, scathingly commenting on gender dynamics and inequalities over the last several decades.


For the majority of the book, Laurens employs the first-person, her protagonist narrating her story in a swift, active voice that dances across the borderlands between interior and exterior with much mechanical grace. As we move through Laurence’s early years and into the heart of the story, it is that skill in first-person point-of-view and comfort in voice that propels Girl forward. The early sections, when Laurence is a young girl beginning to make sense of the world, are filled with the childlike idiom and shrewd observations that come at an early age. Laurens knows how best to use her protagonist’s abilities, and the ironic distance and social commentary achieved via her heroine’s youthful naïveté—here, a belief that girls are made from infant boys who have their genitals cut off—are powerful:


And what are they punished for, these boys made into girls? I can’t answer that, it’s beyond me. I don’t remember ever being a boy, but somewhere deep inside me I’m not surprised. I feel like a boy, sometimes. Not exactly the same, but not different, apart from pink and dresses. They show off, move around a lot, and laugh loudly. But look at me, I can do everything a boy can, apart from pee standing up (and even that . . .). It’s just I don’t want to.


Most especially in the first-person, Laurens is able to capture both the authentic voice of the child and subtly nod toward the absurd nature of society’s distinction over gender and sex. When refracted through the prism of Laurence’s young eyes, the angst and antagonism directed toward women and girls is thrown into full, damning relief.


This strong and essential narration only makes its entry, however, some thirty pages in. Girl begins in the second-person, the first chapter layered richly with wordplay and grammatical pun. It is, rather cleverly, set up as a discursive narrative entity telling Laurence’s story until, around age five, she is able to take over for herself. Inventive as the approach is, it is fair to wonder if the book overthinks itself slightly here. The second-person is a debatable choice; while it does assist in making immediate the inequalities faced by girls from the moment of birth onward, it also is somewhat at odds with Laurens’ desire to position herself in her characters’ inner worlds. Given especially the skill and aptitude of the first-person that comes later, as the book progresses, the choice to narrate it in three points-of-view becomes at times questionable.


One wonders, too, how much of the effectiveness of this opening chapter in the original French, especially in the skillful use of language, was lost in translation—not due to any fault in the work itself, but the vagaries of French versus English. Early on, Laurens draws attention to the fact that the French terms for girl and woman—fille and femme, respectively—are the same as those for daughter and wife, and what that says about societal views on gender roles and worth: “This single word to identify you is a constant reminder of the yoke you bear, you’re always seen in relation to someone else—your parents or your husband—while a man exists in his own right, language itself says so.”


It is an interesting, important point, one ably rendered and deftly employed to underscore the book’s drawing of parallel between quotidian reality and larger societal structure, but one that does not quite land in English. Hunter can only spell out the passage while using the English terms, and to any reader lacking at least an introductory command of French, both the overall coherence of the moment and the finer point will be lost. That is, of course, the nature of translations, and throughout the book one admires Hunter’s skillful diligence in what must have presented a particularly daunting challenge, given Laurens’ penchant for linguistic amusements, while envying her polyglot access to the original.


As Laurence grows into a teenager, Laurens pulls back to a third-person that, while still intimate, makes use of this distance to narrate the strange years of adolescence and key moments of psychological depth. In an especially unsettling scene between pubescent Laurence and her lecherous uncle, the third-person’s composed and incisive voice adroitly handles the moment. The pattern roughly repeats itself across the book, with Laurens relying on the different tools available for varying stretches of her protagonist’s story.


Girl is an arresting and confident work. Laurens pulls precisely zero punches in her narrative, and the risky point-of-view decision largely pays off. Although she seems the most comfortable and adroit in first-person, and her protagonist’s clever voice is a regrettable one to set aside for stretches, the effect is clear. Her employment of three angles of narration, so drastically different yet attuned to the same wavelength, works to build upon and underscore her book’s raison d’être. By exploring the thoughts, feelings, and encounters of a young girl and then a woman from an array of narrative angles, Laurens demonstrates with verisimilitude and originality the female experience in the twentieth century. To a higher degree than would be possible with a single lens, Laurence comes to represent the stories of countless women, a character transformed, via narrative triangulation of perspective, into an archetype of literary representation. Ultimately, with its inventive narration and unabashed content, Girl is an admirably courageous work, on both the story and sentence levels, one that mines experience for verisimilar pathos and relies on skill for technical innovation.