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: 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.”


Identity and Empathy in America and Assam

His Fathers Disease by Aruni Kashyap

Context / Westland Books, 2019

Hardcover. 184 pages. 


Cover of His Father’s Disease


In His Fathers Disease, Aruni Kashyap asserts himself as a master of the skill of empathy-building. This is no fluke. It is common to read the debut story collection of an author and feel that there is a lot of technical prowess—say of dialogue, or of voice, or of structure—but little sense that the characters are in fact alive, or come from a lived space. Kashyap, however, who is from the Northeast Indian state of Assam, has already established himself as one of India’s rising literary voices. He has published novels in both English (The House of a Thousand Stories, Viking, 2013) and his native Assamese (Noikhon Etia Duroit, Panchajanya, 2019) and edited an anthology of stories centered on the experience of insurgency in Assam (How To Tell the Story of an Insurgency, HarperCollins, 2020). It is no surprise, then, that in each of the ten stories in this collection, one reaches the end feeling completely immersed in the world Kashyap has created.


The stories in His Fathers Disease can be roughly divided into two settings: either a remote part of the Indian Northeast or a provincial American suburb that a Northeastern Indian has made their home. Kashyap addresses this dichotomy directly in Skylark Girl,” a metafictional narrative of a Northeast Indian author being paneled at a festival in Delhi, interval-led with a folk story about a woman who is killed out of pettiness, only to come back to haunt the village as a ghost. During the panel’s Q&A session, a woman asks the narrator, Sanjib, “why [he] had . . . decided to write about this magical world, instead of the insurgencies, the violence, and the more immediate topical stories. [Sanjib finds himself] surprised by the question because . . . back home, his Assamese readers did not expect him to write about this or that topic. He was free to write anything.” Much like Sanjib, Kashyap’s stories are foregrounded by a Northeastern perspective, not because he wants to limit himself, but because he feels the freedom to write whatever he wants. Perhaps he chooses to write about Northeast India because this part of India is rarely portrayed in international literature.


Again, this is by no means a limitation. In fact, part of what makes Kashyaps stories work so well is that they mine locations the author knows so well. The most successful story in this regard is Bizi Colony,” which details the haphazard and troubling life of a youngster named Bablu, told from the perspective of his brother, who explains how Bablus glue addiction and penchant for violence affects everyone in their family:


Long before my younger brother Bablu began telling our neighbours that Ma sucked Papas best friend Hriday Uncles dick while Papa was away on official tours to New Delhi, he would touch the breasts of our forty-year-old maid and ask her how it felt. When the timid Geeta-baideo wept, saying that she was the one who brought him up, washed his ass after he crapped as a baby, he beat her up with a cane.”


Bablu is a heinous example of a twelve-year-old, with all of the makings of a sociopath. He causes his mother to cry at odd times and take out her anguish at her husband, just as he causes his father to reflect after traipsing around the house, “‘Am I a failed father?’” The story is a melodrama; what saves it from the common pitfalls of that form is the sense that while Bablu sells drugs and associates with prostitutes, tarnishing the family name with no self-awareness, his behavior is fully his own. Glue addiction is a common problem in South and Southeast Asia, and there are children who seem almost born to be malicious in all parts of the world. No matter how heinous Bablu’s decisions appear, they are rooted in realism.


Kashyap also foregrounds “Bizi Colony” not as Bablu’s story, but as a story about the effect of Bablu’s behavior on his family. When Bablu [breaks a] tall, thick juice glass on [Mas] head because shed refused to give him money to buy Dendrite or Eraz-ex,” we dont see it from Bablus perspective, but from the narrator’s, who doesnt cry but “[feels] a strange burning sensation in [his] chest, and a strange, choking lump in [his] throat.” This distance allows readers to observe Bablu’s actions while still benefiting from the emotions and proximity of the first-person peripheral narrator, as if Bablus behavior is very much happening in front of us.


 The Love Lives of People Who Look Like Kal Penn” is another story that benefits from Kashyap’s command of point of view. The third-person narrative tells the story of a writer heading to an international conference in Michigan. He bonds with a woman on the plane, in a way that suggests a possible sexual attraction, until she says, “‘You know, you remind me so much of Kal Penn . . . you look like him, quite a lot, do you know?’”


I am a person of Indian origin, so I too receive this comment often. The actor Kal Penn is one of the very few people of Indian heritage who is prominent in American media, so people are quick to say that anyone who is South Asian looks like him. Therefore, I relate more than the average person when the narrator Arunabh is offended and frustrated by the comparison. The manner in which Kashyap arranges Arunabh’s reaction in language is what summons empathy for readers of any background. In the taxi after this encounter, Arunabh [studies] his reflection in the rearview mirror, and more than once had considered asking Jim whether he saw any resemblance to Kal Penn. And he will always remember the fall colours, his first fall in America: the gold, the yellow, the orange, the red; the blue sky that was slowly turning grey; and his yearning for snow.”


By melding the reaction to a very particular moment, and the feelings evoked by the natural world framing the scene, Kashyap creates multiple spaces for a reader to react to or reflect on Arunabh’s experience. If they cannot relate to Arunabhs gripes, seeing fall in a new country for the first time may resonate, and if not that, provide a sense of nostalgia through the colors, sensations, and feelings of fall in the USA.


Kashyap also employs this multi-pronged narrative approach to empathy-building in the titular His Fathers Disease.” The story details the frustrations of widowed Neerumoni as she discovers that her son Anil is homosexual, much like her own husband. She repeatedly walks in on her son with men and finds herself bereaved. The village also reacts hostilely to her sons sexuality. At one tragic point in the story, soldiers shoot Anils lover. The idea of the scene is harrowing enough, but what grounds it as a piece of literature is how Kashyap describes the aftermath: The blood looked like a red rose blooming on the white bedsheet, and the room smelled like coconut water.”


In choosing such evocative language, Kashyap renders the moment not merely as a violent one, but one grounded in nature. The scents and colors give the reader a critical distance from an extremely emotional moment. The reader is allowed to come back into the scene with their own feelings attached to it rather than only those evoked by the violence.


The power of fiction is to make the reader feel as if these imagined characters are very much living real lives, and more, to feel connected to them even if they reside in completely different worlds. Kashyap understands that to write is not simply to get lost in the individual sentences, but to create characters that resonate. Anyone who reads fiction to explore emotional spaces, both interior and exterior, should absolutely seek out His Father’s Disease. They will find themselves not only intrigued, not only inspired, but utterly absorbed into the world of Aruni Kashyap’s imagination.


A Refusal of Despair

Ill Angels by Dante Di Stefano

Etruscan Press, 2019

Paperback. 122 pages. $16.00


Cover of Ill Angels by Dante Di Stefano.


Although published more than a year ago, Ill Angels, with its indomitable refusal of despair, may be one of those books we need to read in the year of escalating climate crises, social, political and cultural warfare, and the resurgence of and the promise of more biological pandemics. Ill Angels does not wince in the face of the terrible cruelties that haunt the world, but it also does not cede ground in its insistence on hope.


On the one hand, Dante Di Stefano’s second book of poetry is a neoromantic paean to possibility, to faith in a future embodied in children and teenagers (especially his students). On the other hand, a countervailing, or perhaps complementary, tendency in Ill Angels finds Di Stefano celebrating the present and presence, represented as much by the distant indifference of inanimate objects (“Jubilate Pluto”) as the proximate insouciance of wild animals (“The Porcupine Climbing the Apple Tree”). Because Di Stefano is all too aware of the cruelty that lies beyond his classrooms—see, for example, “Verruckt,” “45th,” and “O Trampling Empire”—he insists on a love that is the equivalent of ungrounded theological faith.


This means that at times Di Stefano echoes the passionate declamations of a Ross Gay, a Cyrus Cassells or an even earlier John Clare. But unlike Gay, Cassells and Clare, Di Stefano’s aestheticized fervor is more metaphysical than quotidian, his tender poems to his wife and his children notwithstanding. This unadulterated sincerity has its risks: many of these poems approach a too-sweet sentimentality, and a few, unfortunately, broach the border, weaving back and forth between good taste and self-indulgent rapture.


Fortunately, the balance of this book finds Di Stefano celebrating his good-faith fantasies— “I know all prayer is merely the patter / of little feet coming down the stairwell / in a daydream of a future household”—with well-crafted, often playful, metaphors and similes, bolstered by over-the-top alliteration and assonance that wink at pop culture icons like Bob Dylan and Dolly Parton, to say nothing of literary warhorses like Swift, Pope, and Hopkins. Still, Di Stefano’s unrestrained gaiety in the age of what he aptly names “Stump Speech” demands a robust defense, and while a poem like “And Why This Ridiculous Happiness?” takes a giant step in that direction—there’s no gainsaying the stunning transcendence of lines like “If you speak to eighth graders as angels / and to angels as eighth graders, already / you have become fluent in paradise”—I can’t help but wonder at this excessive faith in language, in poetry, that sidesteps—not overrides—doubt. For that faith seems to depend on delayed endorsement, on retroactive belief: one hopes for love and happiness, and when it happens one believes it appears, in hindsight, as predestined.


Di Stefano implicitly acknowledges this slippage between faith and imagination, which is why he also knows that joy can only be truly joy if it is utopian, literally nowhere, unchained from time and space. At the same time other slippages—between past and future, between presence and absence—enable a kind of manic happiness, a man inebriated on both the past and future. Di Stefano and his beloved wander among his “memories of imagined futures,” adrift between innocence and suspended disbelief: “for now we listen / and nothing can curb the sound of this band / as it plays ‘I Ate Up the Apple Tree.’” And if such a postlapsarian moment could last, the two would always be nearing “the Mardi Gras of / an Eden we’ll be forever leaving.” The traditional secular realm of this nowhere is, of course, art. Thus, we are to “imagine the string, / attached to a red balloon painted / in oil on muslin, a gentle tether / that holds us nowhere amidst the cosmos.”


To be fair, Di Stefano is not always this overweening and serious. Several poems find the poet in a comic, jocular mood, however much these light flourishes veil darker political and cultural realities. These modest reprimands are best captured in punchy lines like “I think I dated the national debt / on a dare for a week in middle school; / I didn’t like the way she chewed bubble gum.” Ill Angels is peppered with these kinds of tongue-in-cheek delights, and for this reader, sweet tooth aside, they leaven the saccharine confections. As a whole, Ill Angels suggests that Di Stefano is, in the end, an Omni-American, to use Albert Murray’s phrase, a true believer in the country’s destiny which, for Murray (as well as fellow travelers like Ralph Ellison and the recently deceased Stanley Crouch), redeems its past. One implication of this story of redemption is that racial, class, and gender differences evince democratic diversity more so than they do intractable hierarchies. For example, Di Stefano’s odes to jazz greats like Coleman Hawkins and Sonny Rollins focus less on their aesthetic achievements than their populist implications. In practice, then, the Constitution is an open-ended document: “Anyone who opens her mouth to sing / erases and rewrites the preamble.” For Di Stefano, this is hope, and hope is only love in action (to paraphrase everybody from M.L.K to Cornel West). Ill Angels thus unites religious, political, cultural, and domestic faith under one flag—hope—and, like Jesse Jackson, who once proclaimed the same during his 1988 presidential run, Di Stefano wants to keep hope alive.


The Meaning of Home

Homesick: Stories by Nino Cipri

Dzanc Books, 2019

Paperback, 197 pages, $17.00


Cover of Homesick: Stories by Nino Cipri.


Nino Cipri’s debut story collection is a wonderful exploration of the meaning of home, and what it means when we find it, if we ever do. Throughout each of these stories, characters are asked to relate to a new and changing reality, whether that be finding new life after divorce or rumbling with a mother’s rejection after telling her about being transgender. Cipri, a queer and trans/non-binary writer, explores many LGBTQ+ narratives through wonderful, often magical, speculative stories. Each story ponders on what family and reality look like, especially when others have turned their back on you.


The speculative aspects of this collection are done so well that it doesn’t matter how weird the plot might become, the reader is ready to roll with the surreality. In “Let Down, Set Free,” Melissa finds a floating tree on her neighbor’s yard and rides it into her future. In “A Silly Love Story,” Jeremy has a nectarine-loving poltergeist in his closet. In “Presque Vu,” Clay is haunted by keys magically appearing in his throat. These elements, wonderfully executed, allow the narrative to speak on a deeper-than-just-weird level. The reader physically experiences Melissa being uprooted and lifted off to another reality. Jeremy learns about his love-interest only after they bond over the poltergeist. Clay, not knowing what the keys physically unlock, has to wait for the other haunts to find out his future. Each of these characters has a tangible element to help ground the narrative, even if all the trees aren’t similarly rooted.


Other stories find their strength in form. In “Which Super Little Dead Girl ™ Are You?” the reader takes a Buzzfeed style quiz to find out which murdered girl they are. Through this imaginative form, the story contemplates what it would be like to be one of these little dead girls—how you’d live on after death, how you’d stay the same age, how you’d be different. In this fun yet harrowing story, Cipri creates a superhero-like adventure for the strong, spunky, and doomed girls who met their end too soon.


“Dead Air” is another story with experimentation in form. The entire story is told through a translation of recorded material, which makes the story ninety-nine percent dialogue. Nita, the person with a recorder, crafts an art project by recording interviews with her lovers. Because of the form, we fall in love with Maddie along with Nita, and we feel just as confused when trying to understand Maddie’s past in her small hometown. The mystery that holds people in the town, that eventually kills them, is still hidden from Nita and the reader, but we believe Maddie when she says we have to get out before it’s too late.


The heartbreaking “The Shape of My Name” is a hallmark example of this collection’s theme of changing reality. The narrator, a transgender person, wrestles with their mother’s rejection after their coming out. This story, like the others, is speculative in nature. The family has the ability to time travel, though that travel is limited to the years 1905 to 2321. This story effectively bends the view of reality within the narrator. They’ve lived in multiple timelines, gone back in time to see their mother, to come out to her while she was still young. The most heartbreaking moment of the story happens when Heron, as the narrator has chosen to be called, shows up to their mother’s stoop and sees their younger self playing in the background. The mother questions having a son, and they tell her she already has one. She pushes her child away, so the child can’t see their future self, and closes the door on Heron. “The Shape of My Name” gives us a character who has not only lost their mother because of her rejection but has also lost her to time.


Whereas “The Shape of My Name” is about a family torn apart, “Before We Disperse Like Star Stuff” focuses on a family mending. This final story of the collection, the pivotal story, follows three ex-colleagues and ex-friends—Damian, Lin, and Ray—as they work on a documentary about their discovery of the ossicarminis, an extinct weasel-wolverine animal that had supposed sentience. This story plays with form by being in all three points of view and by having section breaks that are sound bites from their interviews with the documentary crew. These sections allow each character to have a voice and a perspective throughout this narrative. When you reach the end, there’s never a question about what each character thought or what they felt in the moment.


The close proximity of the documentary allows Damian, Lin, and Ray to hash out their past to help rebuild their future. Damian, who wrote a book on the ossicarminis, finds his friends resent him for not including them and taking all of the money for himself. Lin, a PhD candidate, has the bones of the creature in her apartment while writing her dissertation and is caught not protecting them the way she should. Ray questions the dig and wonders about the ethics of not only monetizing the destruction of a type of sentient being, but also removing them from their final resting place. The dig has previously torn apart the group’s work relationship, as well as their friendship, because of their difference in perspective on the same event. This story showcases the blending of personal and professional relationships and how even ones that have been cut off for years can be mended with a little digging. When we see this trio drive off happily into the distance, we hope that the other characters in this collection can someday do the same.


Homesick successfully confronts changing (and challenging) realities and gives hope that no matter what today looks like, there’s always hope that tomorrow will be better, and that there’s always a place for you out there—you just have to find it.