Search results: “star in the East”

A feast of small proportions


can hardly be called a feast. More of a delicacy. But even that fails
++++++++++to describe the meager plates of meat set out on the long, dark oak.
The room glowed. From its corners, thorned branches

bloomed, and momentarily I was confused.
In my hand a clean fork, then my keys, then a snapped antenna
picked from the curb on a night-walk.
++++++++++All meal long, the brain tucked in its dome and the heart cubed,

presented on six white plates. The meat, almost raw, slid around,
and I grabbed one. I brought it to my mouth. Everything went metallic.
I ate and ate for I was starving; my hipbones tipped their empty bowls.
My hand pressed to my chest then curled into itself

++++++++++like the slowed shimmering legs
of a dying cockroach. But the heart, how delicate!
How marbled in the candlelight like a rotting honeycomb!

The head called for it as if it were a poem.
++++++++++The heart is filling, even when small.
Especially when. I finished and felt like the earth

resided in my stomach. Like if I moved it would come pouring out
in the form of an entire hive, in the height of spring when the field is set

++++++++++with hundreds of little feasts. Blossoms opened, glowing
like a body when the heart has been taken by another—licked until tender.

Brian Clifton

Poetry We Admire: Light


For our December Poetry We Admire, we’ve curated some of the best recently published poems out there around the theme of “Light.”

This is the time of year when the days keep getting shorter and darker until the solstice finally arrives and the light begins ever so slowly its return. Light, and the return of it, is symbolic in myriad religious and cultural celebrations during the season. In addition to the winter solstice, there is the star that guided the shepherds by night in Bethlehem to witness the birth of Christ and brightly colored Christmas lights on houses and in trees. There is the lighting of the Hanukkah menorah, and fireworks and diyas during Diwali, the Hindu Festival of Lights.

This month we feature light-bringing poems from Salamander, Ice Floe Press, Black Bough Poetry, Raw Art Review, The Shore, and Rattle.

Drink in some winter moonlight. Let it shine.



For a long time I wanted

            to drink a cup of winter,

                      to become tipsy on early

                               dark & longer starshine.

 The thinning light

             my favorite ether.


from “Portent with Moonset & Blackbirds”

by Kelly Cressio-Moeller in Salamander

I love how this poem captures the full scope of the season’s moods, starting with its romanticism and wonder, moving through loss, then surrender to the darkness and uncertainty, and finally the  hope of new light. The whole poem and especially the line “I’m only a woman who con- / tinues to bury her dead” with the surprising line break in the middle of the word “continues” viscerally and rather brilliantly illustrates the particular surreal dissonance of grief when a loved one dies but the world and your life must continue, however broken. The speaker went to bed “feeling hope- / less & profoundly lonely” (another line break mid-word), but in the “morning’s early darkness” she woke to the soothing and “bewitching light” of the “fullest moon” poured into the “small bowls” of the room, and she “drank & drank.”



    my stomach is full with the

excesses of leaving & staying.

does it matter what we call a thing— the safety of shadows & how the ocean is a

safe place to begin. home is a ripe avocado on my tongue: sometimes darkness

offers you light.

i can’t afford to think like the moon—                     


from “Autumn Leaves”

by Ojo Taiye in IceFloe Press

Taiye is a young Nigerian poet and he’s definitely someone to watch. (Of note, his Twitter tag is “wild light.”) You will see why when you read his four wonderful poems in IceFloe Press. In his poem “Autumn Leaves,” Taiye gives us this memorable line: “forgive me i can’t repair my beginning— a body agonized by light in a bevel world /without a plot.” As he says, sometimes the darkness, the vast ocean, and the “safety of shadows” is its own kind of light.

Oh, and I should mention that Taiye won the 2019 Kingdoms in the Wild Poetry Prize for his chapbook All of Us Are Birds and Some of Us Have Broken Wings– available now!




 blooms in the dawn-dusk sky


from “The Star in the East”

by Iris Anne Lewis in Black Bough Poetry

The Winter/Christmas issue of Black Bough Poetry is a goldmine of poems about light. I admire this sturdy micropoem with its creative use of hyphenation/compounding to describe the winter sky and how the East Star looms, a bright light always present but hidden beyond the horizon. The way Lewis ends the poem by describing the star as shining “ox-blood-bright” simultaneously brings to mind pagan ritual and the ox and lambs beside the Christ child in the  crèche. This poem is so lovely and compact, yet somehow all-encompassing.



 you sliced up oranges, baked them hard

  until the house was scented with orange oil

  and they shone like stained glass

  among the fairy lights


from “Ornaments”

by Lucy Whitehead in Black Bough Poetry

In her poem, “Ornaments,” Whitehead recalls a winter when “we’d been evicted and you were let go.” With no ornaments for the Christmas tree, the poem’s “you” sliced oranges and baked them into baubles to decorate the tree, along with “a gingerbread family with icing smiles.” I  love how the narrator describes the way the gingerbread bodies were “strapped to the branches with satin ribbons” and looked like “people who’d lost their parachutes.” Perfect and profound.



Rough-strewn straw

doused with dense, lacquered black paint

splash of blood red

some ash

field aflame with white-yellow branches

wall of hair on fire

menorah, crematorium

To heap; to weld; to twist; to scorch


from “Shroud with Lead Wing”

by Heather Quinn in Raw Art Review

Quinn’s poem is a beautiful collage of metaphor and memory, an expression of trans-generational grief, and a powerful meditation on darkness and light. After the Tree of Life Synagogue massacre which occurred in the speaker’s hometown, she “walked one thousand steps / to the local temple / for a yahrzeit candle” and prepared to make her Grandma Irene’s beef stock from “cow knuckles, oxtail, marrow bones.” Then she visited the art gallery where she “received /Anselm Keifer’s paintings / like prayers,” paintings fashioned “on coarse linen / each work a shroud for the dead.” The poem shows how the speaker chose to respond to tragedy and its “impossible weight.” She made her grandmother’s bone broth, created and received art, and lit candles in remembrance of the dead. And as she and her beloved dip their “pinky fingers in the melting wax,” outside the “stars shimmer like ghosts.”



And what of your window?—where

the light fails me entirely, where

you read these lines

despite this failing. Friend:

let us tie each frayed photon

into a new, far-reaching braid.

Light needs such quiet, gentle work.


from “An Invitation to Light”

by Benjamin Cutler in The Shore

Another poet to watch is Benjamin Cutler, who has multiple Pushcart Prize nominations this year. His first full-length poetry collection, THE GEESE WHO MIGHT BE GODS, is available now from Main Street Rag Publishing Company. In his poem, “An Invitation to Light,” Cutler asks, “What is distance but a failure of light?” He describes “the third and fourth folds /

of mountain: how they pale / like lips bruised blue with need / of breath.” The poem is replete with gorgeous imagery. The narrator intimately addresses the reader as “friend” and invites us to share in creating a stronger braid of light so that we might together extend its reach.



You should know that the circus is holographic now—

whips are muted beams of light, the elephants,

like holy ghosts


from “Letter to My Mother, One Year After Her Death”

by Megan Merchant in Rattle

This poem is a moving and eloquent, imagery-laden exploration of how grief can sharpen you, how after a great loss the show must go on, but it will be different than before. The extended metaphor of the holographic circus is brilliantly handled and richly layered with images of light, grief, memory, loss, and longing. Merchant writes, “I’ve looked for you as leftover moon, on burnt toast, /in the wilting of leaves that hold a keyhole of light, / but mostly I pause for ravens that sling like a lasso / between the trees, anything that makes me feel alive.”



We dread the dark here, though

there’s light from some lampposts

and maple leaves reminiscing

how brilliant they were before

they dried and thickened in our gutters.

I miss what is lit from within.


from “Advent on South Hill”

by Abby E. Murray in Rattle

Sunday’s Poets Respond selection from Rattle has the speaker “walking the loop” of her neighborhood during Advent when she “can’t tell if the sun / is technically up or gone.” It’s the time of year where we are all waiting for the light, when even the “finches ditch what dazzles us / in favor of feathers grown solely / to keep them alive, a coat / the color of waiting, of slush,/

of sleeping and waking and pacing.” In her accompanying artist’s statement, I love how Murray says, “Light, like poetry, is something we can carry and wear like armor.”

As we wait for the light to return, let’s all try to remember “what is lit from within.”


Kim Harvey

Poetry Double Features #6


Each August, readers of poetry engage in the Sealey Challenge–started by poet Nicole Sealey in 2017, the aim is to read a book of poetry each day of the month. I’ve attempted the challenge a few times, only succeeding once, but I look forward to it despite this. The truth is, I always have a pretty big backlog of titles to read–I am a compulsive book-buyer, blacking out in bookstores and coming out with a heavy bag, ordering what seems interesting on impulse lest I forget, and the myriad of ARCs I commit myself to before thinking through the reality of what else is on my plate. August, then, is a relief: I am collecting chapbooks all year for this, I am finding old award-winners in used bookstores for this, I am impulsive for this. As someone who writes about books, works with books, loves books, there’s a comfort in always having access to a title to reference, just in case. What if, one day, I have a revelation about two texts? I will need to write about them before the urge dissipates. What if, one day, I am devastated, and only a certain poem can assuage me? This, another layer of justification. 

I see the Sealey Challenge as much about community as it is about actually reading; sharing books has always been a cornerstone of my experience. My only successful completion of the challenge, in 2020, was half-made up of someone else’s books. In 2021, a friend brought over a stack that I didn’t touch until the month was over, but I remember each book vividly: reading two at a time every other night, trying to create ritual for myself (this act would be the inciting incident for what would become this column). 

This is all to say, this August, I am without my books. I brought Sealey’s Ordinary Beast on my trip, as I knew I wanted to write about it–the practice of the Sealey challenge is ingrained into the DNA of this column, and I reread this book almost every year. My first engagement was a borrowed copy, but I quickly knew I would need it–and I love when that desire is justified, no matter how many years down the line.

Ordinary Beast is a beautiful collection; Sealey’s voice is warm and inviting, often leading us to a cutting last line. There’s a careful anxiety and curiosity towards death that recurs throughout the collection that satiates my own preoccupations, often toying with the part of me that reads to sooth more severe depressive thoughts. On this visit, what I found most striking was how self-referential the text was–both within the collection and textually in the poems themselves. 

“Medical History” is one of my favorite types of opening poems–vulnerable off the bat, with a strong sense of “I” introduced to the reader; “I’ve been pregnant. I’ve had sex with a man / who’s had sex with men. I can’t sleep.” Captivating, without prior knowledge of the poet nor the thrust of the collection itself. I read, and I want to know more about this speaker, see what else it is they have to share. 

The layout of Ordinary Beast contributes, too, to the melody of Sealey’s writing–the kerning on the titles give each a little more space, complementing the generally uniform lines that are gently spaced apart; a simplicity tenderly, intentionally crafted. This design emphasizes the slowness that guide us down the page, towards the nearly constant killer last moments–

Cousin Lilly died
from an aneurysm. Aunt Hilda, a heart attack. 
Uncle Ken, wise as he was, was hit 
by a car as if to disprove whatever theory 
toward which I write. And, I understand, 
the stars in the sky are already dead. 

I’ve written a lot on poetry that is aware of the act of writing–ars poetica, in a way, but perhaps less craft-inclined than that, more work with its head out of the water. This speaker has a self-conscious approach, one that is about the interpersonal reception of poetry rather than a structural one; if our poems make an argument, which readers can destabilize what we write, perhaps through omitted details? This voice that questions back recurs throughout the collection–it is not insecure, though, not in the slightest. Instead, seeking–a continuous engagement with the act of discovery. With writing family narratives, there is always a specific vulnerability attached–who is capable of disproving our imaginations? This opening poem sets this awareness at the top, giving room for the collection to write towards something new. Sealey recreates her own work through self-erasure, in “clue” and “c ue”, and so, so interestingly in “in defense of ‘candelabra with heads’”, echoing the earlier “candelabra with heads”. 

It reads, 

If you’ve read the ‘Candelabra with Heads’ 
that appears in this collection and the one
in The Animal, thank you. The original, 
the one included here, is an example, I’m told,
of a poem that can speak for itself, but loses 
faith in its ability to do so by ending with a thesis

This opening stanza is why I emphasize Sealey’s voice is not insecure in its questions–this looking back, this awareness of reader, and this hope of a reader later who is beyond the context (“May that lucky someone be black / and so far removed from the verb lynch that she be / dumfounded by its meaning)–it is about legacy, lasting, memory. Why shouldn’t a speaker imagine a multitude of readers– the family member, the critical gaze, the mentor, a stranger throughout time? The voice does not waver when the possibilities are imagined. The collection is bracketed with these awarenesses, just as it is bracketed by its predilection with death. I wonder about the relationship of interrupted narratives and death, then–if poetry is a personal record, what obstructs its ability to last? 

I came to this month’s pairing through the recommendation of a dear friend, Lee Baird; they read my copy of Ordinary Beast and left it with a stack of three of their own books on my nightstand, a sheet of notes lovingly offered. I imagined, if we were participating in the Sealey challenge this month, it might go like this, too. They highlighted the familial narratives present in the collection, and how beautifully they would complement the cataloging done in Aracelis Girmay’s Kingdom Animalia, suggestions for poems to read together. I was grateful, of course, and felt like the onus of my project was understood and seen by a reader I trusted.  

In the first installment of this column, I mentioned R E D and we’ve all seen helena were titles on my evergreen recommendation list; at the top of that list is Aracelis Girmay’s Kingdom Animalia. The first time I heard her work was from a mentor, performing a poem after the line “This is the only kingdom. / This kingdom of touching;” from “Elegy”; then, another mentor reading “On Kindness” at a loved one’s birthday party; when I finally got my own copy of Kingdom Animalia, I read it three times through. I would read it while I mourned; I would send copies of it to people I adore; whenever I went on trips, I would take it with me, just in case–except, not this month. How serendipitous it was, to be without the book I almost always was with, in a month I did, in fact, “need” it? But, first and foremost, it is a book tied to my community, my friends–here, the opportunity to read its pages anew, lovingly annotated by another. So, of course–I had to pair my ritualistic reading of Ordinary Beast with another integral text. 

But, it is not just these personal ties that make these collections complementary: there is that occupation with death that I am always so drawn to, a vibrant translation of people to page, and a warmth in the voice that encourages the re-read, to spend time with these speakers. The shape of each book, too, work so well together. I love to read those last lines of “Medical History” alongside the last lines of the eponymous “Kingdom Animalia”, an opening lament–

Oh, body, be held now by whom you love.
Whole years will be spent, underneath these impossible stars,
when dirt’s the only animal who will sleep with you 
& touch you with
its mouth. 

I love the sort of inverse imagery in these two opening poems and the way they orient each collection’s attitudes towards death–Ordinary Beast, a processing of the possibility, with Kingdom Animalia a cataloging of the aftermath. I think, more than any other two poets, really, Sealey and Girmay have my favorite end-stanzas; they are memorable, effective, and difficult to decontextualize. 

I like to re-read Sealey’s “happy birthday to me” on my own birthday–a poem built by ellipses, long and continuous down the page until finally the speaker chimes in–”What was I saying?–”, questions that lead to the end lines “Had you asked, I could’ve / told you I’m not doing / especially well at being alive.” Sad, yes, but funny in that self-deprecating way the passively suicidal are, too–in the way that Twitter memes are filled with “girls on their birthday” captions attached to some sort of distorted sobbing, I feel connected to it in the grimmest way; I love the pensive silence this poem supplies, the deep interior the reader doesn’t have access to before such an outward address. It is especially fun to read alongside Girmay’s “Running Home, I Saw the Planets”; where Sealey’s poem starkly shifts from silence to speech, Girmay’s “birthday” poem is far more interior. One of Girmay’s strengths is the way she renders people in her work, their aliveness so palpable and tender–this poem is one of my favorite examples of this. The lines, “There / was the laughing of the beautiful girls, / shrieking gulls, five or six of them (depending / on whether I count myself)” are such a joyful explosion, effortlessly moving into a quieter register that does not sacrifice any energy. 

Still, it touches 
my ear, this sound. I touch
my heart. I can’t stop touching 
my heart & saying, Today is my birthday, 
you see?

This tender repetition transforms the glee of observation into internal affirmation. It is a breath of fresh air; together, these poems feel like dual thought-processes, the multitude of ways in which to work through that heavy feeling when faced with ones’ own aliveness. 

Ordinary Beast closes with my second favorite love poem of all time (my first favorite is also in the collection, “cento for the night I said I love you); the self-aware voice returns: 

Though we’re not so self-
important as to think everything

has led to this, everything has led to this.
There’s a name for the animal

love makes of us–named, I think,
like rain, for the sound it makes.

You are the animal after whom other animals
are named.

I love the oscillation of drama and mundanity in these lines–to sit in bed with a lover is both the most momentous and ordinary possibly thing, and this poem captures that so astutely. The last lines, “O, how we entertain the angels / with our brief animation. O, // how I’ll miss you when we’re dead.”–I am a broken record when I emphasize how stunning they are, how they live in the body after you close the book. This record of longing, even after death. I offer it alongside the closing poem of Kingdom Animalia, a short “ars poetica” that begins, “May the poems be / the little snail’s trail.” Again, Girmay’s work closes in affirmation:

I lived once. 
Thank you. 
It was here.

Another record, past death. I love how deeply unpretentious this ars poetica is; I am reminded of walking around my neighborhood after a recent rainfall (rare in Southern California) and my extraordinary glee at witnessing so, so many snails. They are small, simple, maybe a little gross depending on who you ask–but they, too, produce a record, and I am grateful to be around to witness it. Here is the twinned hope in the closing of each collection, to answer my question posed earlier on: there is lasting, even after something has passed–whether it be a person or relationship or rain–when paired with love, when paired with gratitude. 


Order Ordinary Beast here.

Order Kingdom Animalia here.

Summer Farah

Poetry Double Features #4


In Poetry Double Features, poet, critic, and editor Summer Farah moves away from the capitalistic language of “comparative titles” and instead towards the indulgence possible in considering two poetry collections that complement each other. The books paired here are not necessarily similar, but Farah asks: what language, pleasure, or wonder might be uncovered when they are read together? Poetry Double Features is in praise of the beautiful and unruly process of reading, synthesizing, and parsing out connective threads.  This month, Farah considers Gumbo Ya Ya by Aurielle Marie and Birthright by George Abraham.


Gumbo Ya Ya  Birthright

As a kid, I tried to read every page of a book in order to make them last longer—copyright page (not fun), Q&A with the author inserted into middle-grade novels’ millionth editions, and, most importantly, acknowledgments. I loved seeing all of the people it took to make a book and daydreaming about who each of them was to the author. Eventually, this practice evolved—instead of awe, it was practical. I wanted to see where my favorites were publishing, who they were in community with, and what I could learn from these expressions of gratitude. 

I came to both of these poets first through slam, a community I will always owe most of my literary connections and sense of place to. These days, I primarily enjoy poetry through physical, published books, but it used to be through hearing folks at open mics. Of course, I treasure a collection on my shelf, but it’s difficult to replace the magic of reacting with others in a room.  What I find so spectacular about Aurielle Marie’s Gumbo Ya Ya and George Abraham’s Birthright are the ways these collections play with the page and push the boundaries of what is expected in order to make up for that empty room. 

Gumbo Ya Ya begins with a poem titled “notes & acknowledgements,” an almost casual address—

well, first I want to recognize the land 
we stand on is stolen

let it be said here, at least
that all Black lives matter
that water is indeed life
& above all things 

we the people is 
how any patriot 
begins his lie. 

This orienting is so effective. Marie situates us in the specific space from which their book was written—maybe you’re not a reader in the US, sitting on stolen land. But the poet takes you there regardless. The title is a nice reversal, too—what is expected as backmatter is brought to the forefront, for this work should not be read without its context. This is one way Marie brings people into the room. 

As the poem evolves, “acknowledge” becomes a motif to be riffed on.

Image description: The words “I acknowledge” repeated on top of each other, then a line “I am angry. I am tired. I am scared” that has the same phrase repeated in italics intersecting with the line. Under that line is the phrase “You will hear what you want. I will be what you make of me.”

Image description: The words “I acknowledge” repeated on top of each other, then a line “I am angry. I am tired. I am scared” that has the same phrase repeated in italics intersecting with the line. Under that line is the phrase “You will hear what you want. I will be what you make of me.”

Throughout Gumbo Ya Ya, language cannot be contained by a conventional word-processor setup. Often, I hesitate to recommend more abstract or experimental works of poetry to new readers because of the tendency to obscure; I don’t have that problem with Marie’s work. When the poem moves into this near-unreadability, it feels like the natural conclusion—here is a build on each page, a shift, and clear language to back it up. Phrases overlap and blur because of the weight on them, a propulsiveness to illustrate a new vocality on the page. Again, we are transported; as the phrase “I am angry” repeats in different dimensions, I imagine hearing it echoing in the room. Repetition is one of my favorite poetic devices. So often I am drawn to the anxious rhythms or the affirmations built by seeing the same phrase over and over—that’s not the purpose here. Instead, it’s auditory; let the language reverberate in different forms, shooting off its first instance. 

The poem ends, 

[yes, you must
do somethin. 
if not, then what is
the point?] 

I am sent to yet another space, rooms where gatekeepers contemplate incorporating land acknowledgments into their day-to-day; I ask, what else will you do for the people whose land you are on? I admire Marie’s work not just because of their skill and the depth of emotion they conjure, but their political commitments—this work is so strong because I know they mean it.

This visual overlapping occurs later in the collection, as well, in one of the eponymous poems “gumbo ya ya” which begins with an epigraph from Madame Luisa Teish: “It is important, Sisters, that you understand what gumbo ya ya means…A cacophony of sound, like a swarm of bees, is moving in my direction.” This is one of several definitions of “gumbo ya ya” the book grants us, the first being the page after the Table of Contents, formatted as a dictionary definition. Paraphrased, they are: (n) a wild-making noise, a too-loud thing, the soup of noise, a fine clayey soil; “wild-making” and “cacophony” are apt descriptors for what Marie does on the page. Marie writes, “this is a simple poem about criticality, reader. i promise.” The stanzas are roughly rectangular, indented from the left margin. There’s an interesting tension in these lines—their lengths are not necessarily irregular enough to give a wave effect, but not uniform enough to keep a constant rhythm, either. The language looks contained; there is such a beautiful moment of caesura that feels even more prominent after reading through the whole poem: “I recognize that my work is all gristle, thank you, america / for stealing the meal. what’s the pronunciation of my name?” The poem gives hints of re-orienting itself, giving space so sharply where previously it did not seem to breathe. The poem is long; it continues for several pages, stanzas subtly shifting across the page, granting the language more and more space and variety. It culminates in an absolutely breathtaking spread, in which the book as an object feels so vital, so artfully intentionally used. 

Marie writes,

i mean gumbo ya ya 
i mean no soup for your mouth
              but sustenance in a new world
i mean take from me my breath but never my audacity 
i mean we don’t die 
              i said we don’t die
              we just multiply

Image description: the word “multiply” layered over itself over and over to create a cloud-like image surrounding the rest of the poem stanzas.

Image description: the word “multiply” layered over itself over and over to create a cloud-like image surrounding the rest of the poem stanzas.

Finally, the poem takes the space it needs; “multiply” literally multiplies and branches off of itself, tailing from its source almost like the curve of a speech bubble, floating to the adjacent page. “Multiply” borders the poem’s final stanzas, a cacophony carried through. The stanzas themselves have a beautiful rhythm built by subtle repetition, that amazing “would ever sing my name. / sing my name. sing my name. / sing my name.” final moment, cradled by the “multiplying.” It uses every space on the page in a way I have never encountered before. 

Gumbo Ya Ya is populated with contemporaries, literary ancestors, and family; Marie names their friends and their influences in the same breath, reifying the idea that our peers can be ancestors, that the people we love fill our art. I think no poem demonstrates that better than “psalm in which i demand a new name for my kin” after Danez Smith. It is a two-column poem; the left is written in slightly faded text, a name per line dancing down the page. The right column is a single stanza with a similar dancing line length, and the absolute most tender and gorgeous ode to chosen family. Marie writes, so lovingly, ”I swear on my mother’s laugh, friend don’t cut it.” In between lines like “I mouth pomegranate / in gummy bliss & the kernels fall like manna / into your lap” and “I love you the bone splinter / I love you the gum ache, I love you the jigsaw sweat / the deep sigh,” the names in the left column pulse like a beat in accompaniment—I do not necessarily read this poem like a contrapuntal. Instead, people are in the room, and they are singing.

George Abraham’s Birthright similarly populates the room, with friends and influences, with startling form and innovations. I hadn’t revisited it in full since I read it pre-pub in 2019, but I will always remember its opening lines, “Let me be / brief,” from “TAKING BACK JERUSALEM;” I love, love this, because the book is anything but. Their work is maximalist, overwhelming, and similarly to Gumbo Ya Ya, breaks the dimensions of the pages that make it. But, this sense of overwhelm is effective because of the vulnerabilities that preface the work—always earned, always the natural place, however unexpected. 

The opening poem ends, 

Forgive me. I wrote this 
              in an american airport,
& its magic escaped me. 

For much of the poem, we are in Palestine. This trip is populated with people, moments, consequence. It’s a gentle beginning, with three-line stanzas that elegantly move back and forth. It’s a strong beginning, sharp and contained and consistent. I love that final admission, releasing the sort of dream haze that colors the language earlier. Abraham takes the reader to the site of the poem’s formation; this move echoes the beginning of Gumbo Ya Ya, a sort of meta-context to start the book. There’s a specific type of awareness, an agreement between reader and speaker, to recognize the labor behind the work they are sharing. 

Birthright takes established forms and breaks them, and after Abraham breaks what is expected, they break their own work, too. One of my favorite examples is the poem “Apology” which comes after a black-out division page in Section I: it is a stunning prose poem, that begins “it is the summer after my spleen almost ruptured into the stain of a thousand sunsets.” This line near the end is actionable: ”i’m trying to love the shattered window of myself: the hands: the rocks: the broken religion left behind:” This poem acts as relief; with the black-out page before it (also a feature in Gumbo Ya Ya that I love: we don’t only have standard section breaks, but these complete dramatic moments of contrast to reset the reader before they continue on), but also formally—the sequence that precedes, “Inheritance: A Translation” is long, with formalistic flairs like footnotes and redaction blocks. Abraham’s prose often carries a desperate earnestness, but “apology” especially is a voice laid bare. Section I ends with a black-out version of “apology,” now erased into being titled “ploy;” “forgive me / for / trying / to summon god in my own / shattered / breath / as i dance amidst the flames.” Abraham repeats “forgive me” and grants their speaker another chance. 

“Broken Ghazal, Before Balfour” inverts the ghazal with the repeated word occurring at the beginning of the couplet, rather than a repeated endword. Abraham takes the phrase “It being clearly understood” as their refrain directly from the Balfour Declaration and builds a poem that acts as a counterargument to the dispossession that document culminated in. I love the different coherences of the couplets—

It being clearly understood that, in his childhood, Sido would wander 
the streets of Jerusalem with his Jewish neighbors every morning.

 This strong, vivid image— “It being clearly understood” as a factual image of Palestinian existence, versus later:

It being clearly understood that 
[…] Israel’s Right to Exist.

The poet does not grant discussion of the Zionist state a fully realized image; the oppressor is not owed the fullness of the poet’s language and ability. 

 The poem ends with the ghazal truly breaking; 

It being clearly
It being clear.

 So much of Western narrativizing of Palestine is villanization, decontextualizing, fabricating—anything to obscure, anything to promote a myth that the colonization of Palestine is “complicated.” The shortening of the lines is so poignant, erasing the fluff. Ending on that almost-militaristic “Understood;” it grants the poem an overall clarity that is often withheld from narratives otherwise.

Like Gumbo Ya Ya, influences and literary kin are abounding and prominent throughout Birthright; similarly, one of the most striking moments in which this is highlighted is also a formal innovation. In the triptych “The Ghosts of the Exhibit Reveal Themselves,” the three parts build on each other to result in a cento that builds out a keffiyeh pattern. Each part of the sequence is stitched together in a stunning display; the cento borrows lines from mostly contemporary Palestinian anglophone poets. 

Image description: III. into the lines of kuffiyat we stitch our generations

Image description: III. into the lines of kuffiyat we stitch our generations

The concept itself is inspired by Layli Long Soldier, and there are so many layers in the crafting of this piece—it transforms off the page, too, textural and tangible. Where Marie brought people into the room sonically, Abraham builds a tapestry. This poem that celebrates a resistance symbol built from other Palestinian peers, conceptualized after another Indigenous poet, is so full of life.

The flip side of this poem is on the following page: “The Ghosts of the Exhibit are Screaming,” a palinode after Jan-Henry Gray. The first time I heard this poem was in a workshop with the poet. I cried, and I’ve cried reading it many times since. There’s an honesty and grief in this poem around recognition, knowledge, lineage. 

The first time I met Fady Joudah, I realized I needed to spend more time Reading all of us. The first time I read Hala Alyan’s Atrium, I cried in the shower for 30 minutes. The first time I met Randa Jarrar, she yelled at a white imperialist on stage at a poetry festival. It was then I mourned the upbringing I could have had with an auntie like her around.

Sometimes I worry about starting things before I have read enough, before I have experienced enough, wonder about the regrets down the line. My experiences in SWANA lit spaces have always carried an immense dual grief-fulfillment; I am thankful to meet new writers whose work will hold me, I am always mourning that I did not have them sooner. I love the way Abraham triangulates this joy alongside this grief, alongside the alienation that discussing writing with biological family can bring, alongside the distance a kind but shallow compliment can bring; there is so much presence in this book and I am thankful for a poem that complicates the dedications and afters and epigraphs starkly, plainly, but still with gratitude. 

The original conceit of this column is to read two poetry collections that complement each other in one evening, for the sake of indulging in really good art. When I was plotting out each pairing, I felt so strongly about these two books side-by-side; as June loomed closer, I looked at them sitting on my nightstand and thought, aw jeez, these books are long. I wanted to write about them together because of their formal innovation, because of how exciting it felt to see what each of them did with their restraints; for the care and love for communities and ancestors that I know featured so prominently in both; for the sharp politic that drives them both; I found, in my re-read, these features make both books fly. Marie’s work is always pushing itself toward glorious overwhelm; Abraham’s is constructing and breaking and reconstructing. They are generation-making books—what a gift for them to live together on my shelf. 



Buy the collections:

Gumbo Ya Ya from University of Pittsburgh Press

Birthright from Button Poetry



Summer Farah

Poetry We Admire: Pride & Delight



“It is thy new-found Lord, and he shall kiss
The yet unravished roses of thy mouth,
And I shall weep and worship, as before.”

–Oscar Wilde

“everie hole is an extremitie / u
rite long enuff inn 2 its sirfase
it rites inn 2 u /” 

—Jos Charles


“You know me better than that
You know I loved you like that
It really waters me down.”

–Laetitia Tamko 

“Don’t be like that, he said again as I put my arms around him. Do you see? You don’t have to be like that, he said. You can be like this.”

—Garth Greenwell


“It was inevitable, I knew it well.”

—Nakhane Mahlakahlaka

“I know you wanted me to stay.”

—Chappell Roan


“You take a chance with love; you take a chance with nature, but it is those chances and the unexpected possibilities they bring, that give life its beauty.”

–Jeanette Winterson

“Early on, I had a degree of shame around my desire to make things beautiful. ‘Beauty’ and ‘beautiful’ are bad words when you’re a 22-year-old art student. Now, though, I see beauty as a defiant position to take in what can feel like an increasingly cynical and ugly world. Also, beauty has historically been defined in terms of Eurocentric cultural standards…I was subjected to a canon of art history that did not mirror my racial identity, my physique, my sexuality, my desires. Up until really recently, it felt like all of the same, somewhat oppressive Eurocentric cultural standards around beauty were largely mirrored by mainstream gay and queer culture. I make what I make because it’s what I want to see…How we use beauty, what we insist is beautiful, is ultimately a reflection of our ethics, character, and values. Beauty is political.”

–Mark Armijo McKnight


“If there is a god of fruit or things devoured, / And this is all it takes to be beautiful, / then God, please, / Let her / Eat another apple / tomorrow.”

–Natalie Diaz

“What is the opposite of devastation? Fruit?”

–Dawn Lundy Martin


I don’t know what kind of girl I am

                               is fine to say in the movies when your

mom is played by Allison Janney and

                              you haven’t kissed any girls on the mouth.

from "Queer Fantasy Quad Sonnets"

by Aja St. Germaine in New Delta Review

I love this poem for its expansiveness, for all it embraces and holds dear, in true attention. Aesthetic choices, as Mcknight gestures above, are political ones as well, and St. Germaine’s Quad Sonnets can be read as a manifesto in this way, four sonnets in favor of more; more pop culture, more formal innovation, more queer representation. I think of Richard Siken’s work, the many moments in his poetry where tender images tumble suddenly into violent ones, creating a sense of motion and instilling shock in the reader. Rather than the alienation of shock, here St. Germaine’s images, treated each with equal weight, does a normalizing kind of work; a mother cutting cauliflower florets from their stems is poetry, it says, as is Eliot Page lying on a tiger rug.

                                Today doesn’t want your last breath. Death

wants you tender from your mistakes, has

                               dreams of your face wrinkling into a

smile despite all that you’ve survived.

from "The Golden Herringbone"

by Gabriel Ramirez in Adroit Journal

I have a playful, cynical mind. From time to time I tell myself The Golden Shovel was invented to pay homage to the work of Gwendolyn Brooks without having to start a poem with the words after Gwendolyn Brooks, which I sometimes believe is to court a kind of failure, to ask a poem to reach toward a virtually unattainable standard of excellence (this story has no bearing in history, as the first Golden Shovel shows, but it’s a fun story all the same). Which is only to say, “The Golden Herringbone” begins with the words after Gwendolyn Brooks, and carries this excellence through to its end.

I do not constitute the field,
although I have harrowed its length, its width
with my narrow feet, my slow step.

from "What is the Measure"

by Donika Kelly in Poetry

“As with the mountain, / the field. / As with the field, / you, / ineluctable as a season,” Donika Kelly continues to be one of my favorite nature poets, as she has been since I first read Bestiary a half decade ago. There’s an amongness, an intertwinedness, about world and self in Kelly’s poetry. It’s no exaggeration to say Kelly’s work, its insistence of of-ness, has guided my own sense of belonging and responsibility to the non-human life of this earth. To put this better, I’ll use words of Dawn Lundy Martin’s again — “how any green is a wild form, and lastly, I don’t want to / inspire devotion if it means the I becomes separated from the world.” Yet I do, don’t I, rereading “What is the Measure”, feel something like devotion, to my own ineluctable inseparateness from earth, of which the self is so small a part. So much we guard from ourselves that poetry finds ways to burrow past and elicit in us anyway. These thoughts I hadn’t begun to have before Bestiary, and they returned in full force when I read The Renunciations, which, if you loved this poem, you must read.

What is a system? another beautiful boy

from "Reflections on the Gay Communist Style"

by Al Anderson in Iterant

As John Lowney writes of Thomas McGrath’s long, ‘strategic’ poems, “The more expansive category of the strategic poem, on the other hand, has been less universally accepted among Marxist critics because its purpose is not to ‘direct’ consciousness, but to ‘take in as many contradictions as possible,’ to ‘expand our consciousness.’ Letter [to an imaginary friend]…aims not only to expand but to ‘create consciousness.'” The opening quotation of Letter, “From here it is necessary to ship all bodies east” might find itself at home alongside the lines of Anderson’s Reflections, which wriggle with a kind of mesmeric authority that feels almost otherworldly, possessed with a consciousness all their own, hammered home by the poem’s closing image, the sun beginning to spill “over an average English town”.


Benjamin Bartu

Poetry Double Features #3


In Poetry Double Features, poet, critic, and editor Summer Farah moves away from the capitalistic language of “comparative titles” and instead towards the indulgence possible in considering two poetry collections that complement each other. The books paired here are not necessarily similar, but Farah asks: what language, pleasure, or wonder might be uncovered when they are read together? Poetry Double Features is in praise of the beautiful and unruly process of reading, synthesizing, and parsing out connective threads.  This month, Farah considers How Do I Look? by Sennah Yee and You Are Not Dead by Wendy Xu.


How Do I Look?  You Are Not Dead

In late spring of 2019, I was sick. After graduating from college, pretty much every ailment my body had been holding back in order to let me reach the finish line took over. Already a homebody, I found myself stuck inside even more. So, not yet employed but no longer a student, I played a lot of Breath of the Wild

Despite being a lifelong Zelda player, it was the first time I was struck by the difference between my physicality and Link’s; in the world I had chosen to spend my time, I could do so much. I could lift a sword. I could climb a mountain. I didn’t lose my breath just in the trip down College towards Bancroft. I hadn’t really been strong in years, but as I attempted to beat a shrine for the fifth time, I couldn’t help but mourn a life beyond my bed.

The collections I’ve paired feel like two ways of dealing with being sick—Sennah Yee’s How Do I Look? akin to laying in my bed and considering myself alongside the shows I watch, the games I play when I cannot bring myself to do much else; Wendy Xu’s You Are Not Dead manifesting as gathering the strength to take a walk and indulge in the act of noticing, asking every detail to mean something towards feeling better. Both collections are conversational—they feel like a friend is telling me everything in their head. I recommend reading them together on a lonely evening. 

One of my ways into poetry was as a lonely teenager on Tumblr, horribly fixated on TV shows and comics; lines of poetry found their way onto stills of my favorite characters, elevating them to a beauty worthy of how much space they took up in my head. When I read How Do I Look?, I feel a bridge between the lonely teenager I was then and the lonely adult I am now; the collection is made up of prose poems (my favorite!), many taking their titles from films. Conversational and interior, they engage with a racialized girlhood filled with the tension of enjoying and witnessing popular art that has the potential to contribute to our harm. 

The poem “Blade Runner (1982)” is a succinct two questions: “Am I human? Even if I am not treated like one?” Yee sharply references the saturation of techno-orientalism in cyberpunk—when we visualize a future, what faces populate it? I like the simplicity of this poem; the appeal of many of the other pieces in How Do I Look? is the out-of-breath rush quality that so often accompanies prose poems. This departure is productive, turning the now blank space into an echoing silence. I think of this poem while I play Zelda, and I approach Gerudo Valley; these desert women with their orientalist costumes, villain pirates-turned-allied-warriors—am I meant to ignore their attempts at resemblance? Am I meant to feel empowered if I don’t?

Yee’s poem “Playing GTA V at 4 A.M.” captures the blurring boundaries of real-world and escapism so vividly,

“I’m blowing all my money on clothes and tattoos and I keep stopping to gaze at the sunset–in the game, I mean—and I’m running around with nowhere to go and everyone on my back…I’m panicking about missing the sunset over the beach, but then I realize it’s okay, because the beach will always be there, and actually, the sun is always there; even if I can’t always see it. The thought makes me misty-eyed—in real life, I mean.”

I love the moments of aside! This gentle interruption to remind us what is real and what is not, but it doesn’t matter anyway because the worlds we immerse ourselves in will bleed into our own no matter what. There is a mountain by my house that, when the weather is just right, has a ring of mist surrounding its peak; it looks like somewhere I am meant to explore in Breath of the Wild. When I reach the end of the path I take each day, I look at the mountain, hoping for that mist. Its presence gives me strength. I hope one day I make the trek. 

Some of my favorite poems in Yee’s collection come when we leave the screen. The poem “FLORA” reads, 

“It is no surprise that I take care of my plants better than I take care of myself…I can go quietly about my life with minimal food and sleep and care, until it all boils over and under my skin and I realize my stomach and eye sockets and pussy are all cavities”

 It shares a spread with the poem “FAUNA,” 

“Recall that high school biology lesson on relationships: mutualistic, commensalistic, parasitic…Not once did teachers warn us about forming parasitic relationships with our fake friends and gaslighting sweethearts. Not once did we think of ourselves as wild, living organisms. Note how I say ‘living’ instead of ‘existing.’ There is a difference.”  

These companion poems fold the natural world into the book’s greater project of analyzing and projecting onto art. The grotesqueness of the body wasting away in “FLORA” strengthens that poignant line in “FAUNA,” “Note how I say ‘living’ instead of ‘existing.’” In many ways, this moment is the thesis of why I so thoroughly enjoy both of these collections—at their core, the distinction they explore is between living and existing. 

This sense of decay continues in the poem “THE DESERT,” which asks “What would it be like to die here? What do you want to be when you rot?”

How often have I felt like I was rotting? So often, my sense of autonomy ends at the feeling, rarely pointing towards a positive solution. In the fall of 2021, I was listening to a lot of Mitski. The truth is, I am always listening to Mitski, but one song in particular was the starting song for all of my if-I-am-in-this-apartment-for-one-more-second-I-will-lose-it walks: “Brand New City,” from her debut album, Lush.  

The pandemic, as for so many others, changed my relationship to being inside. I was working from my bedroom, I was losing friendships, I was existing instead of living, but could not afford the risk. September, October, and November passed, mourning relationships, feeling aimless in my career, on top of all of the other chronic restlessness that comes with clinical depression, listening:  

“Think my brain is rotting in places

I think my heart is ready to die

I think my body is falling in pieces

I think my blood is passing me by” 

Whether it’s recovering from a severe asthma attack or PMDD, bodily rot has always felt an apt descriptor for my sickness—parts of you are ready to disintegrate at any second. The finality in the solution, “I should move to a brand new city and teach myself how to die” was, in some ways, what I’d done, shuffling myself and my sadness between various California cities. I could not fathom the second question that Yee raised, “What do you want to be when you rot?” nor the rest of the poem—“I want flowers seeping out of my jaw, snaking around my bones. I want something to grow out of me,” in which from the decay there was potential for life.

Like Yee’s, Xu’s language is conversational; much of You Are Not Dead is built by a consistent lyrical “I” addressing a “you.” This consistency builds momentum, leading to the ending suite titled “WE ARE BOTH SURE TO DIE,” in which nearly every poem makes me tear up. This book is weird with its metaphors and off-beat in its observations; it is one of my favorite collections of all time. 

I love Xu’s titles. The poem “What It Means to Stay Here” is a wonderful container for lines like, “I lie in a bed and am away from all / my thoughts. I pledge all kind of things / to the moon, how it speaks but not / to me,” or, “We have a lifespan and O how / we live it out. I don’t know much / about anything. I drink my coffee and wait / for what is next.” 

Many of the poems take on the same shape, an un-intimidating rectangle that almost always fits on one page. This is necessary, I think, when you dig in at the line level: observations that make sort of unexpected logical leaps that make sense no matter how odd, like communicating in inside jokes or talking to someone who is pleasantly high. The poem ends with questions: “Where / shall I wander before I finally / am gone? What do I bring back / in my careless hands to show you?” When read carelessly, “What It Means to Stay Here” can be mistaken as a question, and so I like the actual certainty of it against these lines—everything before has been possibilities, of what it means to stay “here,” but the true answer is still to be found; “here,” of course, is ambiguous—I like to read it as Alive, on Earth, Here. 

I carry so much of You Are Not Dead in my heart, especially on days in which my person-ness feels most at risk; when I am too tired to hold up a controller and too vulnerable to keep listening to Mitski, there is no balm better than the “WE ARE BOTH SURE TO DIE” suite. I mean this so seriously that I cry every time I read it. I love the way the first line continues the title, a game of poetry yes-and; “WE ARE BOTH SURE TO DIE / And then the anonymous bouquet / of peonies arrives making room / for a little kindness” begins one of my favorites. In the way that Yee’s work indulges my teenage loneliness-fillers, I find myself building a similar relationship with Xu’s work, filling the space of her “I” with various people I love; “we” are in this together. I read, “I feel a sort of awful / regret about animals I have never / seen in real life. Worse, do you worry / you’ll stop caring?” and have a vivid flashback of a dear friend confessing she misses caring about things the way she did when we were teenagers: rabidly and whole-heartedly, hyperfixation to hyperfixation; what is scarier than going from all to nothing? And later, 

“please God let

us be real! I am here and love

to tell you. I am wearing that feeling 

of being wrong like an old scarf. 

Please tell me and tell me and tell

me about the river. Tell me what 

birds mean to keep it.”

Oh, that plea—exclamation points are vastly underutilized in American poetics, and what a use they find here. “please God let / us be real!” is so sharp, with the repetition of “tell me;” each beat, I imagine a different voice sharing with me a story. I want to hear every story, I want to hear them all again, let them be affirmations that the prayer will be answered. 

The collection’s title “You Are Not Dead” recurs a few times, but perhaps the most notable is in another “WE ARE BOTH SURE TO DIE” poem:

“How best do we correspond 

in the darkness of a year? But look the year 

rolls over and has given me a new face. Now 

you go toward the ocean with that terrible

spirit of discovery. There is getting to know

your body and disowning it. The ocean says you

are not dead. What else do you want 

it to announce?” 

I return to Mitski to explain my fixation with this stanza: the second verse of “Brand New City” goes, “I think my fate is losing its patience / I think the ground is pulling me down.” I always felt so intoxicated by the idea of the earth recalling me when my body felt spent, when my self was too tired by everything I was putting it through. Here, I find a similar fascination, but in reverse: what else is there to believe, that you still have life to live, if not by the ocean’s decree? Generously, what else do you need from it to keep going?

The second to last poem in the book begins, “WE ARE BOTH SURE TO DIE / But I feel like a person again.” I read this and am filled with unfathomable want. The poem repeats “I feel” in nearly every line, with one interruption— “I feel like what / is before snow. What is before / snow?” I like the way each phrase reaches to define what feeling like a person is—some mundane, “I feel a / little fine,” some nearly nonsensical, “I feel like a porch that / is also a wind chime.” We are both sure to die, but I feel like a person again, and that is so many things. It can be someone who lays in bed for two days. It can be someone who watches Supernatural instead of calling her friends. It can be someone who calls her friends. It can be someone who knows flower names because of video games. There are so many ways to be a person. 

I am a reader who takes seriously the questions poets ask me. These days, when I go on my daily walks, Yee’s line repeats: what would it be like to die here? what do you want to be when you rot? alongside Xu’s what else do you want it to announce? These questions balms against what I (affectionately) call my suicide-music playlists (Mitski, mostly, but others, too)—probing, but optimistic. You are rotting; you will die. But even so, you can still be new. But even so, not yet.

It is May, and I am anxiously finishing writing this so I can go back to playing Tears of the Kingdom, Breath of the Wild’s sequel. I am once again in a limbo state—unemployed, uncertain of what I want to do and where my career should go, in a new-ish city, and terribly lonely. I am once again listening to “Brand New City,” wondering if that’s where the answer lies. Perhaps I will go back to being a student. Perhaps something else will grow. This time, at least I have company. 


Buy the collections:

How Do I Look? from Metatron Press 

You Are Not Dead from CSU Poetry Center



Summer Farah

Poetry Double Features #2


In Poetry Double Features, poet, critic, and editor Summer Farah moves away from the capitalistic language of “comparative titles” and instead towards the indulgence possible in considering two poetry collections that complement each other. The books paired here are not necessarily similar, but Farah asks: what language, pleasure, or wonder might be uncovered when they are read together? Poetry Double Features is in praise of the beautiful and unruly process of reading, synthesizing, and parsing out connective threads.  This month, Farah considers Some Are Always Hungry by Jihyun Yun and Hijra by Hala Alyan.


Some Are Always Hungry  Hijra

cw: disordered eating 


In the fall of its release, I received many photos of Jihyun Yun’s Some Are Always Hungry from friends perusing bookstores; they read, “Through the vehicle of recipe, butchery, and dinner table poems, the collection negotiates the myriad ways diasporic communities comfort and name themselves in other nations, as well as the ways cuisine is inextricably linked to occupation, transmission, and survival” on the descriptive copy and thought, this book is perfect for Summer

They were right! I love it very much. I have always been fixated on food writing. I wrote my undergraduate thesis on food, specifically eating, in the poetry of Palestinian American women, with a focus on Hala Alyan’s Hijra. The thesis isn’t very good; I spent more time crying over poems than studying literary theory, and each time I made an argument, I wanted nothing more than to undo it. I often reflect on that year of writing and thinking, how it was a wonder I was able to finish that project at all, but I was so propelled by love and curiosity–I wanted to understand why the poems in Hijra inspired the feelings that they did.

When I tell my friend Helen about this month’s pairing, they suggest that the interest in food writing is related to a history of disordered eating; for me, at least, this tracks. For so long I carried harmful thoughts toward the act of eating, counted calories, and bargained with myself about what I was allowed to put in my body. Somehow, this aversion to eating turned into an obsession with food photography. I would scroll through Tumblr and Instagram for hours just looking at beautiful meals, wondering if I made something beautiful enough, too, I wouldn’t feel so guilty afterward. I wanted so badly to transform how I saw food. 

It took a while to get to a place in which I felt healthy, recovered. Ultimately, intentionally unlearning fatphobia and understanding that the structures that produce eating disorders are intrinsically wrapped up in white supremacy was the most vital piece—nourishing your body is vital to building a better world, and bodies are neutral until they are not. But, repairing my relationship to food could not begin with theory. Where it did was poetry: I read and taught food poems, immersing myself in the myriad ways in which food was not the enemy. I wrote about my eating disorder and people I loved learned I was struggling; together, we grounded meals in the communal. I wrote about Palestine and treated ingredients like olive oil and black seeds as sacred as I was raised to treat them, and my pantry felt less cruel because of it. I craved watermelon after each verse likening it to blood. 

Despite the months of studying Hijra, it has taken years to understand that I was so compelled by how Alyan wrote about food because of how unromantic and unappealing it was.  In “Meals,” she writes: “The men steal clams from the market. / Savage longing, our mouths fill / with the spines of creatures slow enough to catch.” There was always grit and blood and dirt alongside the honey, mirroring my own mental hang-ups. And yet it was ancestral. And yet it was still essential.

In Some Are Always Hungry, women and the food they prepare become one. I was struck by the intensity of Yun’s writing—visceral and often harsh, but still inviting. I felt the tender curiosity of her speakers, the gentleness of the way the women in the poems communicate with each other alongside the violences committed upon and around them. I was overwhelmed by how in conversation it felt with Hijra. Of course, food and grandmothers and talk of war are not unique to any diasporic literatures, but their approaches are captivating—unromantic in their linking of food and diaspora, almost grotesque with their joining of the body with the earth, and so sharply writing of food as a way into generational memory. In both of these collections, food is transformative, and I owe my recovery to those moments of transformation. 

My favorite poem in Hijra is titled “Seham.” Alyan writes, “Sit and I’ll tell you of my father’s prayer rug, / dark as plums with yellow borders…Here, / have some stew, taste June in the steam.” And later, “We fed / our daughters until they grew / redwoods and oak trees instead of hearts.” 

In “My Grandmother Thinks of Love while Steeping Tea,” Yun writes,

Drink it all,
dredge the bottom for sunk honey

pull the thumb of ginger into your mouth
and suck. I mean for you to taste

your inheritance. The gunpowder, 
our soil.

These poems feel like sisters; each stanza two lines, rhythmic, deliciously descriptive and mythic in how they move from taste to history and back so effortlessly. I first read Hijra in 2017, and five years later I still think about “taste June in the steam;” what a momentous feeling it was, to read “I mean for you to taste / your inheritance” and find those connections across diasporas. 

Both poets work in the speculative, but the “I” features far more richly in Yun’s work; her speakers are close, moving through time and persona in their witnessing. The poems “Passage, 1951,” “Bone Soup, 1951,” and “Diptych of Girl in 1953” do this work most explicitly, but I love the way these poems build to “I Revisit Myself in 1996;” I am guilty of the conflation of speaker and poet, and I find these poems a challenge to that inclination. Critically, I know the “I” in the period-piece-esque poems are not the poet who is around my age, they are a Speaker, and the “I” is a device as much as the food. The attention to this conflation feels so prominent in “I Revisit Myself in 1996,” with the line “I am a child. I live / closer to birth than death. / Sometimes I am a mother.” I love the grounding work of the titles with the year, a stability that is undone by the poems themselves; the temporalities are not contained within the “I,” making so much of the mythic work. Each of these poems engages with the matrilineal—the speakers embody their inheritance time and time again. 

While Some are Always Hungry’s mythic tone comes from the speculative movement of the “I,” the lexicon in Hijra hinges on the use of “We” and “our;” the collective is always moving together or looking back. The phrase “our daughters” repeats throughout Hijra; “we raised our daughters on fog and honey” from “Before the Revolt,” the line mentioned earlier in “Seham,” “gave birth / to our daughters in caves” from the title poem “Hijra.” Daughterhood is a theme realized so wonderfully in the poem “Asking for the Daughter.” It maintains distance, the “we” and the “our” never becoming “I.” Instead, the poem’s subject is referred to only through “she” and her role as “daughter;” Alyan creates an archetype of Arab daughterhood, writing: “Because she eats fruit with dirt and lime salt…Because moon. Because ruin. Because a woman / who knows her deliverance, her mouth a sea / of sharks trapped in coral.” The daughter, an answer to an unknown question. 

I love reading this alongside Yun’s “The Daughter Transmorphic,” with lines like “What the sap waters, / grows to a city,” and “Why must all / tired stories start / with an exit of the mother?” that, too, feel like a thematic build. There’s an elegance to this poem, one stanza with very even lines; the descriptions are less grotesque than we’ve seen before, almost halfway through the collection. It ends, “Flip the page. Gone / is the matriarch.” Perhaps where the content of “Asking for the Daughter,” is a justification for the question, “The Daughter Transmorphic” is the answer to its body’s conclusion. I think again of “Seham,” “We fed / our daughters until they grew / redwoods and oak trees instead of hearts,” of daughters, and all of their capacity for transformation. 

I struggle to assign a reading order for this month’s pairing. I find that the collections continually bring out something different in each other, almost convincing me I could read just these two books on an endless loop for months and still be sustained by discovery. Yun’s meals make Alyan’s feasting more prominent, and so I think to begin with Some are Always Hungry. But, Alyan’s daughter poems make the role more present in Yun’s matrilineal narratives, so you could go with Hijra first, too. The marketplace as a site of discovery and visibility of gender roles in and out of war is a feature of both, and so I am almost tempted to switch books between poems. Maybe this struggle comes from my own journey with eating, the nonlinearity of healing; how could I assign an order to the tools in my narrative full of dips and departures? I want to return to “Seham” once again, that beauty of daughters raised to become the Earth. For a people displaced, rejoining the land you were severed from—what is a more beautiful ending than that? There, though, it is not as hopeful as I want it to be. Some Are Always Hungry begins with “All Female,” setting up the conflation of women’s bodies and the food we eat right at the start. It ends on a prayer: 

If our feast ever happens, 
if time has not misplaced us,
 may these girls rise violet 
 from the pot 
untangled their legs 
from perilla and leek
and make for the sea
with their limbs in their teeth.

For the last time, I consider the word transformation. The poem begins with the violence of the parallels between human women and female animals, what is always consumed, and ends on a plea. That connection, between body and earth, does not have to be violence. There is a necessity to this hunger. It can transform, and it can return us home. 


Buy the collections:

Some Are Always Hungry from University of Nebraska Press 

Hijra from Southern Illinois University Press 




Summer Farah

Poetry We Admire: Diners


One of the earliest tricks I learned was to add a little soy sauce into the salad dressing, mixing it in an old jam jar with a teaspoon whose luster had faded with age and in there also was english mustard, olive oil, balsamic vinegar, honey, and usually that would be enough to work a little magic into the night.

There were other tricks, of course. I’d get homesick and buy a loaf of sourdough to heat in the oven while I let the chicken stock and tomato sauce simmer on the stove, paring potatoes, carrots, and onions and tipping them into the stew with cubes of beef, songs of leonard cohen and me crooning all the while, the apartment grew warm.

I’ve been living with Eric for eight months now and he knows a trick, not unlike mine with the goulash and the dressing, where he can cook absolutely anything. 

It’s a good one, it’s only annoying sometimes, he makes his own hummus and oat milk and lately he’s been experimenting with pita bread. It’s all very daunting and inspirational, depending on the part of me that’s winning out.

And then felix, who came to visit and made cucumber sandwiches, austerity nostalgia, he said, and I thought about the line at the end of Joe’s book where he imagines his father, alive, reclining into arms that love him and eating a tomato and mayonnaise sandwich and i went out and bought the ingredients and i made one for myself.

Once, i remembered, on-the-vine juices on my chin, I walked in on my father making the quiche he’d cook for us every now and then and he was halfway through scooping his secret ingredient into the baking dish, the entirety of a Best Foods 12 oz. mayonnaise jar. Until that moment no one had caught him doing it before. The disturbance of this peek behind the curtain & into the richness of the quiche, I maintain to this day, was part of the molting of my innocence. The nights he made it thereafter were the beginnings of my courtship to my hunger.

Originally I was going to assemble five poems set in diners, those third spaces of meeting and leaving. I thought of Andrea eating four of the dozen cookies I made in a single sitting “mm. Cookie,” he mumbles, I thought of Juli’s apricot bars, the crumbled texture of their surface that in my mind at least resemble the walls of a valley gorge, thought of my father, the biggest health food nut I know, dumping mayonnaise by the quarter-pound into a baking dish because he wanted his family to love what he’d made them. 

And the diners who eat what I’ve made them, and the diner I am when the food is made for me, those are the diners I love most.

And I love these poems. 

we could share

a corndog in the April dusk

outside the sun

from "we could cook meatballs for dinner"

by Adrija Ghosh in Bath Magg

“We could cook / meatballs for dinner, we could leave / the Delhi metro / violet line behind – / we could do taxes on an excel sheet…” Ghosh, in this poem, is doing something really interesting I didn’t notice on my first or even second reading. The recurrence of coulds throughout the piece pave the way for an open air of possibility to exist throughout the piece, and yet the world of the poem feels cloistered, narrow in its permutations. This, I think, is the result of the late capitalist reality the language of the poem finds itself caught up within — “squabbling / haggling / butchering / budgeting / in retail aisles.” Through the very idea of could, an engine of imaginative possibility, Ghosh subverts language and structures of oppression by revealing just how far short of the capitalist dream capitalist reality (always) falls.

I cut slapdash squares, dipped them in oil,

prayed they would pillow up and crust.

from "Making French Pastries for Rural Floridians"

by Julia McDaniel in Beloit Poetry Journal

There’s something not just of the camaraderie that comes with the busy hours, short breaks, and stress of working in the services industry in this poem, but also how, so often, the kind of closeness that those packed hours fosters can feed us in ways different and entirely unexpected. The truth of this poem, for me, lies in how effectively it takes me back to my own time in the industry, a place warm with proximity and punctuated, also, by pains dull and acute. I don’t want to say too much more about this wonderful poem, for fear of spoiling the thread it weaves, just that I’m grateful to have found it.

We are sitting in a bagel place in

Charlottesville, VA, still early in our

tour of in-fighting and bullshit.

from "Still Hungry"

by Alexa Vallejo in Swamp Pink

I love how this poem carves its rhythm and time out of two distinct movements, one between spaces, and the other between meals, such that the constant changes of this poem become the consistent feature we as readers rely on to anchor us. And between these moving frames a voice emerges, as if a presence glimpsed behind passing train cars, the strength and sureness of which lingers in the mind well after the poem has ended. To extract just one gem, “Dysfunction reigns, even at our feasts.” What a piece.

Plump, gleaming–like the plucked eyes

of a black bear–so dark

they hoard the morning light.

from "My Mother is Patient with Plums"

by Josh Tvrdy in New England Review

Admittedly, earlier in my writing, I can’t help myself, I paraphrased the ninth line of this delightful poem, “a streak of juice escaping down her chin,” or, at least, it was on the mind when I wrote of eating on-the-vine tomatoes. I think there is something so brave about poems that linger for their entire duration upon a single action carried out by another, especially something that might, without concentration or awe or whatever combination of those makes love, otherwise go unnoticed. Of course, the poems have to be beautiful or they won’t succeed. I think of Natalie Diaz’s “I Watch Her Eat The Apple,” because it also is so focused, so beautiful. And I think, also, that what I like best about this poem is its understanding of itself: “love” isn’t written once, between the couplets there’s hardly a blink, it doesn’t need to be.

what violence

brought you there,

you and all

that food 

from everywhere

"Bad Bear"

by Matthew Zapruder in American Poetry Review

Invariably when the lines are short throughout like they are here my mind goes to James Schuyler, his poem, “The Bluet.” Zapruder here artfully leans into the imagery and symbolism of the natural world to criticize what increasingly as the years progress we seem to grow stranger from, that is, what’s wild and out of doors and allowed to continue to grow. Maybe, more considerately, “Bad Bear” reminds me, as who doesn’t forget, of the sweetness of the world, and of my luck to live in a time of so many wonderful poems.

Benjamin Bartu

If These Covers Could Talk #7


In If These Covers Could Talk, poets interview the visual artists whose works grace their book covers. The result is an engaging discussion of process, vision, and projects. This series is a celebration of collaboration—here, we champion the fruitful conversations taking place both on and behind the cover.

This month, poet Benjamin Gucciardi talked to artist and painter Dom Villeda about the cover of West Portal, winner of the 2020 Agha Shahid Ali Prize in Poetry (University of Utah Press, 2021). 

A Conversation Between Benjamin Gucciardi and Dom Villeda

Dom and Ben spoke after surfing together on a cold, gray morning at Ocean Beach in San Francisco, something they’ve done on and off for the past twelve years. They changed out of their wetsuits and sat on a rail of the Great Highway, looking out at the waves. 

BG: Thanks so much for taking the time to talk with me. To start off, how do you like to describe your work to other people?

DV: I paint signs by hand? <Laughter>. I start there. I think that’s a good opener. People will ask, well, what do you do? And I’ll say, I paint signs, but by hand. People don’t really understand what that means, you know? It means a lot of different things: people need visual representation for their business, for a protest, or for their book. And then it’s like, how do we move forward, what do you need? Let’s get into the details. 

“HOME” in Oakland handpainted by Dom, aka TREATUNICE

BG: And I know you also make some other art objects, for example, those letters you made out of wood, and those saws you decorated, both of which I love. Could you talk a little about that aspect of your work? 

DV: The saws come from the small desert town of Northboro where my mom lives now, and it’s about how to take something and keep it, keep its life going. I take saws that are no longer functional and then put some type of message on them. Sometimes those are custom and sometimes they’re just whatever I’m feeling like expressing at the moment. Then the object will have a life of its own in a different way. I really like woodworking. I think that’s something I’ll get into more as I get older. 

left: painted wooden letters; right: painted saws


BG:  Thinking about visual representation, whether it’s for somebody’s business or for a protest, one of the things I am really drawn to is the way you are able to convey the spirit of what you are trying to represent; you really pull that out in a limited space. I wonder if you could talk about how you do that. What is the process like for you to get to the core of something? 

DV: I think a lot of that comes from what people might call street smarts or intuition. Growing up, my dad would always find stuff on the ground that was useful. Whether it was money or a tool or something else, he was always making the most of what was around him, making sense of it. And growing up in Oakland, I learned to be able to read a person off the bat to be like, am I safe? [My intuition] really helps me to meet somebody and understand where they’re coming from. Is it going to be a long conversation that they need, or are we just going straight to the meat of what they need done, like “I want you to say this” or “it needs to be this color,” for the sign.

And the same thing goes for an art piece, I’m always thinking, what’s at the center of this? For sign painting, it’s always about high contrast. You want the sign to be big and bold and readable. And the same thing is true for an art piece; you have to think about how to get straight to it with one or two words, with the boldest lettering you can do. There’s not much room to play around.

BG: I’m thinking about the connection between sign painting and poetry: you have two text-based mediums operating in compressed space. There is an idea within poetry that sometimes constraint—whether imposed by working in certain forms like the sonnet, or in a metrical pattern or rhyme structure—can actually be generative or creative as opposed to limiting. Do you feel like the constraints of your medium can be generative?

DV: Yeah, for sure. A lot of times it comes in the design process. If someone tells me “you can do whatever you want,” sometimes I feel like I don’t know actually know what I want to do. But when they give some parameters (“we want there to be an ocean,” “we want it to say this sentence”), it gives me direction, and now I can exercise exactly what I do well through their constraints. And I also see that in friends who are total complete artists to the bone, but they can’t function in life because they’re so free, so open. I recognize some of that in myself, but I am also trying to run a business, so I try to marry that openness and that constraint, both in life and in art.

BG: You were talking about growing up in Oakland, and for me, it felt really important that the cover artist for West Portal was someone who is also from here. Our mutual friend Brett Cook talks about the way the process of the object’s making is present in the final piece. Having you as the artist—as someone who is shaping the public visual landscape through murals and signs in a lot of western San Francisco and the East Bay—felt like it would really ground the cover in the place the book is set, which is West Portal (a neighborhood in San Francisco), but also the Bay Area more broadly. Could you talk about how growing up in the Bay Area influences your work, both aesthetically and visually?

DV: Definitely the graffiti scene, just growing up here in Oakland and San Francisco in the eighties and nineties, that was undeniably everywhere. And then having older mentor figures be heavily in that scene. So then of course I’m gonna be in that scene as well. And then later on being like, oh, someone will pay you to paint the word on their building? Yeah. And it’s not, you know, not gonna get you jail time. <Laughter>. That’s pretty cool, too. 

BG: I know you’ve done some work with some different community organizations like Aerosoul, Critical Resistance, and Cycles of Change. Why is that work important to you?

DV: I grew up with hippie parents and a hippie grandpa. And it’s always just been like, if there’s a rally, we’re going. Or if there’s a march, we’re going. That’s always been common sense, what we did, it was never a liberal thing or a networking thing, like I’m gonna go seek out jobs or organizations. If there’s something going on and a lot of people I know are involved in it, I support it naturally. If it’s a mom-and-pop shop that can only pay me $10 for a job or someone who needs a protest sign, it’s like, I don’t have to care what the mom-and-pop is selling, they are rooted here, they are part of the community. I don’t have to care what the protest is about because I trust those people. I’m always going to be there to help if somebody needs something and I can provide it. 

left: mural; right: reverse glass sign for Oakland Bikery


BG: Will you tell me a little bit more about sign painting as an art form? You were the first person I met who was doing that professionally. I remember there was one day when after surfing you had this book of letters and all these different styles and I was really struck by it, it was something I’d never seen before. What drew you to it?

DV: I’ve probably drawn stylized letters since third grade. My grandma was into calligraphy and I was into graffiti so it was just kind of a natural progression. Hand-based sign painting kind of died out for a few decades. It was much more common before vinyl lettering was invented; before, that’s what you did. Traditionally, people would apprentice with a sign painter for some years and learn all the tricks of the trade. But I just kind of fumbled through it myself, which I think was good and bad in a bunch of ways. I kind of figured it out on my own and now get to meet other sign painters and see the cool things that they’re doing. I’m like, oh my God, it’s so much easier than what I do <laugh>. 


BG: That’s awesome. I wanted to ask you more about that too, being self-taught, that’s something I really resonate with. I never took a class in poetry. I never studied it formally. And I feel like that has let me be less self-conscious, maybe, more willing to try different things like the halo poems in West Portal (the text in these poems is formatted in a circle on the page, and there is no beginning or end). I wonder if you could talk about that for yourself. What was the process of teaching yourself this art form? How do you feel like that allows you to be in the space in a different way?

DV: I think that being self-taught helps a lot in the freedom within lettering. On one hand, as sign painters, we’re trying to paint as well as we can to get a letter down. But on the other hand, people are paying us because it’s hand-painted. So it’s almost like if you were a perfect sign painter people wouldn’t be as into it. I really enjoy the looseness of it, that there are little wobbles here and there. It’s about appreciating the human hand. Versus being like, you’re not a computer, this sucks <Laughter>.

BG: This is reminding me of a concept in Japanese aesthetics: Wabi-sabi. If you make a circle out of stones, if one of the stones is slightly off, you can appreciate the roundness more due to the imperfection, you can appreciate the beauty more by recognizing its impermanence and incompletion.

DV: That’s it exactly, I see a lot of that in art in general.

BG: Thinking about the cover of West Portal specifically, I really love how you can see that human hand in the lettering, and in the shape of the circle, in its slight imperfection. Could you talk about how you came to that final image?

DV: Usually, I come up with several different ideas, and as I am working out those concepts, the process reveals the direction I should go in more so than me being certain I want to do it a particular way. I knew the portal, I knew that physical space from riding the train growing up, and I wanted the portal to be part of it. You talked about the tunnel being central. I have memories of that tunnel, you’re just out there walking around and it’s pretty quiet, and that’s an intense tunnel right there, the whole visual experience changes, you speed up, you get out and suddenly you’re in a much busier part of the city. 

I wanted to paint it very quickly and with brushes that are almost harder to control. So, however it came out, it would come out and I would have a little bit less control. I wanted to show as much movement as possible.

an earlier version of the cover

BG: You really captured that movement from here to there, that sense of a portal. And I love that blue that you ended up picking. I’m not sure if I remember this correctly, but I think when I asked you how you chose it, you told me you had that color left over from something else you were working on?

DV: I remember it being leftover paint and I actually might still have some left over <laughter>. But that happens a lot, you have a big job and then you have this color left over. So it’s like, where else can this color work?


a closer look at the lettering on the final cover

BG: I love the spirit of that, it feels so connected to the poems in the book. Kind of like, these experiences, this grief, this joy, this language, this is what I have. And I am trying to make something with what is left over. Another thing I love about that color is it feels very evocative of the sea and the sky and the West, like when you look west from where we are right now, it feels so evocative of that direction, both in reality and in the imagination. 

DV: Yeah, definitely a color for out here. In the water, you said today was a nice day, there was no wind, but it’s like the sun’s also not gonna come out today <laughter>. But for us, that’s a great day; water’s warmer. Not warm, but warmer. 

BG: On that note, we both share a love of surfing in the ocean, and your aesthetic has a surf influence and a skate influence as well. How do you feel like surfing, time, and the water influence your work? 

DV: A lot of my life is spent surfing, so it’s going to come across in the signs that I make and also just the appeal of the tones we get to enjoy. Usually, at sunset, I’ll be in the water and that’ll be the moment that snaps me out of the fact that I’m surfing and I’ll say to myself, well, you’re surfing, but you’re also just floating in the ocean right now. You can take a deep breath and appreciate where you’re at. Let’s say you were here but here was Brazil. You’d be so much more present and in the moment, and you’d be able to soak in the colors of Brazil in a different way because you see things from a whole different perspective in the water.

left: hand-painted sign for Traveler Surf Club




Dominic Villeda is a multi-disciplined artist from Oakland, CA—a third-generation gold and silversmith, second-generation calligrapher, and first-generation sign painter. Out of a desire to create functional and accessible artwork, he has spent the past 19 years working as a professional sign painter and muralist for mom-and-pop shops throughout California. 

Benjamin Gucciardi

Benjamin Gucciardi was born and raised in San Francisco, California. His first book, West Portal (University of Utah Press, 2021), was selected by Gabrielle Calvocoressi for the Agha Shahid Ali Prize in Poetry and was named a finalist for the Northern California Book Award and the Julie Suk Award. He is also the author of the chapbooks Timeless Tips for Simple Sabotage (Quarterly West, 2021), chosen by Elena Passarello as the winner of the 2020 Quarterly West Chapbook contest, and I Ask My Sister’s Ghost (DIAGRAM/New Michigan Press, 2020).