Review of The Velvet Book by Rae Gouirand, Daughter by Maureen Eppstein, and woke up no light: poems by Leila Mottley

The Velvet Book, Daughter, and woke up no light covers
The Velvet Book
Rae Gouirand
Cornerstone Press, 2024, 124 pages

Maureen Eppstein
Finishing Line Press, 2024, 42 pages

woke up no light: poems
Leila Mottley
Knopf, 2024, 128 pages

Reviewed by Henri Bensussen

Three Books about Life and Death: Poems Both Sweet and Tart, Like Certain Desserts

The Velvet Book opens with quotes from three poems by Lucie Brock-Broido that reference velvet as a robe, a curtain (“Carnivorous”), a metaphor for a school of courtesan (“Still Life with Aspirin”), and as an animal pelt (“Fame Rubies”). This last description is prefaced by “The diagnosis is not possible.” Gouirand’s couplets across the ninety-one pages of this book-length poem are a response to Brock-Broido’s request, before she died in 2018, to “remember me.”

There was a “time of velvet,” and Gouirand wants to remember it in every way, in all its velvety manifestations, as speech, bone-hard, or softly textured in deep or pale color. She moves through the poem like an archivist to save the memories of the love they shared, what they experienced together, and how it is to be left as the loved partner slowly drifts away and disappears. Gouirand wants to capture every feeling, every dream and thought, to write them into an ode to her beloved Lucie and to those lovers everywhere we have lost/will lose as we age.

Her language is written in velvet, with grammar drenched in velvet metaphor. “I could duplicate the velvet book,” she writes. The Velveteen Rabbit is a children’s book about a stuffed toy rabbit in love with the young boy who owns it–so in love it wishes it could become a “real” rabbit. That cannot happen unless the boy “loves it enough.” Gouirand writes her love out in words as “real” as possible, as if she might bring her beloved back to life by doing so.

Rae Gouirand is the author of two collections of poetry, Glass is Glass Water is Water (Spork Press, 2018) and Open Winter (Bellday Books, 2011), as well as four chapbooks. Her work has appeared in two volumes of the Best New Poets series, Please Excuse This Poem: 100 New Poems for the Next Generation, Queer Nature: A Poetry Anthology, and many other journals and anthologies nationwide. She has received numerous fellowships and awards for her poetry and nonfiction.

Maureen Eppstein’s Daughter is also about death, in her case, a first pregnancy that ended with a “stillbirth,” a word that foretells the penultimate moment of expulsion into personhood, the fateful stillness of a life that lives only as a memory. She pours out her story in small poems, releasing history and the emotions she had buried, now, at age eighty-six. These poems are the chapters in a tale of a young woman, married less than a year, about to give birth, and the doctor who didn’t believe her, who said don’t call me at 3 a.m. She trusted him; after all, she’d been brought up to care for others, obey directions, and to not make a fuss.

Not allowed to mourn, she must stay silent, she must “carry on”; she was simply “ill.” Years later, widowed, living alone near the sea and surrounded by a community of women, she finally lets herself acknowledge the truth of it and allows herself to honor this daughter, naming her “Jane.” She visits the grave in a New Zealand cemetery, where she hears voices of the dead: “we are the birds,” they whisper. At home, the swallows build a nest above her kitchen door. She watches them fledge. She feels the connection with nature in “an interwoven chain of being.” These are poems of resilience and hope that nurture us with life and comfort us even in death.

Originally from Aotearoa/New Zealand, Maureen Eppstein earned an M.A. in History from the University of Canterbury, Christchurch, before moving to the U.S. in the late 1960s. She now lives on the Mendocino Coast of California and is a former executive director of the Mendocino Coast Writers Conference. Her work is strongly influenced by the poetry of Jane Hirshfield, with whom she has studied. Her poetry has appeared in numerous journals and anthologies and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. The focus in her poetry on the connectedness of all living things stems from the experience of visiting her stillborn daughter’s burial site, as described in this collection.

Leila Mottley, former Youth Poet of Oakland, CA, brings us her first book of poetry, following her debut novel Nightcrawling (Knopf, 2022), a New York Times best-seller and winner of major awards. Hers is a voice of the future, acknowledging death and danger but focused on life as she’s living it. It is a voice of anger at injustice and for a future of love without the old “shalt nots.” Hers is a voice of youthful exuberance and revolutionary statement.

woke up no light is divided into four types of “hood”: Girl, Neighbor, False, Woman, with a prologue about Reparations. She writes, “I am neither child or woman,” in the Girlhood section, and “a man is not a body—he is a warning.” By the Womanhood section, she is learning love and trust.” In the poem “How to love a woman sailing the sky,” she writes, “I flinched / until you showed me you / were not reaching through me / but for me / and then I was Yours.”

This is a physically tall and internally honest book from a young woman we are called to hear and respect. As Mahogany Browne states on the book’s back cover, it’s “a revolution of words and worlds… Mottley aims to set us all free.” As Maureen Eppstein shows in her poems how women are so often raised to obey and suffer, and as Rae Gouirand portrays through her velvet metaphors of remembrance and love, Leila Mottley sails us into a new climate for women of personal strength and agency, in charge of our own lives.

Henri Bensussen writes on themes of inter-personal/inter-species relationships, aging, and the comic aspects of the human condition from the viewpoint of a birder, biologist, and gardener. Currently, a book-length memoir is her focus, and she continues to publish poetry and creative non-fiction.

"Empowerment comes from ideas."

Gloria Anzaldúa

“And the metaphorical lenses we choose are crucial, having the power to magnify, create better focus, and correct our vision.”
― Charlene Carruthers

"Your silence will not protect you."

Audre Lorde

“It’s revolutionary to connect with love”
— Tourmaline

"Gender is the poetry each of us makes out of the language we are taught."

― Leslie Feinberg

“The problem with the use of language of Revolution without praxis is that it promises to change everything while keeping everything the same. “
— Leila Raven