Review of Difficult Beauty: Rambles, Rants and Intimate Conversations by Lauren Crux

Difficult Beauty: Rambles, Rants and Intimate Conversations cover
Difficult Beauty: Rambles, Rants and Intimate Conversations
Lauren Crux
Many Names Press, 2023, 166 pages

Reviewed by Marilyn DuHamel

Lauren Crux, a Santa Cruz, California writer and photographer, has recently published a stunning, singular book titled Difficult Beauty: Rambles, Rants and Intimate Conversations. Through the years, I’ve been in awe of her many talents: writer, poet, photographer, and performer.

Lauren’s book came out during a very busy time in my life, but once I had it in my hands, I had to take a peek. Soon, I was reading page after page after page and found myself—sometimes in the course of a single page—chortling, tearing up, raising my eyebrows, putting my hand on my heart, or pausing as I gazed upwards, savoring an unexpected insight. Finally, I had to wrench myself away because I wanted to sink into each ramble. The book is that compelling.

Yet, describing this collection is a challenge because it defies categorization, which is part of what I love about it. I turn to the words of another wonderful writer, Camille T. Dungy, who manages to capture the book’s essence:

“The language here is sheer poetry, but these are not meant to be read as poems. They are tiny letters, photographs, journal entries, “rants and intimate conversations,” all of these together and more. On each candid page, Crux reveals what she sees, how she feels, how she hurts, how she celebrates” (Dungy, October 2021).

The work also has an equally important visual element: each short writing is paired with one of Lauren’s original abstract photographs. She stresses that the images are meant to be in conversation with the writing, not to illustrate it. In the words of the poet Gary Young, “[these are] photographs that neither illustrate, nor make any suggestion as to how the poems should be read—are simply companions on the journey of this moving collection” (Young, October 2021).

Lauren’s style is pithy, provocative, and poignant. It’s funny, irreverent, and heartbreaking. Exploring moments and intervals on either side of the rush, rush, rush of daily life, she claims her ordinariness without fuss. “You know, sometimes it feels good to get out and be a lesbian. And sometimes, it feels equally good to stay at home and be a lesbian” (Ramble #34).

She takes on many topics, ranging from the commonplace (and sometimes goofy) moments of daily life to the times that stun us into silence or fury. For example, when the cancer doctor says to her lover, “If you are done with your breasts have a mastectomy,” (Ramble #47), we not only register horror, but we laugh and cry in these moments. She describes her own sense of momentary helplessness and despair in the face of contemporary geopolitical trauma—“I feel scraped raw” (Ramble #22).

With a humorous and witty gentle touch, Lauren asks us to hold fire and ice simultaneously; she insists on complexity of existence, because, “The heart will understand” (“Life Review,” following Ramble #64).

Lastly, when I have traveled in the past, I never can manage to avoid checking a bag, in part because I take too many books. On this last trip, I was determined to just take a carry-on. I winnowed down my clothing, tossed out the third pair of shoes, and took only one book. Difficult Beauty is what made the cut. Like a well-chosen shirt or pair of pants that work for any occasion, I knew this book would take care of me, whatever my mood, whatever my needs.

Marilyn DuHamel is drawn to wilderness—internal and external—and has worked in forestry and fire look-out towers, then as a psychotherapist for the last three decades. Moved by her experiences of call and response with the more-than-human world, her current book project and her blog, Earth Dialogues, explore connections with the natural world and archetypal realms of dreams and synchronicities. Her writing has appeared in Kosmos Journal, Dark Matter: Women Witnessing, the anthology Second Wind, and blog postings for Native Animal Rescue. She lives outside of Santa Cruz, California, surrounded by old-growth chaparral.

Review of Palimpsest by Courtney Heidorn

Palimpsest cover
Courtney Heidorn
Bottlecap Press, 2024, 28 pages

Reviewed by Sara Ricci

Love Through the Sweetness of a Strawberry: A Review of Courtney Heidorn’s Palimpsest

The strawberry serves as a focal point in Courtney Heidorn’s new poetry collection, Palimpsest. From the first pages, the author translates the act of slicing the sweet fruit into pieces into a tender beginning of pure eroticism and intense passion felt towards another woman. However, Heidorn’s work in this context, the simple and everyday act of cutting and preparing, also measures the passage of time. From “strawberry summer I” to “strawberry summer II,” the scene changes, or rather, it progresses, effectively conveying the idea of inevitable, slow, and perfectly natural change. Here, in the midst of quartering the strawberry, the light of the first episode dims and fades, just as the invisible barriers of a relationship seem to intensify with every single movement of the blade slicing through the juicy, ready bodies of the strawberries.

This intensification reaches its peak in the third episode, “strawberry summer III”: the woman present in the first part of this narrative seems to disappear, leaving only the strawberry, which thus becomes the entire foundation, the fundamental representation of the author’s most intimate intentions. The shift in perception is an indicator of evolution: Courtney Heidorn grows and changes; she too progresses, as if to say, “Now I know myself and can afford not to alter what overwhelms me.” Empowered by this growth, she does not need to flee from her emotions. The strawberry remains the same, only divided in two, and most importantly, still attached to the green stem, which adds that edgy but necessary bitterness to the familiarity of the fruit’s sweetness on the tongue.

What emerges in Heidorn’s work, in their “touching, searching,” is the inherent need to be discovered, understood, and desired, with the intention “to beg / for something you didn’t know you needed.” In the deeply sought intimacy of the relationships they describe, Courtney is fully human: they savor, live, and recount with embarrassment for their “overfilled heart,” despite always being met with the caring availability of the one they address.

With a rhythm “enchanted” by sweetness—but also infused with cruelty—Palimpsest rediscovers the quintessential sapphic love and more: it emphasizes the importance of exploring the darkest depths of the self to uncover and learn to navigate one’s habits, starting from the history and concrete essence of the author. Here, Courtney Heidorn is completely and unapologetically open to the reader, who consequently becomes a friend and a listener. A must-read!

Sara Ricci is an editor and a writer from Bitonto, Italy. She graduated in southern Italy in foreign languages, and she is now an intern at Sinister Wisdom. She is an editor and writer for Gazzetta Filosofica, an Italian magazine about philosophy applied to things of everyday life. She also appears in other Italian magazines, such as Fatti Per La Storia, L’Indiscreto, and Kairos.

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.

Review of Black Girl, Call Home by Jasmine Mans

Black Girl, Call Home cover
Black Girl, Call Home
Jasmine Mans
Berkley, 2021, 256 pages

Reviewed by Grace Gaynor

I have always struggled to claim my girlhood, to look back on my time spent as a child and believe in the purpose and worth I possessed as a young Black girl. For many Black women, this turmoil is recognizable, especially when a multitude of portrayals and celebrations of girlhood are built upon depictions of femininity steeped in whiteness. Since my first reading of Black Girl, Call Home by Jasmine Mans, I’ve carried my copy everywhere, the fully realized depiction of Black girlhood always feeling familiar and empowering. The love with which Mans discusses the experiences of Black girls and women is powerful enough to permeate the frost of a culture that disregards those who have been categorized as Black and female. In her book, Mans carefully considers the lives of Black girls and women and discusses a wide array of experiences, from meticulous cultivation of appearance and identity to the pressure of fitting in. With powerful and revealing messages that culminate in an intricate portrayal of existence as a Black girl, Black Girl, Call Home speaks to and with those who are often ignored in our society.

As a collection that acknowledges the intricate experiences of Black girls, Black Girl, Call Home aptly opens with two poems that discuss the beauty standards associated with Black girlhood. The first piece, entitled “I Ain’t Gon’ Be Bald Headed No More,” utilizes its simplicity to poignantly call attention to the pressure placed on Black girls to be hyper-conscious of physical appearance. As the speaker discusses her plans to get her hair done, she remarks that her hair has grown and goes on to say: “when I wear it out at school, / the rest of the girls / won’t call me bald-headed / no more” (2). The speaker feels that her chance to be considered acceptable and beautiful rests on the length and style of her hair, an idea further emphasized through the lines “Imma be pretty, / as soon as momma gets home / from work” (2). The speaker’s knowledge of the beauty standards that are constantly applied to her existence is revealed by her innate correlation between hair and being perceived as pretty. The following piece, “Momma Has a Hair Salon in the Kitchen,” takes the form of a lengthy list of items, terms, and sayings traditionally associated with taking care of Black hair. Throughout the piece, Mans juxtaposes words such as “poison” and “natural,” demonstrating the confusing messages that Black girls and women receive regarding their hair. Along with the previous piece, this poem further emphasizes the complicated nature of Black existence, especially in conjunction with the process of cultivating femininity.

For Black girls, noncompliance with the appearance and self-identity norms fabricated by those around them signifies a magnification of the oppression they face daily, demonstrated through retrospective pieces in Black Girl, Call Home. In “Momma Said Dyke at the Kitchen Table,” the speaker describes the experience of being told to refrain from adopting certain self-expressions simply because of categorization as a Black girl. This experience is exemplified through the reaction of the speaker’s mother to her coming out: “don’t you know / how hard it already is / for women like us, / why you gonna go / and make it harder on yourself?” (23). Mans utilizes this interaction to allude to the experiences of Black girls who do not comply with gender expectations, as Black women and girls are already alienated from the “ideals” of femininity because of racial categorization. The analysis of this experience sheds light on the difficulties Black women and girls face when they break away from the norms applied to them on the axis of race, sexuality, and gender identity.

The unique lives of Black girls and women are often not valued within our society because they have not been visible in conjunction with the work to uplift, empower, and acknowledge those experiencing girlhood and womanhood. Black Girl, Call Home not only demonstrates an effort to shed light on the lives of Black girls and women, but it treats these experiences with care. In her stunning collection, Jasmine Mans utilizes poetry to reveal the intricacies, triumphs, and struggles associated with Black girlhood in a way that Black girls and women deserve.

Grace Gaynor is a writer from Louisville, Kentucky. She earned her BA in English from Hollins University and is currently an MFA student studying creative writing at Virginia Tech. She is a Sinister Wisdom intern and serves as an editor for the minnesota review and SUNHOUSE Literary.

Review of The Glass Studio by Sandra Yannone

The Glass Studio cover
The Glass Studio
Sandra Yannone
Salmon Poetry, 2024, 98 pages

Reviewed by Karen Poppy

How does one reckon with a father and with family, and how does one reckon with growth and grief? In The Glass Studio, Sandra Yannone does so expertly, combining the painful, sharp shards and melding them into costly, prismatic beauty. She dedicates this poetry collection in memory of her father and paternal grandmother, two family members whose inexorable influence on Yannone (and her responding tenderness towards them) is palpable.

Within Yannone’s collection, we find family and patriarchal myths pieced together. The myths, like the stained glass, fused and shimmering, are dangerous and alluring in their creation and perpetuation, but an art form of liberation when we act in their dismantling. Dismantling myths is a key component of the quest for love and understanding. On the journey to reach love and understanding, one of the poems, “The Properties of Glass,” explains that “we are not anywhere / a map can call / home. We are not anywhere / a map can comprehend” (76).

To gain wisdom and reach love and understanding for ourselves, we must look back towards home. We must return to our familial origins, which Yannone deftly retraces in The Glass Studio. She writes that like a lover gifted “a petite, stout jar / of tap water and sea glass / worn down / by years / of turbulent waves / and rocks,” we learn about “the things that have cut me open and made me bleed” (9). Time smooths over the shared vulnerabilities and beautifies pain caused by sharpness. Pain becomes stained glass, glistening in waves of words, and loving; imperfect family members roll in the poetic, rocky deep.

The book’s structure maintains the varied patterns and repetitions of stained glass, divided into four parts, with four poems titled “The Glass Studio,” mirroring the book’s title. In the aforementioned poem in the book’s third section, the speaker looks back at her fourteen-year-old self in her father’s stained glass art studio, stuck in time and place, symbolically and in a photograph. Yannone writes of a photograph taken on

“an early morning in my father’s makeshift sweatshop / on the unfinished second floor of my grandparents’ house, / leaning over beige glass squares arranged / in a plaster-poured mold, my Red Sox cap / cocked backwards like a trigger / waiting for release…” (62).

We see the speaker through this photograph, this memory, “cocked backwards like a trigger” (like her Red Sox cap), seemingly frozen at this moment but ready for release.

The speaker looks back, older and wiser, with wisdom informing her of ways the family system poisoned and trapped her. She describes coming of age through her father’s craft and the patriarchy’s myth—rendering splendor and dazzling truth from toxicity. Wisdom allows for a slow, thawing release, not the quick pull of a trigger, in this poem and throughout the collection. Yannone is released from patriarchal myth as she finds release from family myth through retelling her story. In patriarchal myth, the gorgon, with coiled snakes writhing on her head, has such a gruesome appearance that men turn to stone merely by looking at her. The powerful gorgon, once revered as a protectress and representative of women who healed others, becomes fearsome and ugly—and dangerous—within the patriarchy’s story.

For the speaker, the coiled snakes melt in the making of stained glass into seams, bringing together and holding the glass, which appears beautiful in the light but is as brittle as male fragility. Those socialized as female learn at a young age that their power must melt away- that they must pacify and hold everything together. They must make everything beautiful. The speaker also learned this skill from her father in making stained glass:

“my left hand / steadying the burning soldering iron / while I push coiled snakes of lead / into the iron’s hot tip to melt them / into quick silver seams, fusing / those cut glass squares / into translucently beautiful panes / if I hold them up to the light / breaking through the second floor / window” (62). The melting of the gorgon’s coiled snakes is as harmful and poisonous as it is difficult: “I sweat through this labor. / I breathe in the noxious fumes” (62).

Within this toxicity, there is also genuine love and important teaching from the speaker’s father. Yannone transforms her father’s example from destructiveness into healing, sapphic passion. She ultimately transforms what breaks women through her precise and gentle lovemaking:

“I wear no protective mask. My hot pink / lungs slow burn towards death. Hour / after hour, I run my hands like this, iron / and lead, like over the seams of women’s bodies / it will take years for me to touch. / I use the same precision to bring them / full circle, to where they become / translucent. / My father will teach me all this / with squares of cut glass, not ever / saying the word “sex,” without ever / claiming to transfer the knowledge of how / he broke my mother’s body / to create something sacred / akin to a family” (62-63).

This review ends with fitting words from another poem in this collection: “And in response to my longing, / I burn the toast” (68).

Karen Poppy has a debut full-length collection, Diving at the Lip of the Water, published by Beltway Editions (2023), and lauded by the legendary Judy Grahn for its demonstration of “paradox and power.” She has two chapbooks published with Finishing Line Press, and another chapbook published with Homestead Lighthouse Press: Crack Open/Emergency, our own beautiful brutality, and Every Possible Thing.

Review of Dragstripping: Poems by Jan Beatty

Dragstripping cover
Dragstripping: Poems
Jan Beatty
University of Pittsburgh Press, 2024, 112 pages

Reviewed by Allison Quinlan

Jan Beatty’s Dragstripping explores identity, trauma, and resilience interwoven with self-discovery. The journey begins with “Sanctified,” a homage to Sister Rosetta Tharpe, setting the frank tone of the collection in her description of the nightclub scene: “real is real / that in the nightclub wailing and the strap-on guitars / there’s no happy ending / just the blues shouters / scorching / sanctified.” From there, she dives into what the back cover deems “the ecstatic after violence.”

Beatty’s Dragstripping draws on several meanings of drag and stripping, particularly concerning identity, the self, and body, while drawing on the imagery of drag racing. A dragstrip is a 402.33-meter stretch where races take place with burnt-out tires peeling toward the finish. In the poem “Drag,” Beatty thrusts readers into the depths of her childhood trauma, reviewing the moments where familial bonds frayed and her selfhood forged amidst adversity. She describes her time in an orphanage, the complicated relationship with her mother, and how families don’t make sense, given her life experiences, saying, “my heart’s dragstripped / from the shredded tires of predators.” Despite the trauma’s lingering, visible effects, she’s resilient. She challenges the reader to “throw the red flag down” and watch her overcome all expectations in the face of life’s challenges as she flies down the track towards the finish line.

Early in the collection lies “Dragstripping,” a reflection on desire and self-discovery, which I consider the heart of the collection thematically. This piece plays into “drag” and “stripping” in a way that may be more familiar to queer folks less keen on cars. Beatty writes about their experiences with a stripper and the complication of (what I perceived to be) gender. She says, “I couldn’t even say what she had / but I wanted it.” In the poem’s conclusion, Beatty comes to understand and explain finding exactly what she wanted. In this poem, the author navigates the complexities of desire and longing, focusing on the divided self.

The divided self is a recurring theme within Dragstripping, and the author passionately celebrates what she often calls the “split.” “Some people say that half isn’t anything / but it will drive an ocean back / to the center,” she notes. In “Scarline,” she further confronts the fractured nature of her identity. Yet, amidst the fractures, there is a fierce determination to reclaim agency and autonomy. In “I Ran into Water,” Beatty grapples with the confines of the body, seeking liberation in defiance of societal norms. The imagery of “striker boots” and “heel irons” speaks to a defiant spirit, unapologetically carving out space in a world that seeks to confine and define.

Dragstripping is a testament to poetry’s power to excavate the depths of human experience. Beatty’s work invites readers to witness the complexities of identity and resilience after trauma.

Allison Quinlan (they/she) volunteers for Sinister Wisdom. They manage a nonprofit in the UK and ghostwrite part-time. Their research appears in The Journal of Intersectional Social Justice, and their ghostwriting appears in The Independent, Solicitors Journal, and City A.M.

Review of The Burning Key: New & Selected Poems (1973-2023) by Beatrix Gates

The Burning Key cover
The Burning Key: New & Selected Poems (1973-2023)
Beatrix Gates
Thera Books, 2023, 300 pages

Reviewed by Laura Gibbs

In The Burning Key: New & Selected Poems (1973-2023), Beatrix Gates offers an enchantingly diverse collection of poems, both published and new to the presses. Despite their vast temporal and thematic differences, all of the poems presented here share a striking sense of emotional honesty.

This edition of new and selected poems paints an intricate and intimate portrait of Gates’s admirable poetic career. As well as the collections published as part of The Burning Key, Gates’s work has appeared in journals such as Sinister Wisdom and The Kenyon Review and anthologized in Gay & Lesbian Poetry in Our Time (St. Martin’s, 1988), The World in US: Lesbian & Gay Poetry of the Next Wave (St. Martin’s, 2000), and Things Shaped in Passing: More “Poets for Life” Writing from the AIDS Pandemic (Persea, 1995). By including poems written from 1973 to 2023, The Burning Key offers a detailed and thoughtful sense of Gates’s poetic journey. The collection provides us with intense and distilled snapshots of moments along this journey, from the haunting strangeness of Shooting at Night (1980) to the accepting resignation of a constantly changing nature in desire lines (2020). The collection comes to feel like a museum of a life–its artifacts are displayed with precise curatorial care so as to best reflect the visionary wisdom that blazes through even Gates’s shortest poems.

One of the most arresting sections of The Burning Key is the New & Reclaimed Poems. These previously unseen or revised poems are notable for their refreshing sense of vitality. The poem “Sunspots,” for example, has a visceral effect on the reader through its unusual lineation and rich soundscape. “Outpost” is another standout from this section, with its playful prosodic construction and breathlessly quick movement.

The poems included from Gates’s 1998 collection In the Open provide some of the most emotionally complex and lyrically challenging moments of The Burning Key. The poem “Cut Scenes” details intense feelings of loss interspersed with an appreciative recognition of the beauty of the natural world around the speaker. “Flowing Out, Away,” possibly my favourite poem in The Burning Key, provides a moment of exquisite stillness and minute reflection, as “[t]he wicker chair / becomes the one who feels / no love and shines hard / through the white paint.”

Another benefit of the vastness of the temporal selection provided in The Burning Key is that it allows us to see developments as well as to make connections across Gates’s poetic career. The formal experiments of the 2006 collection Ten Minutes, for example, where Gates consistently tries her hand at the prose poem, can be connected to her playfulness with form in desire lines, where the poem’s attention to seasonality and transience is reflected in its terse lines and white space spread over multiple pages.

Overall, Gates’s The Burning Key is a fitting celebration of an illustrious poetic career. The collection is a testament to Gates’s visionary verse, her commitment to exposing painful truths, and offering hope through resistance.

Laura Gibbs is a former Sinister Wisdom intern and master’s student based in Scotland. Her poetry has been published in Ink Sweat & Tears, and The Gentian. Her hobbies include spending all her money in bookstores and sitting by the sea. You can follow her on Instagram @lauramusing.

Review of Águila: The Vision, Life, Death, and Rebirth of a Two-Spirit Shaman in the Ozark Mountains by María Cristina Moroles and Lauri Umansky

Águila cover
Águila: The Vision, Life, Death, and Rebirth of a Two-Spirit Shaman in the Ozark Mountains
María Cristina Moroles and Lauri Umansky
The University of Arkansas Press, 2024, 208 pages

Reviewed by Rose Norman

“Always remember that you are proud. You are proud first because you are an Indian; second because you are a Mexican; and last, because you are an American.” With these words, María Cristina Moroles’ father sent her off to first grade in Dallas, Texas, adding this warning: “They are going to say things to you. Do not ever believe them.” Having crossed the border undocumented twenty-seven times, José Moroles knew hardship but did not anticipate just how hard those Dallas schools would be on his oldest daughter, who quickly learned how to fight and not back down.

Raped at twelve, giving birth at thirteen, in foster care and on the Dallas streets thereafter, María Cristina Moroles overcame many obstacles before dying and being reborn as SunHawk in the Ozark mountains. Along the way, she had a conventional marriage to a man and a daughter Jenny whom she kept with her through subsequent adventures (having given up the rapist’s baby for adoption).

Her life took a turn for the better when she left her husband after following a vision from Texas to Fayetteville, Arkansas. There, she worked as a truck driver for an all-woman food co-op near a women’s land collective called Sassafras. Then, a local hepatitis epidemic brought her sick and dying to Sassafras, against her explicit wishes. Sassafras is where she died and was reborn as SunHawk.

SunHawk and another woman of color, Leona Garcia, were only twenty-three when the Sassafras women voted to give them the rugged land on the mountain next to them, 120 rocky acres accessed by an overgrown and deeply rutted logging road. This property would become Arco Iris, Rainbow Land, later Rancho Arco Iris, and finally Santuario Arco Iris, a sanctuary for women and children. Over time, many things changed. Leona left, other women and children came and went, some of them partners, but SunHawk remained. Always living gently and in sympathy with that rugged earth, SunHawk was not in good relation with the Sassafras women or her straight neighbors. She writes, “these mountains have harbored some women’s drama” (75). But she stuck it out, eventually making peace with her “archenemy,” Diana Rivers, who owned the neighboring Sassafras land and wound up giving those 450 acres to the nonprofit land trust that SunHawk had set up for the purpose of sustainability. After that, through another spiritual journey, SunHawk became Águila, or eagle, her shaman name and highest rank as a shamanic healer.

This memoir tells a special story, an important one to be told in these days when the earth and humanity are in great need of healing. It is a complicated story, full of earth magic and visions and healing energy. When I interviewed SunHawk in 2014 for Landykes of the South (Sinister Wisdom 98), our transcribed two-hour phone interview took many drafts to produce a short essay about the Arco Iris story. Lauri Umansky, Águila’s co-author for this book, transcribed fifty hours of interviews followed by years of back-and-forth revision. In an Afterword, Umansky describes the process and does not attempt to name the genre of this first-person memoir. This is not an “as told to” story, and Umansky is no ghostwriter; her name is on the title page, along with Águila’s birth name.

It is an artfully crafted story combining narrative, poetry, and prayers, and including a photo essay about the death and green burial of an old friend who came to Arco Iris hoping to be healed, and ultimately to die.

Above all, it is a story of resilience and healing on women’s land. We have few books about women’s land communities. This is an important one.

Rose Norman is a retired professor of English at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, where she co-founded the Women’s Studies program and was its first director. She later chaired the English Department. After retiring, she co-founded the Southern Lesbian Feminist Activist Herstory Project and is its general editor.

Review of Jewcy: Jewish Queer Lesbian Feminisms for the Twenty-First Century Edited by Marla Brettschneider

Jewcy: Jewish Queer Lesbian Feminisms for the Twenty-First Century cover
Jewcy: Jewish Queer Lesbian Feminisms for the Twenty-First Century
Edited by Marla Brettschneider
SUNY Press, 2024, 173 pages
Hardcover $99; Paperback $31.95

Reviewed by Emily L. Quint Freeman
©May 2024

I always try to read books with an open heart so I can gain new insights, as well as admire the writer’s craft. Just this year, a non-fiction collection of scholarly essays, personal stories, and poetry was released, edited by Marla Brettschneider. This book explores the diverse backgrounds and experiences of being a Jew, queer, and, for some, having a non-traditional gender identity. As a Jewish lesbian, I was particularly interested in this book.

People respond to a book differently based on their background and point of view. So, here is a two-paragraph capsule of me, the reviewer:
My grandparents and great-great grandparents were immigrants on crowded, smelly steamers to New York during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century from central and eastern European countries (known as “Ashkenazi” Jews). If they had not emigrated to America, it is highly likely that I never would have been born, as during the Holocaust, the Nazis and their collaborators murdered 6 million Jews – and roughly 200,000 queers.

I am a Reform Jew, which is one of the branches of Judaism that has adapted traditional Jewish laws and practices to respond to the social/cultural conditions of the modern world. As a lesbian, I would call myself an intellectual butch, attracted over a lifetime only to women. I guess in today’s lingo, I am some shade of non-binary. I had plenty of challenging times when my birth family pulled the financial rug after I would not abandon my “choice” of a lover. Thankfully, within Judaism, I did not have to leave a fundamental part of my identity behind.

The most accessible parts of this book for the non-Jewish reader (and many Jews) would be the personal essays and poetry. I particularly liked a story called “ID Please” by Vinny Calvo Prell about her personal angst about claiming her complex family heritage. Her mother hailed from the Mariana Islands in the Pacific Ocean, and her father was Ashkenazi Jewish. She grew up with a deep connection with the Jewish community and came out as queer. Only as an adult did she begin to explore her mother’s indigenous heritage. As she became more open with her Jewish friends about her Pacific Islander roots, she started to feel uneasy, even unwelcome. Prell must have been raised in either the Orthodox or Conservative branches of Judaism, which follow Jewish law, deeming people to be Jewish only if their mother was Jewish or if they underwent a conversion. She would have been fully welcome in my synagogue as a Reform Jew. The pain of trying to embrace various aspects of herself was well described, and the story was worth several reads.

Another personal story called “Life on the Borderlands” by A.S. Hakkari discusses her heritage as a trans woman and Mizrahi Jew – meaning her ancestors either lived in the land of Israel or Muslim North Africa/Middle East. Her essay explores the marginalization of her gender and religious identity in a very moving way. Hakkari vividly described how trans women are a target for abuses of many sorts.

Hakkari’s story informs the reader that Jews are not monolithic but have diverse cultures and practices. This fact is due to the “Diaspora,” that is, the expulsion and/or dispersal of Jews by conquerors of the ancient Jewish states of Israel and Judea. An interesting fact to note – forty percent of Israelis are Mizrahi Jews, who were expelled from Muslim Africa or the Middle East after the birth of the Jewish state in 1948. They form a vibrant part of the multi-cultural framework of Israel.

The book contains a memoir segment from a Black Jewish lesbian, Carol Conaway. I wanted to read more of her memoir so I could better understand her experience and path to Judaism. The segment centers on her attraction to urbane white women, particularly “The One,” who would later become her life partner.

The essays in this book tackle ancient Jewish religious texts, seeking to explore different interpretations of what is acceptable. The traditional answer was only cisgender, heterosexual sex. However, “Deconstructing the Binary, or Not” by Sarra Lev provides a learned analysis of early rabbinic literature to postulate an openness for an intersex personal life.

Another entitled “Remembering Sinai” by Sabrina Sojourner is a reconsideration of the book of Exodus, which analyzes ancient Hebrew and the traditional patriarchal image of G-d. The essay “Postmodern Concepts of Sex, Gender and Sexuality in the Framework of the Jewish Lesbian” by Rona B. Matlow seeks to deconstruct the assumption that only cisgender males and cisgender females are acceptable in Judaism. She does this by offering different interpretations of religious texts and commentaries.

These academic essays may prove daunting for non-Jews or Jews who are not familiar with fundamental Jewish texts or the Hebrew language. Another essay entitled “Leslie Feinberg’s Complex Jewish Lesbian Feminism” by the book’s editor did challenge me as the reader due to its language walls based upon leftist dichotomies. As a result, this essay did not accurately portray the complex story of Ashkenazi Jews in America and their acceptance or non-acceptance in non-Jewish society. This is especially important during the present time, given the trauma and pain of the whole Jewish community after the largest massacre of Jews since the Holocaust on October 7, 2023, and the taking of innocent hostages.

The umbrella of self can be difficult to navigate. This book offers ideas and stories of Jewish lesbians seeking acceptance rather than marginalization. It points to a more inclusive world for writers with different family backgrounds and gender identities.

Emily L. Quint Freeman is the author of the memoir, Failure to Appear, Resistance, Identity and Loss (Blue Beacon Books) and numerous creative non-fiction articles appearing in digital magazines including Salon, The Gay & Lesbian Review, Syncopation Literary Review, Open Democracy, The Mindful Word, and Narratively.

Review of Age Brings Them Home to Me by windflower

Age Brings Them Home to Me cover
Age Brings Them Home to Me
Finishing Line Press, 2024, 45 pages

Reviewed by Courtney Heidorn

In her collection Age Brings Them Home to Me, windflower uses the perspective from Mother Earth to see everything life offers: family, love, self-actualization, and justice.

In poems like “I am from the ocean” and “Seeds of Fear,” windflower tells the story of her family’s genealogy as if they were ocean tides. She writes, “I am from the ocean / of my mother’s womb / that liminal space:” (4). The colon at the end of the poem is intentional: it acts as a gateway to the ocean that is her family—the ever-flowing tides and sporadic waves.

“Seeds of Fear” is a prose poem grappling with the mixed feelings family can stir up, especially for queer people. Battling religious trauma, the speaker realizes that their family can be a source of comfort: “The trinity of us huddle on the dusty pink couch in absolution of love” (15). These familial poems ebb and flow like the ocean in content and theme.

In the same vein, love is explored in a romantic sense with the speaker’s voice informed by the natural world. “Canoe me into deep waters” excels in natural imagery: “rain me to the ground, / light breeze me along / the lips of river’s currents, / thunderstorm me lightening / my bones to stars, / serenade me with sweet corn / salty butter dripping / from my mouth” (17). The speaker considers their lover just as essential and beautiful as nature. My personal favorite romantic line imbued with natural imagery is: “kisses that melted glaciers / kisses that know neither season nor coast.” (20). Equating a lover with Mother Earth conveys a deep devotion and is wonderful for a reader to witness.

In addition to genealogy and romantic love, windflower uses her devotion to nature for self-growth. In an anti-capitalist stride, she writes, “But what about those days I just want / to be a leaf on a bough. Waiting / to turn red” (23). It makes sense for windflower to express this sentiment, as nature is in no hurry. Imagining the speaker as a leaf waiting for the gentle renewal of seasons is peaceful and healing.

One poem stands out in Age Brings Them Home to Me. In “My First History Lesson,” windflower recounts the story her tenth-grade biology teacher told her about her son being murdered in Mississippi for registering Black voters. windflower beautifully and concisely tells his story. Even though the subject matter is challenging, this poem aligns with the rest of the collection, since windflower includes her signature nature imagery: “their bloody hands / hollowed stars from the sky / and the moon went mad” (35).

Overall, windflower’s poems are powerful because they are rooted in nature: the most powerful source of creative inspiration. Readers will hear echoes of Mary Oliver in windflower’s poetic voice housed in a chapel in the trees.

Courtney Heidorn (she/they) is a Sinister Wisdom intern. She holds a BA in English and creative writing from Azusa Pacific University. You can see more of their work in CURIOUS Magazine and at Pearl Press.


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"Empowerment comes from ideas."

Gloria Anzaldúa

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― 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