Category Archives: Reviews

8.1 | Book Review

Nicole Callahan

Aisha Sharif’s To Keep From Undressing: a Review

What is the connotation of the word “performance?” Our primary association with “performance” is the theatrical; our understanding of performance has become inextricably linked to the idea of something pretended, something acted out but not done. We think of performance as dishonest. To perform humility or joy is not understood to be the same as to be humble or joyous.

That may be why people dismiss the idea that identity is a type of performance. To say that identity is what you do and not simply what you are is often an uncomfortable proposition. Many people find comfort in identarian labels—for good reason. Labels like “woman” or “man,” “gay” or “trans,” “Chinese” or “Jewish,” unite individuals with shared experiences and allow for societal comprehension of complex concepts. Aisha Sharif’s collection of poetry, To Keep from Undressing, resonates with a truth seldom expressed so thoroughly: that identity is a performance. A complicated, contradictory performance, clearly, but a sincere one, nonetheless. Throughout her collection, Sharif’s speakers wrestle with their lived experiences. They are Black, Muslim-American women; daughters, sisters, wives, mothers, and poets. The way these identities interact is at the very heart of Sharif’s work, it informs the structure of her poetry and her understanding that each identity is its own intricate performance.

To Keep from Undressing is divided into five sections. Each includes a part of the poem “If my Parents Hadn’t Converted: Questions and Answers,” which straddles the line between humorous and sincere hypothetical scenarios. The poem explores how the speaker’s entire life was shaped by one decision. Christian Aisha, or “Marian Elizabeth” would have had a prom dress “just short enough / to reveal / [her] knees.” When asked how many Muslims the Christian version of herself would “actually befriend,” she leaves no response at all. The poem serves as a pillar to the collection, always returning it to the key questions of who we are and how our experiences shape us. Sharif suggests that her Christian self is still her in a way, but that despite the fact that we all have various versions of ourselves contained within us, the Christian Aisha is missing certain key experiences that are an important part of her current identity.

The experimentation with structure in Sharif’s poems establishes her poetic identity. Sharif manipulates the formal aspects of poetry to build upon new ideas. Her poems’ experimental structures further emphasize the importance of performance. In the poem “A Mathematical Expression of Faith,” the relationship between the speaker’s family’s old Christian ways and the new Muslim ways they practice is presented as an equation to balance. Many poems have a call-and-response structure or a song-like quality to them. “After School on the City Bus, Memphis, TN,” for example, is performed as a school yard chant. At a live reading of the poem, Sharif’s voice echoed out the words of a juvenile bully, a taunt which she wishes she had responded to with a song of her own, by singing “Muslims know god.” Poetry’s very roots lie in performance, and these poems emphasize that relationship. Sharif has a firm understanding of her poems’ sonic qualities and the way they play with language and vernacular, for example in “Hijab Be,” where Sharif discusses the versatility and freedom of her fellow hajabis, how “Hijab be prayin’ still. / Hijab be raisin’ hell.” She combines and shapes her different identities and different schools of thought—scientific, schoolyard, Black, Muslim—to establish the identity of her work.

The collection’s philosophy on identity culminates in “The Fitting Room,” where Sharif’s speaker explains to a non-Muslim saleswoman why she wears the hijab. The speaker questions her own choice to cover, though she doesn’t reveal this to the saleswoman. Despite the way she questions her faith, she chooses to put her hijab back on, “pinning the performance in place.” This action is her way of performing faith through her doubt, which shows the complexity of her relationship to covering. Sharif’s hijab reifies her belief in a concrete way. In the simple act of putting on a headscarf, a mere performance, she creates her identity.

In contrast to the act of dressing, the creation of poetry serves as a symbolic undressing. Sharif’s work is the dissolution of identity markers to reach at the undefined internal experience. The collection takes its name from a line found in “Iddah: Part II,” which explores the time after the speaker’s sister got divorced. The sister lies stagnant in yesterday’s clothes, she does “anything to keep from undressing.” When considering the way in which putting on a hijab cemented her external identity in “The Fitting Room,” the act of dressing becomes synonymous with performing identity. In this way, her sister’s fear of undressing signifies an unwillingness to lose her identity of “wife.”

To Keep from Undressing balances the creation and deconstruction of identity. The collection constructs identities, as contradictory and complex as they may be, but it also deconstructs the actions we take to create our identities. It dresses and undresses the poet. To Keep from Undressing is itself a performance that created something real.


Nicole Callahan is working towards a degree at a college. She has done some things, does other things currently, and would like to do still other things in the future. When she isn’t in one place, she can often be found at another. She loves certain books, foods, and activities.

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Nicole Callahan

Aisha Sharif’s To Keep From Undressing: A Review

What is the connotation of the word “performance?” Our primary association with “performance” is the theatrical; our understanding of performance has become inextricably linked to the idea of something pretended, something acted out but not done. We think of performance as dishonest. To perform humility or joy is not understood to be the same as to be humble or joyous.

That may be why people dismiss the idea that identity is a type of performance. To say that identity is what you do and not simply what you are is often an uncomfortable proposition. Many people find comfort in identitarian labels—for good reason. Labels like “woman” or “man,” “gay” or “trans,” “Chinese” or “Jewish,” unite individuals with shared experiences and allow for societal comprehension of complex concepts. Aisha Sharif’s collection of poetry, To Keep from Undressing, resonates with a truth seldom expressed so thoroughly: that identity is a performance. A complicated, contradictory performance, clearly, but a sincere one, nonetheless. Throughout her collection, Sharif’s speakers wrestle with their lived experiences. They are Black, Muslim-American women; daughters, sisters, wives, mothers, and poets. The way these identities interact is at the very heart of Sharif’s work, it informs the structure of her poetry and her understanding that each identity is its own intricate performance.

To Keep from Undressing is divided into five sections. Each includes a part of the poem “If my Parents Hadn’t Converted: Questions and Answers,” which straddles the line between humorous and sincere hypothetical scenarios. The poem explores how the speaker’s entire life was shaped by one decision. Christian Aisha, or “Marian Elizabeth” would have had a prom dress “just short enough / to reveal / [her] knees.” When asked how many Muslims the Christian version of herself would “actually befriend,” she leaves no response at all. The poem serves as a pillar to the collection, always returning it to the key questions of who we are and how our experiences shape us. Sharif suggests that her Christian self is still her in a way, but that despite the fact that we all have various versions of ourselves contained within us, the Christian Aisha is missing certain key experiences that are an important part of her current identity.

The experimentation with structure in Sharif’s poems establishes her poetic identity. Sharif manipulates the formal aspects of poetry to build upon new ideas. Her poems’ experimental structures further emphasize the importance of performance. In the poem “A Mathematical Expression of Faith,” the relationship between the speaker’s family’s old Christian ways and the new Muslim ways they practice is presented as an equation to balance. Many poems have a call-and-response structure or a song-like quality to them. “After School on the City Bus, Memphis, TN,” for example, is performed as a school yard chant. At a live reading of the poem, Sharif’s voice echoed out the words of a juvenile bully, a taunt which she wishes she had responded to with a song of her own, by singing “Muslims know god.” Poetry’s very roots lie in performance, and these poems emphasize that relationship. Sharif has a firm understanding of her poems’ sonic qualities and the way they play with language and vernacular, for example in “Hijab Be,” where Sharif discusses the versatility and freedom of her fellow hijabis, how “Hijab be prayin’ still. / Hijab be raisin’ hell.” She combines and shapes her different identities and different schools of thought—scientific, schoolyard, Black, Muslim—to establish the identity of her work.

The collection’s philosophy on identity culminates in “The Fitting Room,” where Sharif’s speaker explains to a non-Muslim saleswoman why she wears the hijab. The speaker questions her own choice to cover, though she doesn’t reveal this to the saleswoman. Despite the way she questions her faith, she chooses to put her hijab back on, “pinning the performance in place.” This action is her way of performing faith through her doubt, which shows the complexity of her relationship to covering. Sharif’s hijab reifies her belief in a concrete way. In the simple act of putting on a headscarf, a mere performance, she creates her identity.

In contrast to the act of dressing, the creation of poetry serves as a symbolic undressing. Sharif’s work is the dissolution of identity markers to reach at the undefined internal experience. The collection takes its name from a line found in “Iddah: Part II,” which explores the time after the speaker’s sister got divorced. The sister lies stagnant in yesterday’s clothes, she does “anything to keep from undressing.” When considering the way in which putting on a hijab cemented her external identity in “The Fitting Room,” the act of dressing becomes synonymous with performing identity. In this way, her sister’s fear of undressing signifies an unwillingness to lose her identity of “wife.”

To Keep from Undressing balances the creation and deconstruction of identity. The collection constructs identities, as contradictory and complex as they may be, but it also deconstructs the actions we take to create our identities. It dresses and undresses the poet. To Keep from Undressing is itself a performance that created something real.

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Volume 7 | Book Review

Rachel Britton

Ófeigur Sigursson’s Öræfi: The Wasteland, translated by Lytton Smith

The first line of Ófeigur Sigurðsson’s Öræfi: The Wasteland prepares its readers for a journey of self-searching: “The glacier gives back what it takes, they say, eventually brings it to light.” As I stood in the Skaftafell Visitor Center last summer, peering into a glass case of human debris from the 1953 British expedition on Öræfajökull, I could feel the glacial cracks in my bones. Broken tent poles. Pieces of clothing. Snapped skis. When the jökulhlaup swept those students away, a glacial rush of silt and water, it erased roads, street signs, buried cairns under snow. 

From a distance, the Vatnajökull glacier seemed smaller, though it covers eight percent of Iceland’s surface; but standing out on one of its many tongue glaciers, crampons digging for stability, the ice seemed to be all that ever was. On my way to Öræfi, I traveled with Sigurðsson’s protagonist Bernharður Fingurbjörg across the south of the island, exploring its landscapes, environmental conservancy, and the history of death metal. Fingurbjörg, a toponymy student from Vienna, is conducting research for his doctoral thesis on place names and simultaneously searching for answers about his mother’s experience at Mávabyggðir, a peak on the ice cap where the seagulls reportedly roost. He is braving the glacier when he is viciously attacked by a wild sheep and forced to crawl all the way down to the same Skaftafell Visitor Center. There, his story is interpreted.

In Lytton Smith’s translation of this Icelandic novel, place names become important markers, without which the protagonist and readers would be lost. Perhaps the most repeated word in the book is just that: lost. Fingurbjörg, who shares a last name with one of his destinations, admits early on that he is “going to Mávabyggðir to find [himself] because [he is] lost in the world.” And so names guide like trail posts throughout the journey. Sigurðsson is clever, drawing connections to classic Icelandic literature like Burnt Njal’s Saga and the Poetic Edda—naming a character after the latter allows the name-revering Fingurbjörg to literally have a romantic affair with poetry. Once we realize the wit behind character and place names, we find ourselves paying particular attention, constantly making connections to names and their inscribed meanings. Sigurðsson makes toponymists of us all.

As Bernharður moves from Reykjavík to Öræfi, he accumulates a band of companions. Each given a name that encompasses their identity, they teach Bernharður about the land he’s traversing, offering impromptu and sometimes incorrect history lessons. The Regular, sometimes known as The Guest, is a particular mentor, getting the poet Bragi to provide Bernharður with a free collection of books—must-reads, according to the mentor. Bernharður lugs these with him in a bottomless trunk that follows him wherever he goes. He describes the trunk as “an extension of [his] body,” and carries in it all his books, possessions, and cakes that his mother made for him to take on this journey. It even becomes a shelter, in which he can sleep, court Snorri’s-Edda, and store his spices, especially his beloved caraway. 

Sigurðsson’s novel becomes a meditation on truth and fiction. As stories are told and retold, by Bernharður and a veterinarian named Dr. Lassi and an interpreter and the unnamed Auth., we must decipher and decide what it real and what is not. The Regular speaks to this in one of his rants, saying “the novel is the author’s role, driven by fantasies and delusions, he shapes himself in fiction, finds his style and finally the style becomes the author’s role, his character, the man himself is lost…” The novel is presented as a letter Bernharður has sent to Auth. A quite thorough, 200-page letter.

Formally, Öræfi rarely comes to a complete stop. The prose continues down the page in long sentences, often pausing only with the assistance of a comma, reminiscent of the miðnætursól, the midnight sun that stretches Iceland’s days long and thin. The story, in this way, moves as though it is told directly through dialog, carrying on without pause; no matter how difficult the hike or painful the recited tale of Captain Koch’s Greenland expedition, the plot pushes on into the unknown. This distinct form carries readers through Bernharður’s journey—through The Regular’s rants, through the sheep attack, through the blinding erasure of a glacier. 

Sigurðsson’s novel is a clever, funny, and philosophical exploration of truth, land, and self. In the most basic sense, Öræfi: The Wasteland is the story of a tourist who comes to Iceland and falls into a crevasse. Along the way, we are swung around the twists and turns of human life—its truths and fictions—and led to question how we might make myth of our own lives. 

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6.2 | Book Reviews

Shara McCallum’s Madwoman

In Madwoman, poet Shara McCallum examines themes of identity and womanhood, but what strikes me the most is the way she ties it all together with a particular music. “Here, a woman is always \ singing, each note tethering \ sound to meaning,” croons the poem “Exile,” cunningly exhibiting how Shara McCallum’s Madwoman is composed, in both a musical sense and in a mild deportment. The collection is comprised of a range of human sound interwoven with the language of identity and consequence. The first stanza of “Exile,” “Say morning, \ and a bird trills on a doorstep \ outside a kitchen,” is both a picturesque and startling reflection of the human association between harmony and control, the lines leveled on the page like descending notes on a piece of sheet music. At the end of the piece, our takeaway is that “time is a fish \ swimming through dark water,” a distinctive type of lyric, in which the euphonious and simple song of woman and bird becomes something murky and boundless, a depiction of what humanity sounds like when faced with its sad impermanence.

The sonic eminence of McCallum’s work as presented in “Exile” traverses the collection, beginning with one of the debut poems, “Memory,” in which the speaker asserts, “Wherever you go, know I’m the wind \ accosting the trees, the howling night \ of your sea.” Where we had a bird and woman singing in “Exile,” we now have the rhythmic howling of wind and trees, a new occurrence of lamentation. The song becomes barbed and brazen, a disquieting threat, when the speaker avows, “No, my love: I’m bone. Rather: the sound \ bone makes when it snaps. That ditty \ lingering in you, like ruin.”

Above all, the ditties that resonate and linger longest are those in which McCallum’s Jamaican patois takes center stage, mingling an abundance of sharp voices across many pieces, engaging the essence of nationality, identity, history, and womanhood. In “Lot’s Wife to Madwoman,” one of the most historic, one-dimensional feminine emblems of the consequence of man’s insubordination is transformed into a cheeky and petulant speaker. “As happen to all a we, \ my life been reduce \ to one sad, tawdry cliché. Gal, just \ lef mi in peace where yu find mi,” spits McCallum’s reconstruction of Lot’s wife, a request that is representative of many notable women in history—the burden of another’s actions becomes the face of the victim; in this case, “never look back” becomes a timeworn lesson that Lot’s anonymous wife was never given the choice to teach. McCallum’s refurbishment of unacknowledged and underrepresented female characters into women with a distinct attitude and patois is a noble effort, one that embodies what any celebrated poet with a platform should aim to do: give the disenfranchised a space to proclaim what they would if their mouths were unbridled. In company with Lot’s wife is Claudette Colvin, an uncelebrated young black woman who made strides in the fight for American civil rights, and Madwoman herself, who can arguably represent anyone from Shara McCallum to every woman in history, whether she is faceless or famous.

The namesake of the book, Madwoman, is perhaps the most indispensable manifestation in the collection. Though she is present in most every piece in the collection, we get to know her best in “Ten Things You Might Like to Know about Madwoman,” a list poem that is both disdainfully candid and irrefutably comical. We learn a bit about her familial background, love for poppies, and penchant for Abba’s “Chiquitita.” More importantly, however, we learn that “she’s confused about many things,” a theme that seems to originate with and speak to the questions of identity that arise throughout the collection. The poem “Race” heralds it most clearly with the concept of being white-passing. “She’s the whitest black girl you ever saw, \ lighter than “flesh” in the Crayola box. \ But, man, look at that ass and look at her shake it.” Though it is unclear who is speaking here, it is clear that Madwoman is “so everywhere and so nowhere,” a looming construction formed from the very incongruities of self that McCallum masterfully sets to rich music in this piece and elsewhere.

In the concluding poem of the collection, “Madwoman Apocrypha,” an endearing question-and-answer session with Madwoman, the interviewer asks, “What created you?” to which Madwoman replies, “A breach in the self.” The symbolic character of Madwoman herself is a perplexity, a sloped topography of uneasy landscapes. She is poised, one foot planted in a brave mythology and one in a cluttered identity. She is a docent in the reader’s own troubled mind; within the collection, Madwoman both is and isn’t a personification of the poet’s own woe and reminiscence. She is a presence that never abandons our consciousness. She is consciousness itself. By the conclusion of the book, the reader has no choice but to confront whether or not they are, in fact, Madwoman, who, as mentioned in “Ten Things You Might Like to Know about Madwoman,” “has problems distinguishing fact from fiction.”

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Shara McCallum’s Madwoman: an Exploration of Female Identity, Race, and Strength

Posted by Arianna Miller, GD Co-Poetry Section Head for 6.2

Shara McCallum was this semester’s visiting poet at SUNY Geneseo.  I had not only the pleasure of sitting down for lunch with McCallum, both also of reading her diverse collection, MadwomanMadwoman spans across what it means to be a woman, to have the privilege of being a black woman who appears white, and to accept being the daughter of a schizophrenic, all with the underlying presence of her Jamaican heritage.    Continue reading

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Emma Gears

Review of Anne Valente’s By Light We Knew Our Names

In Anne Valente’s By Light We Knew Our Names, killers are conjured from the whispers of school children on playgrounds, ghosts leave long-forgotten tokens for their granddaughter to find, and babies speak their first words to mysterious creatures hiding in flowers. With each of the thirteen stories in her collection, Valente blurs the line between what is and what isn’t; she weaves together magic with reality. Whereas her characters may question the truth of what they encounter, the themes Valente explores—loss and grief—are grounded firmly in the concrete and painfully real. In addition to the magic of her stories, there’s magic in Valente’s prose as well. The images she creates are sharp and exact, reminiscent of the way that one may focus on a seemingly insignificant detail during times of crisis.

By Light We Knew Our Names is Valente’s debut short story collection, published in 2014 by Dzanc Books. Her works have appeared in One Story, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Ninth Letter, The Kenyon Review, and others. In addition to her short story collection, she is the author of the fiction chapbook An Elegy for Mathematics and the novel Our Hearts Will Burn Us Down. The winner of several awards, including Copper Nickel’s 2012 Short Story Prize and The Masters Review’s 2014 Notable Debut Author, Valente is currently a faculty member of Hamilton College’s department of Literature and Creative Writing.

One of the most striking features of Valente’s prose is the way she uses the first-person plural, “we,” to begin several of the short stories in the collection. The “we” bridges the magical elements of her stories with real human experiences. It lends a surreal quality to her stories, complementing the surreal experiences of the characters. In addition, the “we” includes Valente’s readers in the story and invites them to imagine themselves as part of the subject, part of the characters’ struggles and triumphs. The plural first-person gives a universality to Valente’s collection. In the story which gives the collection its name, a group of young women fight back against the oppressive misogyny of their Alaskan town under the Northern Lights:

We waited through split lips, through whistles from car windows, through bribes brokered at the movie theater, free tickets for a hand job… We waited until Wren came late to the bluffs, one night in August, carrying a six-pack in one hand, the other covering her mouth where blood spilled between her fingers. She set her beer hard on our picnic table, removed her hand, slapped a wet, red handprint against the wood and said, Enough.

The four women central to “By Light We Knew Our Names” decide that to put a stop to the treatment they suffer because of their gender, they must teach themselves how to fight; and the light that illuminates their meetings is the light of the Aurora Borealis, burning bright above their seemingly hopeless endeavor. Valente describes the micro- and macro-aggressions women universally experience because of their gender, reaching deep into the hopelessness and rage women feel as a result. But, despite the grim situations many of her characters are in, Valente is careful not to paint her worlds as entirely painful and hopeless; out of the suffering connections are made and bonds are formed, which allow the characters to bear their grief.

Many of Valente’s stories explore individual characters alongside something larger; the immediate story sits in the foreground of a global backdrop. In “By Light We Knew Our Names,” we see this in the ever-present misogyny of a small town; in the haunting “Until Our Shadows Claim Us,” the connections come between a kidnapper and tragedies across the world. “In late April, the day after the Chernobyl disaster, a radioactive bloom above two continents, we awoke to a world tilted even further off its axis, a world in which Rachel Vasquez had disappeared,” Valente writes, through the voices of elementary school children struggling with grief. These images remain in the characters’ consciousness in the same way that they will stick in the readers’. Valente’s fluid, graceful prose and her introspective characters are impossible to forget. The incredible circumstances the characters find themselves in—children summoning a long dead serial killer, college-age kids stealing fake dinosaurs from the World Fair—draw us in, but it is the depths that Valente explores and her means of writing about painful human experiences that make us stay, that remain in our minds long after we close the book.


Emma Gears is a senior English (literature) major who spends a lot of her time wishing she could bring her cat to Geneseo. The rest of her time is spent crying over Bills games and coming up with new story ideas that she may or may not write down.

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5.2 | Book Reviews


A Review of Kate Daloz’s We Are as Gods: Back to the Land in the 1970s on the Quest for a New America
Oliver Diaz & Evan Goldstein

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Supporting Developing Artists with Italics Mine

Gandy Dancer's Review of SUNY Purchase's literary journal, Italics MinePosted by Gabi Garcia, GD Poetry Reader for 5.1

This semester as I was editing for the Gandy Dancer I got the opportunity to review the literary magazine from one of our sister schools, SUNY Purchase, the art school of the SUNY system. The phrase Italics Mine refers to using italics in a paper to emphasize a word or phrase in a quote to bring the reader’s attention to your point. I think I’ve overused this tactic a few times when I was a freshman, so I was pretty excited to see there were other folks who share my enthusiasm for emphasis. What I think is wonderful about this title is that it expresses that there are moments, words, images in our lives and environments that are emphasized by artists and are defining for them as artists (emphasis, much like this entire blog post, mine). Continue reading

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Mary Auld

Realism & Marvel: A Review of Sonja Livingston’s Queen of the Fall

I am immensely proud to be a woman. I research the issues, and I am angered by misogyny in policy, media, and daily interactions. I know that the opportunity and respect allotted to individuals should not be determined by social constructs of gender. Sometimes I feel weary about being a woman among debates over abortion, equal pay, birth control, sexual assault, objectification, and representation in government. Being a woman sometimes feels like steeling myself against an unreasonable opponent. Sonja Livingston’s Queen of the Fall: A Memoir of Girls and Goddesses stirred in me an almost-forgotten joy over my identity as a woman. The book reminded me that it is the suppression of this joy that is the ultimate reason for outrage over unequal treatment, and for the policy and the picketing. As I read this collection of essays I was reminded of the legacy of endurance, vitality, sorrow and triumph that I share with people of my gender.

I met Livingston when she visited my college town just forty minutes from Rochester, where many of her stories took place. Her essays are written from her unique perspective: that of a woman who grew up in an impoverished neighborhood in Rochester, who is set apart from her origins by education and financial success as an adult. I asked her whether she hoped to advance a social agenda with her work, and she said that this was not her aim. I believe her, though the essays contain issues that are current and politically charged. This book does not belong to the realm of business suits, statistics, and jargon-ridden policy. Livingston recalls beauty in nuance, praising the power already present in her memories of women, reminding us of all there is to celebrate.

Livingston finds no shortage of opportunities to honor womanhood in her own experience. In the essay entitled “Capias,” Livingston recalls attending a Puerto Rican family wedding as a child, and extends admiration for this elevation of the female experience. “An ordinary woman making silk of just one day,” she writes. Livingston laments her own childhood revulsion for Susan B. Anthony, and makes up for it by taking Anthony on an imaginary tour of Rochester, complete with Abbott’s frozen custard, and asks her the question, “What would you make of Kardashians and sexting and the soft scatter of our lives?” It is not only the traditional or well-known roles of women that are celebrated. Livingston admires the girl who comes to her as she works as a school counselor and tells her of the beautiful, imaginary horses that her family raises. “What exquisite lies they tell, little girls. What perfect fictions,” she praises.

Livingston attends to the language employed in her essays with the same tender admiration that she grants to the subjects of her essays. The book is full of artful, weight-bearing language. Livingston describes French as, “the language that sounded like a mouth swollen with delicious things.” She questions the assumption that Adam and Eve were worse off for Eve’s consumption of the fruit, writing, “but how much more they had to say to each other then, how much wider the world and how lasting the memory of the tree—during even the hardest of times, there would be the taste of it, brave upon their tongues.” Livingston’s approach to the essay is simultaneously universal and deeply personal, stretching from research on Susan B. Anthony to the intimate details of her own attempts to have a child. “What becomes of women without pink skin and soft smiles? What happens when I stop seeking out the sweet in every last thing?” Livingston asks. The whole of humanity is the subject of her query.

Child-bearing is a defining characteristic of womanhood, and the tension between the devastating impact of teen pregnancy in her childhood community and Livingston’s own struggle to conceive as a middle-aged woman is one of the principle threads through the collection. These seem to come to a pinnacle in “Mock Orange,” in which Livingston learns that her niece, of whom she says, “She is mine and I am hers,” has become pregnant at the age of sixteen. Livingston’s concern about the sacrifices that this event will require of her beloved niece are nested in questions about opportunity, race, class, and of course, gender. But Livingston never preaches. In fact, she writes, “Will you think less of me when I say that, in this moment, I cannot know if my grief is entirely about this child making another?” It is this commitment to telling a story not to convince, but to perform the necessity of communicating experience, that makes Livingston’s work resonate.

It is impossible to separate gender from the social and cultural facets of the human experience, and Livingston considers all of the factors that influence the situations of the women about whom she writes. “The women in my family are nothing so much as birds, every last one of them throwing herself against cages that seem self-made but are in fact constructed of poverty, early marriage, and children,” she writes. As a white, middle class student at a liberal arts college, I have learned about injustice and economic inequality that I haven’t lived through myself. Though I can argue adeptly for the redistribution of wealth, I am insulated from the reality of poverty by my parents’ support, my family history, and myriad other occasions of privilege. Livingston’s childhood in a low-income area in Rochester serves as the backdrop for many of her stories. Rather than inciting pity or placing blame, Livingston brings to life the spectrum of unique experience that defined her childhood. In the essay, “Our Lady of the Lakes,” Livingston expresses her childhood admiration for the mysterious “Indian maiden” depicted on the packaging of sticks of butter. She writes of the moments when her mother returned from shopping, “The giddiness infected us all, brightened even the cracked linoleum floor and persisted beyond the unpacking of food.” I am convinced that were it not for the scarcity of groceries, and the luxury of real butter, “Our Lady” would not have received the attention that, after reading the piece, I know she deserves. As I read Livingston’s collection, I felt the distance close between the small, picturesque village where I attend college, and the dilapidated, but lively, streets of Livingston’s Rochester.

Livingston presents an understanding of the human experience that is driven by realism and marvel. She glorifies human life through truths that are often difficult and gives the reader license to see the world in the same pure, exalting light. “How strange this world,” she writes, “so advanced and so wonderfully primitive.”


Mary Auld graduated in Spring 2016 with an English (creative writing) degree. She currently resides in Ithaca, NY.

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5.1 | Book Reviews


Realism & Marvel: A Review of Sonja Livingston’s Queen of the Fall
Mary Auld

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